District Meeting of June 1, 2009 With Police Commander Bissonnette
Frustrated over the Tour de l'Île de Montréal

In Memoriam: A Constituent Looks Back at the Life of Sheila Finestone

During her years as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Mount Royal, I got to know the late Sheila Finestone quite well.

FinestoneSheila

Sheila passed away this week at the age of 82, following a battle with cancer. She stepped down as MP in 1999, succeeded by Irwin Cotler, and served as a Senator for three years before formally retiring from politics.

 Born Sheila Abbey, she was prominent in women’s and Jewish community affairs before being elected as the successor to Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the Liberal stronghold of Mount Royal . That first election, however, was no easy task as it coincided with Brian Mulroney’s Conservative Party sweep of Quebec. She defeated her opponent, Sharon Wolfe, by a slim margin and went on to re-election three subsequent times before stepping down in 1999 and accepting the Senate post.

The highlight of Finestone’s Parliamentary career came in 1993 when, after nine years in opposition, she was elevated to the Privy Council and appointed secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women. Ironically, in her maiden Commons speech on November 15, 1984, she criticized the Mulroney government for not including the portfolio in the cabinet's own priorities and planning committee. "The government risks the charge that its attention to the significant concerns of Canadian women is little more than tokenism, for it excludes them from the heart of policy-making," she said at the time.

Finestone was a 1947 graduate of McGill University ( bachelor of science degree) Prior to entering politics she was an active member of the community, working for organizations such as Jewish Family Services, the Jewish General Hospital, the National Association of Women and the YM-YWHA. She was a founder of Project Genesis, which offered storefront legal services to seniors of limited means, and elected president of the Féderation des Femmes du Québec in 1977. Her parents, Monroe and Minnie Abbey, were active pillars of Montreal's Jewish community. She grew up with two sisters and a brother in a progressive liberal household where equality was the rule and intellectual integrity the ideal

Merle Margles, a District 2 constituent of mine, served as Finestone's executive assistant for many years. She provided me with these thoughts:

Sheila Abbey was born into a milieu that would have afforded her a life of ease, but she saw injustices in the world, particularly relative to womencand sought to change them. As far as I am concerned, they threw away the mold when she was born.

She never backed down from a challenge in the fifteen years that I worked for her. For example she accepted to become communications critic in the Turner opposition when women's issues were more her thing. She functioned in both the English and the French communities. She was the first anglophone president of the Federation des femmes du Quebec. She had energy to burn - I remember sitting in a restaurant with her, going over some constituency issues, when the owner started to shut the lights. I had to point out to her that I thought he wanted us out of there. It was eleven o'clock in the evening. If that doesn't tell you how hard she worked, I recall being in Ottawa for some meeting or other - I was staying at her apartment and went to bed towards midnight. I awoke at about 2 a.m. because the light was still on, to find her asleep, a briefing book in her hands, and yellow highlighter all over the place.

She was sympathetic to a fault when it came to the people in the riding. Constituency days which started in the morning always went into the evenin because she would become fascinated or outraged by what a constituent was telling her and would refuse to end the appointment within the allocate time. This would result in a waiting room full of people of varying backgrounds, each with their own story to tell. From the president of a large corporation who might have issues with the federal government, to aperson from outside Canada who was having a tough time with immigration,all were treated with respect. In terms of her work on the status of women, it seems to me that the young career women of today might not realize the extraordinary effort that went into achieving equality in the workplace for them. In her role as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Mrs. Finestone was in her element. The workplace for women today would not be what it is were it not for people like her.

She was extremely devoted to her family - nuclear and extended. Notwithstanding her duties and obligations in Parliament, she spent as much time as she could with them, cherishing her times in the Laurentians and Jewish holidays with them. She will be sorely missed.

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