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How Dallaire Relived Rwanda in Canada

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In what ultimately became the defining occasion of his life, General Romeo Dallaire knew he was alone -- without a clear mandate, sufficient resources, or even a sense of moral responsibility from world leaders. He had journeyed to Rwanda to implement the high ideals of human rights rhetoric in a manner that would protect a nation from destroying itself.

We all know what happened -- 800,000 killed, genocide on a significant scale, and dreams of international human security lying in ruins. Leading the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), he had every right to expect the backing of those who had sent him there. By the time it was over, the United Nations, United States, Belgium, and others left Dallaire isolated, incapable of dealing with an imminent situation that he warned would get out of hand. It did, and among the many casualties of that period was the General's health -- the attempted suicide, depression, and abject feelings of failure.

Part of his eventual recovery came with his appointment to the Senate by PM Paul Martin in 2005. Hailed at the time as a pivotal selection, Dallaire entered the political fray in a fashion similar to his entrance into the military some 40 years earlier. His presence was immediately felt.

So it came as something of a shock for many last week to learn that this well-known Canadian was retiring from the Senate in order to pursue his human rights agenda on a broader stage. Believing in the Senate's purpose is difficult enough right now given all the scandal, but to lose the likes of Dallaire hollows out much of what is left of the institution's sense of morality and objectivity.

I worked with Romeo for my entire five years in politics and being in his presence always found me subconsciously sitting up straighter, speaking with gravitas, almost as if he was my presiding officer in the army. That was the effect he created on most, and in the Senate that deference many showed him at the time permitted him to make headway on issues that mattered to him: child soldiers, human rights, nuclear disarmament, and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

At times I would head over to his Senate office, or he to mine on the House side, and we would work away at legislation or gaining perspective on numerous global issues. But it was obvious that he was becoming disillusioned. As the House fell into a partisan shambles, the Senate was suddenly and firmly stocked with ideological appointees.

In ironic fashion, Romeo Dallaire was reliving the events of Rwanda, only on a less costly human scale. Sent to the Senate to bring intellectual rigor and disciplined experience, he was increasingly abandoned by a government that delighted more in waging domestic war in political ridings than in enhancing Canada's human rights and diplomatic record on the world's stage. He called for resources; they didn't arrive. He sought meetings with political elites; they didn't transpire. And when he ultimately called the government to account for its abandonment of Canada's diplomatic expertise in the world, he was ultimately abandoned and isolated. Parliament itself had become a tribal lair, but instead of Tutsis and Hutus, there were political tribes that swore oaths to destroy one another. It was brutal and ultimately self-defeating, but for Romeo is was history repeating itself.

In essence, he was a lion in a political winter, and since his very life and outlook transcended the paltry dealings around him, he did what he always does -- took the battle directly to the enemy. Tired of watching a government fiddle while the world burned, Dallaire has opted to travel around the world to fight for the causes he holds dear. He made a calculated and strategic decision: politics in Canada, as presently exhibited, is insufficient to play a strong hand on the global stage.

And so the lion has left, moving out into a global jungle that so desperately requires his perspective and ethical force. And the Canadian political scene? It is now without much of its moral centre and international acumen -- the lights are dimming. This is what darkened politics always does: reduces expectations and shoots its own.

Soldier on, Romeo. The world always needed you; it was blind political forces that didn't. Just remember that in all your travels, millions in this country yet desire to see Canada play its historic and innovative role around the world. You're now free to rise above the pettiness of the day. And in making your remarkable difference, we all salute you.

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