top of page

In Memoriam: Hugh Segal (1950-2023)

In memory of Canadian political strategist, author, commentator, academic, and senator Hugh Segal, who passed away earlier this month, the Centre is honoured to host heartfelt remarks from Mr Douglas Scott Proudfoot, and Sir Ronald Sanders.

Introductory remarks from Mr Douglas Scott Proudfoot

Hugh Segal, who died earlier this month at the age of 72, is best known in his native Canada as a political figure and public intellectual, but the commentary on him tends to overlook his singular and notable role in Commonwealth affairs.

Segal was what is known in Canada as a “Red Tory,” a conservative who combines progressive social views with fiscal prudence. On foreign policy side, this current of thought tends towards internationalism. It was the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, with Joe Clark as External Affairs minister, who put the Commonwealth at the centre of Canadian foreign policy, and breaking with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, joined forces with Rajiv Gandhi, Kenneth Kaunda, and other Commonwealth leaders to press for the end of apartheid in South Africa. It is no accident that Segal was Mulroney’s Chief of Staff, and previously the Chief of Staff to Bill Davis, the premier of Ontario, a genuinely progressive Conservative.

Although never arrogant, he was perhaps too cerebral, and too much a gentleman, to thrive in electoral politics. He had principles and deep convictions, but he was generous enough to see all reasonable sides of any argument. The politics of our age seldom rewards nuance. His two attempts to become an MP were unsuccessful, and he later lost a bid to lead the federal Conservative Party, but when appointed by a Liberal government to the Canadian Senate, he distinguished himself as thoughtful and effective legislator. He was later named the Master of Massey College, Canada’s version of All Souls. His compelling analysis of domestic and international policy issues, and his advocacy for a basic income was widely read, and among other things he was President of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) an active participant in the annual Canada-UK Colloquia.

We in the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs remember him especially for his role in the second Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and as Canada’s Special Envoy to the Commonwealth. He and other members of the EPG laboured on a visionary report for Commonwealth reform, which went to the 2011 CHOGM. If more of the EPG’s extensive recommendations had been taken up and implemented, the Commonwealth would be in a better place today, but one or the key recommendations which was acted upon was the promulgation of the Commonwealth Charter. Segal was disappointed that we in the Commonwealth did not go farther in taking forward the EPG’s recommendations, but he continued to work for Commonwealth reform.

As Canada’s Special Envoy, Segal proved a stirring advocate for reform and for the principles he had always stood for, but he was undercut by his own government and by Foreign Minister of the day, John Baird, who failed to engage meaningfully in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). Though continually frustrated by member states’ unwillingness to live up to Commonwealth principles, Segal never ceased actively pushing for democratic values and human rights in Canada and the Commonwealth.

Hugh Segal will be remembered by those who knew him, above all, as a man of honour and integrity, unafraid to stand up for important principles, even in the face of pressure and criticism. In short, a “mensch.”

Remarks by Sir Ronald Sanders, who served alongside Hugh Segal as a member of the 2009-11 Eminent Persons' Group

Hugh Segal was a quintessential Commonwealth believer. For him, the Commonwealth represented an agency for achieving justice, fairness and equity in the world, drawing on the cooperation between Commonwealth states which represented all facets of human experience. As he saw it the Commonwealth is a force for good and better, provided that its member states remained committed to their shared values and principles in the domestic, Commonwealth and international spheres. In the work of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, tasked with proposing reforms of the Commonwealth, he was an influential voice for progressive reforms, including the establishment of a Commissioner for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, and for the elimination of anti-homosexual laws.

He was sorely disappointed that neither of these two recommendations received the deserving attention of Heads of Government, and that the EPG report had not been published in advance of the Perth CHOGM, to give governments and civil society an opportunity to digest it fully and to debate its content.

He strongly supported less formality and bureaucratic constraints on Meetings of Heads of Government which he felt had lost their intimacy of the past and, thus, the candid discussions between Heads alone that could produce better outcomes than formal, bland communiqués that fail to reflect genuine interest in bridging divisions and overcoming fears.

He argued his positions with the intellectual rigour that was so evident throughout his entire public life, but he did so with respect for the points of view of others, and with the humour that was very much a part of his remarkable character.

Hugh also placed great significance on the Royal family’s headship of the Commonwealth as a unifying symbol, above the fray of political and national rivalries. He was an ardent admirer of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, for her capacity to remain the glue that kept the Commonwealth together. He had confidence that King Charles would continue his mother’s crucial role.

bottom of page