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senators’ statements — Tributes

The Honourable Jacques Demers

June 19, 2019


Hon. Larry W. Smith (Leader of the Opposition)
[14:03]

Honourable senators, I am pleased to say a few words in tribute to our colleague, the Honourable Jacques Demers, who will be retiring from the Senate in August.

For nearly 10 years, Senator Demers was a valued member of the Senate of Canada, and he was always held in high esteem by those who knew and worked with him. On behalf of all of his Conservative friends and all senators, I would like to extend our best wishes to Senator Demers and his family.

At a time when our country is celebrating the glory of an NBA championship, we are reminded once again of just how difficult it is to achieve the top prize in any professional sport.

As we know, Jacques Demers led the Montreal Canadiens to Stanley Cup victory in 1993. He was also personally honoured with the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year in 1987 and 1988, making him the only coach to win this award two years in a row.

Honourable senators, words can never express what Jacques Demers represents for Montreal and the province of Quebec. The least I can say is that he is deeply idolized. People just feel like they know him, either because they saw him behind the players’ bench for so many years, or because they welcomed him into their living rooms when he was working as a hockey analyst for RDS.

After being appointed to the Senate of Canada in August 2009, Senator Demers became a valuable member of our Senate “team.” You may remember that he was originally on the “blue” team as a Conservative. Senator Demers said he would work as hard in the Senate as he did behind the bench, and he was true to his word. He has been a diligent member of numerous Senate committees, including the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. His natural curiosity and open mind served him well in his work as a senator, and he was proud to represent the province of Quebec.

Our colleague has been through a lot in his life. He spoke openly with Canadians about the abuse that he and his family suffered at the hands of his father. He spoke about his journey to literacy, a secret only his wife Debbie knew. Jacques Demers drew on those difficult times in his life to help others. Among other things, he gave a portion of the proceeds from the sale of his 2005 autobiography to literacy programs and shelters for battered women and children.

This action is indicative of the type of man Jacques Demers is — always looking to give support, to encourage and draw out the best in others, in the best tradition of all great coaches.

Honourable senators, I’ll close by saying a few words directly to our colleague.

Senator Demers, I know that you’re watching us today. I hope that you know how much respect and affection we have and will always have for you. No matter how many obstacles you encounter, I hope that you will take comfort in knowing that we are there by your side. I wish you a long retirement filled with happy moments in which you are surrounded by the people you love. Each and every one of your colleagues in the Senate wishes you and your family all the best in the future. We are all behind you, Coach.

God bless you, Jacques.

Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals)
[14:07]

Honourable senators, on behalf of the independent Senate Liberals, I’d like to join my colleagues in paying tribute to our dear friend and colleague, Senator Jacques Demers.

We’re all familiar with his accomplishments in the hockey world, notably his leading the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup in 1993. He was an exceptional coach for nearly 15 years, and twice won the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year.

But he also has a history of coaching hockey in my home province of New Brunswick. He was head coach of the AHL’s Fredericton Express, which was affiliated with the Quebec Nordiques for its first two seasons in 1981 and 1983. In his second year, he took that team to first place in its division. As a result, he won the AHL’s Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as coach of the year.

Our paths first crossed in person when he was involved with the hockey community in Saint John, New Brunswick. The Express were originally supposed to play out of Saint John but an issue with respect to the Lord Beaverbrook Rink prevented them from having the team there. Senator Demers had already moved to town, and not one to sit idle, he spent the first two months in Saint John coaching a midget AAA hockey team. One of those former players recalled Coach Demers’ impact on the team. Jacques took over the program, made us all dress up with a shirt and tie, and gave us a whole new dimension. We started winning under Jacques’ leadership. His influence made us realize we weren’t going to get kicked around anymore.

At the time, he lived in Quispamsis, New Brunswick, a neighbouring community to my hometown of Hampton. I was very pleased when he joined us in the Senate and we became closer neighbours on the eighth floor of the Victoria Building.

He took to his new duties in the Senate with the same skill and professionalism that brought him so much success in the hockey world. I recall his moving speech in this chamber when he divulged his own personal challenges with literacy. He became a great advocate for literacy, and his personal story inspired others to work toward improving their own literacy skills.

Senator Demers, my dear friend, we miss your wisdom and your dynamic presence, but your legacy will always live on here in the Senate. On behalf of the Senate Liberals, I wish you and your spouse, Deborah, and your entire family all the best.

I’d like to add special thanks to his assistant, Line Tessier, for her support over the years. Thank you.

Hon. Diane Bellemare (Legislative Deputy to the Government Representative in the Senate)
[14:11]

Senator Jacques Demers was my neighbour on the eighth floor of the Victoria Building too. I feel very privileged to pay tribute to Senator Demers today.

His rise to fame and his National Hockey League career were certainly remarkable, but Jacques Demers is also a senator with exceptional human qualities. Many adjectives come to mind: he is a good man, enthusiastic, fiery at times, a team player and, without a doubt, a courageous man. He has proven that over and over throughout his lifetime, and he continues to do so now.

Born into a poor and disadvantaged community, illiterate for much of his life, he made up his mind to learn how to read and understand more than just letters. Having served as a role model to hockey fans everywhere, he turned his attention to supporting literacy. His courage in telling his own story so candidly helped many Quebecers in the same situation understand that they are not alone and that learning is worth it. I’m convinced that his contribution to the cause changed lives.

Then he became a senator, with all that entails with regard to literacy. What a hat trick, Senator Demers!

I was struck once again by his courage during the shooting of October 22, 2014. There was a meeting of the Conservative group that morning. We heard shots ring out but didn’t know what was happening in the parliamentary precinct. We were all very scared. My instinct was to hide under the chairs, but that wouldn’t have offered much protection. Everyone ran toward the doors, but they were locked.

Then, Senator Demers took me by the arm and reassured me by saying that everything would be all right. He was exceptionally calm and demonstrated a great deal of self-control. He then told me, with that smile of his, “Don’t worry, Madame Bellemare, I’ll protect you.” I will never forget that for the rest of my life.

I share this anecdote with you because it paints a picture of who Senator Demers is in my eyes: a brave and courageous man. Jacques Demers showed courage when he decided to become a non-affiliated senator in January 2016. The following spring, Senators Demers, McCoy, Wallace, Ringuette, Rivard, and I formed the Independent Senators Group. Our goal was to promote an independent, non-partisan, and effective Senate, one that ensured the right to equality of all senators, no matter what group they belong to, and a Senate of which Canadians would be proud. I thank him for believing in this grand plan to modernize the Senate.

Hockey coaches have to show courage and leadership. Coach Demers: mission accomplished. The time has come, Senator Demers, for you to hang up your skates. I wish you a happy retirement; you’ve earned it.

Hon. Leo Housakos (Acting Deputy Leader of the Opposition)
[14:15]

Honourable senators, I was not planning to rise, but how could I not when we are paying tribute to a great Quebecer, Montrealer and Canadian?

Senator Demers, as we all know, came to this place a little bit alien to politics, but he always understood the fundamental principle of politics was representing his region and representing people. If there was anyone who loved people, it is Senator Jacques Demers. He was someone who came to this place with a lot of leadership skills. He learned quickly about communication and team play in politics.

I want to share some memories of Jacques. At the end of the day, we all remember him as a public figure who never said no to anybody. If you wanted an autograph, you got a “yes.” If you wanted a pair of tickets or a jersey for a worthy cause, you got a “yes.” I had the privilege of hosting with him a couple of functions for autism, where we co-chaired and raised funds for such a worthy cause. When it came particularly to causes for kids, Jacques Demers has a heart the size of this country. He always said “yes,” and he always rose to the occasion. Even when he was too tired to sign an autograph, he signed did it with a smile. That’s Jacques Demers.

I remember a few years back when my younger son was playing in a peewee AA regional championship tournament. I approached Senator Demers humbly and asked, “Would you be kind enough to come to the game and perhaps, near the end of the game, present the trophy to the winning team on the ice?” He said, “Absolutely. What time is the game?” I said, “It starts at two o’clock, but it will be wrapping up around four, so why don’t you come around 10 to four?”

Jacques showed up at 1:30. He went into both dressing rooms, met both teams and gave both teams a pep-talk. He stayed there arduously for two hours, teaching me a little bit about a 2-1-2 forecheck and various variations of it. It was helpful for someone who had experience in politics but who was only a minor league hockey coach. That was my thrill with Jacques Demers. He stayed there until the end of game, got on the ice, shook the hand of every child and gave them their medal. That is Jacques Demers. That spoke volumes. That’s a great parliamentarian and a great Canadian.

He learned about politics very quickly. We all know about his personal challenges and how he overcame them when it came to his challenges around literacy. By the end of day, I can say there are not many parliamentarians who are as bilingual, literate and articulate as Jacques Demers. He speaks from the heart. He has a great mind. His experiences in life have allowed him to become an outstanding senator.

I had the privilege of sitting next to him. I have learned a lot from him about life and hockey. We wish him well. He has had some health challenges. He will not be blessing us any longer in this place, but for sure, he is not done. He is a fighter; we all know he is. I’m sure he will continue to fight and make great contributions. I pay that tribute to Jacques Demers. Thank you, Jacques, for all you have done. God bless you.

Hon. Éric Forest
[14:18]

Honourable senators, Senator Demers will soon be retiring from the Senate. I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to work with him in this place, but I did cross paths with him during my decade in the hockey world. I think Jacques Demers is well respected both in and out of this chamber because he is great humanitarian. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to thank him for his contribution.

When Jacques’ unconventional journey brought him to the Senate in 2009, he chose to dedicate his time here to standing up for the least fortunate and advancing the cause of literacy. He became involved with a number of charitable organizations working in the area after publishing his biography in 2005, in which he revealed his big secret. His perseverance, strength of character and selflessness inspired countless people.

In the Senate, as in everyday life, Senator Demers stayed true to himself and acted according to his principles and values, which are at the heart of his contagious leadership.

We’ll especially remember his courage in supporting Senator Lapointe’s bill against video lottery terminals, which are predominantly found in low-income neighbourhoods.

It was always essential for him to be a good team player, but he also knew how to set limits and remain true to his beliefs.

Canadians will especially remember that, before he walked on the Senate’s red carpet, he walked on the Montreal Canadiens’ red carpet, but never on the logo, since that would be a sacrilege. The man Quebec affectionately calls “Coach” is the last coach to lead the Montreal Canadiens to their most recent Stanley Cup, 26 years ago now.

Senator Demers, we thank you for your service to the public. You’re an excellent ambassador for the upper chamber, the causes you supported and Canada as a whole. We’ll all remember that day in April 2016 when your life was turned upside down, leading you to re-examine your priorities. Please know that your perseverance continues and will continue to inspire Canadians. We wish you all the best in the future and send our greetings to your loved ones. Thank you.

[14:21]

Honourable senators, I can still see Jacques Demers in the other chamber, sitting across from me, with that smile on his face every day. I have my Habs pin on today that Coach gave me early in his career in the Senate. He said I could call him Coach. He said we could all call him Coach. That was a wonderful thing.

He was an incredible NHL coach, World Hockey Association Hall of Famer, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques, the St. Louis Blues, the Detroit Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then it was the Montreal Canadiens, the Stanley Cup, 1992-93 — the last time a Canadian team won a Stanley Cup.

During that series, I had moved back to Canada from China with my sons. We were sitting at home, and I convinced my sons, then 5 and 8 years old, that I also played for the Montreal Canadiens. Never did I imagine being a senator, let alone a senator sitting in the same chamber as both hockey greats Jacques Demers and Frank Mahovlich, the Big M.

Dreams do come true, colleagues. Those were fun times. It was no surprise that during that time, there was also a bell ringing taking effect. Believe it or not, we rang bells in those days. It was during that time, because the hockey season was at the same time or the Stanley Cup playoffs, we would talk hockey while the bells rang. We found it convenient to be sitting in the Senate or elsewhere talking about a trade, a penalty shot, a call or a playoff run.

It didn’t take long for us to connect on hockey and other issues, because sports are important to me. We talked about the Special Olympics movement, that sports can be transformative, build confidence and change lives, being part of a team and having good role models. That is what he was: a role model, a mentor. It can make a positive difference in a person’s life. Coach knew that. I know that Jacques Demers has made that difference in many players’ lives through his leadership and involvement in hockey.

Something very important happened in here. You might remember Senator Joyce Fairbairn, her literacy cause and how good she was with that. She and Jacques connected immediately and she helped him along the way. Not being able to read did not stop Jacques Demers from convincing Canada and the world that you can do anything you want in this country or anywhere. Jacques was that man. Senator Fairbairn was an ally for him in the Senate through that triumph.

Honourable senators, when I think of Coach, I see his big smile and I think of a man who treats everyone with respect and dignity. He treats everyone like a winner.

I love this Montreal Canadiens pin. It goes right up there with my Senate pin, although sometimes perhaps a little higher. Maybe one day they will win the cup again. It reminds me of what Coach Demers believes in, and I want to thank him for his wisdom.

I don’t for the life of me know how this got here; I know you are not supposed to have props. He came here wearing a blue uniform, but I always felt Jacques Demers looked better in red.

Thank you, honourable senators.

Hon. Claude Carignan
[14:24]

Honourable senators, it’s my turn to take a few minutes to pay tribute to our colleague and friend, Jacques. We all have our own stories to share, and obviously, I do as well. In 2010-11, my office was in the Victoria Building. Offices are assigned by seniority and since I was appointed on the same day as Jacques, our offices were next to each other.

We would get visitors from time to time. One day, I had three visitors from my region, businessmen who came to Ottawa to attend an Ottawa Senators hockey game. During that meeting, my assistant had the great idea of seeing whether Jacques would come and say hello to my guests. As you can imagine, he naturally and enthusiastically agreed and showed up in my office. As soon as they saw him my three guests were like kids at Christmas. They were star-struck.

That’s the effect Jacques Demers has on people who meet him for the first time. He’s so kind and humble and yet larger than life. He’s a living legend, as much in Quebec as in the rest of Canada.

I consider it a privilege to have been appointed to the Senate on the same day as him, to have served alongside him and to have worked in close collaboration with him. When I was the Leader of the Government in the Senate, I could always count on him to be a loyal and tireless team player. He was as good a team player as he was an inspiring leader. He was honest and straightforward, and we could always rely on him to tell the truth.

On several occasions during our Conservative caucus meetings, he rose as the Coach to scold us when we didn’t keep our sticks on the ice, buck us up when we were thrown against the boards or congratulate us when we scored.

Jacques is caring, passionate, authentic and profoundly human. In short, he’s a role model for us all.

When I turned 50, my friends organized a surprise party for me, and they made sure to invite Jacques, knowing how much I looked up to him. On his own initiative, Jacques got me a custom Canadiens jersey with my name and the number 50 stitched on the back. Like the visitors I mentioned earlier, I was like a kid at Christmas. It was a gift I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Colleagues, illness took our friend away from us three years ago, and we’ve been deprived of the pleasure of his company ever since. In spite of everything, Jacques is keeping his spirits up and being brave. He will be reaching retirement age this summer. We are grateful for his contribution and for this 10-year season in the Senate. As he heads into the playoffs, we just want to say goodbye, Coach, and thanks for everything.

Hon. Michael Duffy
[14:28]

Honourable senators, we have heard many well-deserved words about our retiring colleague, so I will be brief about the Honourable Jacques Demers. The word “honourable” is defined in the dictionary as “worthy of honour,” and that is the correct description of our retiring colleague, the coach.

Jacques Demers was an independent senator even before the term began to be used in the chamber. He worked collaboratively with senators on all sides of the chamber. He was my seatmate, my coach and my friend, especially during that dark period when the reputations of innocent senators were being destroyed for purely political reasons. I believe that was why he, and several others we all know, abandoned partisan politics to sit as an independent. The Senate is a better place for his service and Canada is a better country in so many ways because of his generosity and his vision.

I’m pleased to join all senators in wishing “mon coach” Jacques and his family a long, healthy and happy retirement.

Hon. Fabian Manning
[14:30]

Honourable senators, I’m pleased today to have the opportunity to join with my colleagues here to pay tribute to a friend of ours in Senator Jacques Demers, or as most people refer to him — and I do as well — as the coach.

First impressions are always lasting impressions. There is no doubt that I was impressed from the first day that I met the coach. He spoke from the heart, he was a force to the people around him, and in a world where you could be anything, he chose to be kind, humble and genuine.

Everybody has a story to tell about the coach. I certainly have several. I’ll tell you one. I had never been to an NHL hockey game in my life, and everybody was talking about hockey. One day I said to the coach, “Is there any chance of getting a couple of tickets? I don’t want free tickets. I’m going to pay for them. I want to make sure that I have a good seat when I go to Montreal to see the game.”

A couple of days later he came back with a couple of tickets that I purchased from him. I took my daughter to the game in Montreal. I have to say, it was the thrill of a lifetime. I had never been to anything like it. It was a game between Toronto and Montreal. It was more fun the hour before the game than it was at the game, but it was absolutely amazing. I’d never seen anything like it before.

When we came back, my daughter sent the coach a thank you card and thanked him for the opportunity to go. Several months later, he came over to me with an envelope for my daughter. He said, “Bring that home to Heather. Don’t open it. It’s a gift for Heather.” I brought it home, and here was a ticket for two of us to go to another game in Montreal, compliments of the coach. We went again, and it was another thrill of a lifetime.

He called my house about four years ago and left a message on my phone for Heather, our daughter, and my daughter refuses to erase the message. It’s still on our home phone. It just shows the effect he has on seniors, youth and everyone that he came across and met.

I want to express my thank you to Jacques Demers for being a friend, somebody who reached out and gave us all advice at different times. I remember sitting around the caucus table when times were tough or rough, and he would bring everybody together with his coaching skills and teach everybody about life’s lessons and how important it was to work together. I consider it a great privilege to have known and worked with him.

A friend of mine was coming to Ottawa and he wanted to meet the coach and get a picture with him. He arrived at the front door of Centre Block wearing a big Montreal Canadiens jersey. We came in, and the coach was so willing at all times, even if it was only a matter of three or four minutes of giving him a heads-up that somebody wanted a picture or an autograph, whatever the case was, he was one of the most willing and friendly people I’ve met since I came to Ottawa.

As in any organization, sometimes there are people who leave and you don’t really miss them a whole lot, but I have to say very sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, that I have missed Senator Jacques Demers since the day he left here. He left a lasting impression. He was a great friend, Montrealer, Quebecer, and most important of all, he was a great Canadian.