Bob Rae's sudden retirement announcement shouldn't have come as a complete surprise and yet it left everyone in a kind of shock that only gets reserved for those whose lives have counted for something.
Take away all the labels -- NDP premier, Liberal leadership contender, interim Liberal leader -- because they were never quite suitable in defining his influence on the Canadian scene. The professional political operatives and pundits will have a field day in their attempt to read the political tea leaves, but for the average Canadian, or for those essential institutions of which he has been a part, the consequences of his departure are significant.
Mr. Rae and I worked diligently together in my years as an MP and those occasions helped to broaden my understanding of his true value to the Canadian life. In Washington together for meetings with Congress a few years ago, I was somewhat surprised to see Obama officials and Congressional veterans seeking him out, probing him on the problems in Sri Lanka, the Middle East, or even to gain valued perceptions on his view of the G8 summit that was to be hosted in Canada later that year. On every file, in diverse venues, and with political players of all stripes, he possessed a consummate mind that could connect on various levels.
This issue of Canadian influence in the world is likely one that will receive little attention regarding Rae's departure but it simply can't be overestimated. His understanding of global influences was comprehensive and his advice frequently sought out. In 2002, as chair of the Forum of Federations, he helped oversee the complex constitutional discussions between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers -- a work that still goes under-appreciated. In 2005, he was appointed to determine the seriousness of the 1985 Air India disaster and recommended a deeper inquiry that could have teeth and penalties for the perpetrators.
Our work together on African aid strategies and development ideas for the Middle East revealed again that he simply possessed more strategic information on many of these files than anyone else in the room. And in each of these sessions Canada's own image was enhanced by his expertise.
For the Liberal Party of Canada, Rae's departure represents something of an impoverishment. Reduced to a much smaller caucus following the last federal election, the federal Liberals were, in a difficult phrase, "international poor." Only Rae stood out as the one caucus member who handled the global file with skill and aplomb.
The world is a tough place, with conflicts on almost every level, from insecurity to financial peril, that threaten the democratic heritage. But for Canadians the place of the greatest conflict is the one that should have never slipped to such a denigrating estate -- the Parliament of Canada.
Yet even there, following almost universal acclaim from every party and media representatives, Rae stood out among his peers as the one who elevated the Chamber to a place of statecraft. In a time of sullen reputations and dubious hyper-partisanship, he reminded Canadians that sometimes politics can produce an individual who can represent others, not merely through political manipulation or party bashing, but through a lifetime of experience and the understanding that respect can draw Canadians in far more easily that full frontal attacks. He accomplished such a reputation at perhaps the lowest ebb in Canadian political history and somehow rose above it. Very few can claim that in this day of political decline.
As he now passes off the political scene it is important to remember that he is leaving in order to dedicate himself full-time to Canada's aboriginal problem that is now a powder keg in the making. At a time when both the Canadian government and its citizens have shown little imagination on how best to deal with aboriginal poverty and lack of inclusion, it will take someone with the skill and reputation of a Bob Rae to have any chance of pulling it off. And thankfully, once again, he is willing to take the risk for his country.
History will reveal that Bob Rae outgrew all the labels that people used to identify him. They will remember him as a recipient of the Order of Canada, as chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Senior Fellow at Massey College. Twice under consideration as the Governor General of Canada, we will yet hear of his further exploits. Politics is a phase; service to others is a life, and Bob Rae isn't nearly finished with the latter.