Tribute – The Honourable Bill Rompkey, P.C.

Honourable senators, Senator Bill Rompkey’s contribution to this country is, of course, manifold.

In tribute to him today I have chosen to shape my remarks almost solely around his contribution to the Senate study on the preservation and use of those great and guiding beacons, Canada’s lighthouses and their lightkeepers. As chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, Bill was determined to get at the heart of these issues. He described the importance of hearing from people whose lives are associated with lighthouses in this way:

If we don’t see people in situations where they are, we really can’t understand thoroughly what their life is all about and what their area is all about.

Throughout their history on our shores, lighthouses have assumed a distinct place in the hearts and memories of countless Canadians. They symbolize safe passage and are entrenched in our nation’s heritage. My great-great-uncle James Munson was a master mariner who, after surviving a wreck off the coast of New England, became a lightkeeper in Cape Enrage, New Brunswick, in the 1850s.

In the 1990s, three generations later, I worked as a reporter on a documentary about Machias Seal Island, a 15-acre island off the coast of the Bay of Fundy. It is the last disputed territory — it is still disputed — near Grand Manan between Canada and the United States. It is also where Canada’s first lighthouse was built in 1832.

Bill has often referred to the role of lighthouses and their place in communities. On this tiny island I probed into exactly that, the connection between people and lighthouses, and know that it is real and worth understanding.

Bill is wise, kind and attentive to people. He never bears a grudge. This is quite an exceptional feat, particularly for someone who has enjoyed such a long career on Parliament Hill. These are among the best of human qualities. We are drawn to them and seek them out.

I first met Bill when I was a young reporter in the 1970s. He had just left provincial politics and was a new federal member of Parliament. Eventually, as has been said, he would become a member of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet.

Bill has served Canadians well. So, too, has his commitment benefited the Liberal caucus, and not just during the heyday of the Liberal Party.

Following the 1984 election, when the Liberal seat count dropped from 135 to 40, Bill stood strong and kept Liberals hopeful and engaged. He repeated that message of hope this year, shortly after the May 2 election. It was a message Liberals needed to hear.

Here in the Senate, Bill has also been a beacon. His actions and approach consistently demonstrate that as long as we maintain respect and compassion for others, what matters to them and why, we are moving in the right direction.

I want to thank you, Bill, and your wife. I want to thank Bill for being the lightkeeper on this hill. You have been an excellent colleague and will always be a close friend. I look forward to hearing about the great things you will do in the future.