The Toronto Liberal MP and one-time Ontario premier announced Wednesday he's leaving politics so he can focus on his new role: chief negotiator for the Matawa Tribal Council in talks with the province about development of the Ring of Fire mining project in northern Ontario.
"It's been a very difficult decision and, as you may have heard from the caucus, quite an emotional one for me. I don't make any bones about that," a puffy-eyed Rae told a surprise news conference after informing his Liberal colleagues of his decision.
Rae pre-empted any speculation that thrice-thwarted leadership ambitions were behind his departure. He heaped praise on Justin Trudeau, whose decision to consider seeking the leadership last spring prompted Rae to abandon his own leadership plans and content himself with the role of holding down the Liberals' parliamentary fort in the interim.
"I'm more than confident that Mr. Trudeau will become the prime minister of Canada and I regret very much and I know what I'm giving up when I say that I won't be there for this next leg of the journey," Rae said.
"But I hope that I have been able, in my own way in the last few years, to help create the conditions in the party that have strengthened our position."
In turn, Trudeau lavished praise on Rae.
"I personally am sad, to be entirely blunt about it, that Bob has taken the decision that he has," the Liberal leader said.
"We will miss his wise counsel, we will miss his wisdom and experience. But we will miss mostly his passion, his emotion, his very, very human dedication to wearing his heart on his sleeve and his love for his country for all to see."
Although Trudeau urged him to stay and the federal ethics watchdog cleared his involvement in the Ring of Fire talks while remaining an MP, Rae said he quickly realized he couldn't do both jobs at the same time.
In explaining his ultimate choice to give up politics, Rae recounted a recent fishing trip in northern Ontario with an aboriginal man and his daughter, Eleanor, "which, as some of you know, is the same name as my own daughter Eleanor."
"And as we were riding and going out fishing and talking about life, it seemed to me that perhaps I could do something to make sure that his daughter had the same chances as mine," he said, his voice breaking.
"The passion and enthusiasm I feel for the First Nations of Canada, the need for a different kind of partnership in this country between Canada's first peoples and those of us who have come later on is absolutely necessary."
He acknowledged that his age — he'll be 65 on Aug. 2 — was also a factor in his decision. Even so, Rae did not close the door on politics forever.
"Look, never say never," he said. "But it certainly closes the door for now."
He ruled out any suggestion that he could have a future in municipal politics: "I will not be a candidate for the mayor of Toronto."
Rae's departure opens up some prime political real estate — the riding of Toronto Centre, a long-time Liberal bastion.
Trudeau has promised that, under his leadership, every riding will have to stage wide-open, democratic nomination contests to choose election candidates. As a result, the contest in Toronto Centre, one of the few remaining seats the Liberals can claim as safe, could be a wild one.
Names of potential heavyweight contenders are already circulating, including Tim Murphy, a former member of the Ontario legislature and one-time chief of staff to former prime minister Paul Martin, and George Smitherman, a former Ontario cabinet minister who used to represent the riding provincially.
"Toronto Centre is my home base and a return to politics at the federal level has been the subject of active conversation in our household for some time," Smitherman said in an email Wednesday, adding that he's been "consumed today by offers of help and encouragement."
Murphy declined to comment on his own ambitions, saying "this is a day to focus on Bob Rae and his extraordinary contribution to the country and public policy."
For all the accolades that poured in from Liberals on Wednesday, Rae's ambition to become the party's federal leader was never realized, in large part because many in the party's Ontario wing could never forgive or forget his previous political life as a New Democrat.
He was first elected to the Commons as a New Democrat in a 1978 byelection, but moved to Ontario provincial politics four years later, becoming provincial NDP leader and eventually premier for one tumultuous, recession-racked term from 1990-95.
Rae sought the federal Liberal leadership in 2006, coming third behind Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. He won a Commons seat in a 2008 byelection and bowed out of another short-lived leadership contest later that year to allow a coronation for Ignatieff, his one-time university roommate.
Although they spurned him twice, Liberals turned to Rae to pick up the pieces after the party was reduced to a humiliating third-place rump in the 2011 election. Even so, he was handed the role of interim leader only on condition that he promise not to seek the permanent leadership.
Party brass were poised to lift that condition last spring and Rae was widely expected to take the plunge for a third time when Trudeau, who had previously ruled out a leadership bid, announced he was reconsidering. Rae stowed his own ambitions and continued as interim leader until Trudeau was chosen in April.
Trudeau predicted the history books will remember Rae as "a great leader for the Liberal party during a very difficult time."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne tweeted that at every stage of his career, Rae "has demonstrated his kindness, intelligence and commitment to public service. Enjoy the next phase!"
Accolades poured in for Rae from current and former political foes — in the Commons and Queen's Park — as well.
"Bob Rae has served Canadians for 35 years, he deserves our full respect and I wish him and his family well," said federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay recalled travelling to Afghanistan with Rae for Christmas in 2011, which he said "demonstrated very clearly his love of country."
While he disagreed with Rae on many issues, MacKay called Rae a role model for young people and said: "I think he was one of the most eloquent and capable speakers that I've ever seen in my time in Parliament."
Ted Arnott, a Progressive Conservative first elected to the Ontario legislature in the 1990 election that made Rae premier, called Rae "intellectually brilliant, an outstanding speaker — one of the finest orators that the legislature has ever heard or seen."
Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley, who squared off against Rae when he was the provincial NDP leader, called him a "true statesman" who would have made a good prime minister. Still, he noted that Rae is perceived differently in Ontario than elsewhere in the country.
That was apparent in the reaction of Gilles Bisson, NDP House leader at Queen's Park, who predicted Rae would not be remembered fondly by the public.
"They'll see him as a floor-crosser," Bisson said, reflecting bitterly on how New Democrats supported Rae through his difficult term as premier "and then after he left, he decided to turn on us."
"He's going to be remembered as the guy who was the Ontario NDP premier who decided to try to be the (federal) Liberal leader and was never able to succeed. Who knows, maybe next he's going to run for the Tories."
Rae is the scion of a noted family. His father, Saul Rae, was a highly respected Canadian diplomat and took the family to postings that included Washington and Geneva. His brother John is a senior executive with Power Corp. His sister Jennifer once dated Pierre Trudeau and went on to a career with IMAX.
Rae himself graduated with honours from the University of Toronto, where he also later received a law degree. His university record brought him a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.
He has said his first foray into politics was as a volunteer during Pierre Trudeau's legendary first campaign in 1968, when he was 19.
— With files from Keith Leslie in Toronto
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