The Late Eugène Rhéaume

Honourable senators, I wish to say a few words about my good friend Gene Rhéaume. He died in November.

In tributes to Gene since his passing, certain wonderful characteristics are mentioned again and again: his distinct use of language; his engaging stories; and his sense of humour, which he used as much to make a point as to bring people together. Gene was an extremely thoughtful, generous and brilliant man whose dedication to the rights of the Metis and other Aboriginal peoples left a permanent, proud mark on this country.

Many may not remember this, but Gene was an MP for the Northwest Territories in the early 1960s, and he was the first Metis elected to Parliament after Louis Riel.

He challenged the government whenever he saw injustice and the need to advocate for the underprivileged, especially Aboriginal peoples. In 1963, for instance, he pointed out the absurdity of a very real situation where electricity was being routed to government agencies in Northern Canada but was bypassing the homes of indigenous people in the same communities.

Gene lost his seat in the 1965 federal election but held fast to his commitments. He helped establish the Native Housing Task Force and, as national chair, oversaw the construction and repair of thousands of homes in needy communities. Gene played an active role in several royal commissions and committees that opened a generation’s eyes to the experiences of Aboriginal peoples and brought positive changes to the state of Canada’s democracy.

Throughout his life, Gene Rhéaume fostered strong friendships and alliances that helped bolster his causes and influence. In 1971, he was instrumental in creating the Native Council of Canada, today’s Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. The council gave a much-needed voice to off-reserve Aboriginal peoples and succeeded in ensuring recognition for the Metis under the Constitution.

Gene used his time among us in the most admirable way, inspiring Canadians to think and act with compassion and social purpose. His own words before he died sum it up best:

I see myself as a man at peace with his achievements, an entertaining person who has lots of friends that like to be with me, not a bitter kind of person full of self-flagellation about the things I didn’t do that I perhaps should’ve or could’ve.

Gene was truly one of a kind. His friendship has been an honour.