Time to get in the game, senator

Jacques Demers’ move to the upper chamber hasn’t gone smoothly


Time to get in the gameWith his 65th birthday fast approaching, Jacques Demers had little else than retirement on his mind this past summer. In October, Demers would begin his final run as a hockey analyst for the French-language sports channel RDS. His contract was up at the end of the season and, after spending the better part of 20 years behind the bench and another 10 in the broadcast booth, Demers was planning on leaving the hockey world for good once this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs wrapped up.

But those plans suddenly changed in mid-July when an official in the Conservative government got in touch, offering him one of the nine Senate seats that were due to open up. Of Stephen Harper’s selections, Demers’ was by far the most surprising, even to those around him. “When he told me about it,” says Mario Leclerc, Demers’ biographer and one of a handful of people the former coach went to for advice in the following days, “I nearly fell out of my chair.”

Never mind that Demers had never shown any interest in or aptitude for politics. As Leclerc revealed in his book, En toutes lettres (Spelled Out in Full), Demers spent much of his life hiding an inability to read or write. As a result, when Demers’ nomination was officially announced that August, it was widely panned by Quebec’s commentariat as a cheap dig at the chamber Harper so eagerly wants to reform. “Does the poor esteem in which we hold the Senate make it so the sole quality of being a ‘damn good guy who’s overcome some terrible challenges’ qualifies you?” asked one columnist at La Presse. “Jacques Demers lands there like a hunting trophy who hasn’t even figured out he’s the stuffed moose in the place.”

Although Leclerc says Demers has come a long way in improving his reading and writing over the years, he says the former coach had “serious reservations” about whether he’d be able to keep up given his limitations. Demers, however, is quick to brush off any lingering concerns about his literacy. His reading and writing are slow, he concedes, “but you have to be careful here: just because you graduated from McGill or the University of Montreal doesn’t mean you’re smarter or that you have better judgment than someone who has trouble reading and writing. I’ve fought hard and I’ve overcome the challenges I faced.”

Still, literacy skills aside, his transition from hockey to politics has been anything but smooth. The man fondly referred to as “coach” by his on-air colleagues at RDS is finding life in Ottawa much less congenial than life in the NHL, and he’s found himself a target for frequent criticism and, all too often, ridicule. Last fall, for instance, Demers abstained from voting on a bill he had publicly endorsed just weeks before that would have restricted the placement of video lottery terminals—the reversal coming after he discovered his party didn’t share his views. (The fact he continues to star in television ads for Loto-Québec have only made his stance seem even more confused.) He was also criticized for lending his voice to advertisements for a Conservative candidate running in a recent by-election after he’d vowed not to engage in partisan politics when he was nominated.

Perhaps most damaging, though, was a recent front-page story by the Journal de Montréal revealing Demers had missed 13 of 35 sitting days in the Senate. The Journal’s investigation found that, of the 16 occasions on which the Senate’s schedule conflicted with that of the Montreal Canadiens, Demers was absent 12 times.

In an interview with Maclean’s, a clearly annoyed Demers insists everything can be explained: Jean Lapointe, his Liberal Senate colleague who sponsored the anti-gambling bill, never had a problem with Demers’ appearance in a Loto-Québec commercial; his work for the Conservative candidate in Montmagny-L’Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup was done in a “professional manner”; and Harper’s entourage was well aware of the remaining year on his contract with RDS and that it would require him to miss some legislative sessions.

Moreover, he says he agreed to his gigs at Loto-Québec and RDS well before he become a senator and had them vetted by Senate ethics officer Jean Fournier before his nomination. Besides, Demers says he won’t be working for either next year and plans to put his energies into his work in Ottawa. “I won’t be missing any more time in the Senate in the future,” he says.

Though showing up may be half the battle, Demers admits he’s got a lot to learn about federal politics. “If you talk to me about the Canadian economy or what was going on in Copenhagen,” he says, “that’s not my strong suit.” Rather, his politics are deeply personal. Having grown up in dire poverty with a violent, alcoholic father who would often beat him and his mother, Demers has become single-minded in his focus on working for battered women and children. To get him up to speed on the rest, he’s relying on two young researchers at the University of Ottawa to help him decipher his own party’s policies on everything from abortion to marijuana.

In the meantime, Demers knows he won’t be called upon to make any sweeping policy decisions or grand statements of purpose. Rather, the biggest hurdle ahead may be convincing a skeptical public and press corps of his credibility. “I just want to be understood,” he says. “I’m not trying to pull a fast one on anybody.”


Time to get in the game, senator

  1. Wow. " Rather, his politics are deeply personal. Having grown up in dire poverty with a violent, alcoholic father who would often beat him and his mother, Demers has become single-minded in his focus on working for battered women and children. To get him up to speed on the rest, he's relying on two young researchers at the University of Ottawa to help him decipher his own party's policies on everything from abortion to marijuana."

    Hard to believe he could actually support this regressive social conservative govt. Oh well, so much for SH's hyprocritical stance re Senate appointees!!

  2. Behold: The worst Senate appointment of your lifetime!

  3. Just another slimeball Harper stunt, Jacques – trying to take advantage of your popularity with no concern for you or the institution. But do your homework, consult with all your Senate colleagues – and vote your conscience. Chances are, you'll do the right thing and, if he doesn't like it, just tell Harper to "mange la merde."

  4. I some of the judgments being pronounced on Demers are very good examples of why illiterate adult Canadians hide their illiteracy instead of addressing the issue. Incidentally, the inherent assumption that illiterate adults are stupid is a pretty lousy one. Being able to run one of the most successful hockey teams of all time is no mean feat. Doing it without being able to read is even harder. Demers appointment to the senate highlights that issue as well as other issues personal to Demers. Considering that the senate is a meaningless body populated by cranks (eg. Anne Cools of the Sir George William sit-in), crooks and hacks, there are far worse people in it by Demers. I mean what did Frank Mahovlich ever do to "earn" his senate seat?

    • hosertohoosier:

      The lefties haunting this site will mock Demers' struggle with illiteracy and give your comments in defence of illiterate Canadians a disdainful thumbs down.

      Yet they would be the same people to scream bloody murder about all of the knuckle-draggers in the Conservative party were the federal government ever to cut funding to some of their pet NGOs that run "progressive" literacy programs somewhere overseas.

      The "progressive" left is just as nasty as they always claim those on the right are. The problem is, they are also two-faced about it.

      • There is a strain to the contemporary left (this isn't all lefties, but it is a lot of them and I am seeing it more often) that believes they are better than regular people. They advocate government spending (and in many cases we are talking about affluent people that are net contributors to the tax base here) out of a desire to fix the perceived flaws in the ordinaries. It isn't about empathy and egalitarianism (which at least are noble, if sometimes naive aims) any more – it is about social engineering and maintaining a social construct wherein smart = left.

        • Agreed. After all, what good is it for lefties to be part of the chattering class if there is nobody they deem beneath them to chatter about?
          The hypocrisy and hatred that is increasingly on display from the left of the spectrum needs more help to address than any of the weaknesses they perceive in others.
          If you think it is bad now, just wait until Harper wins his majority. Then most Canadians will be lessers and idiots compared to them, rather than just the minority of Canadians who are defying them at this stage.

  5. Worst senate appt?…… We won´t bring up the Liberal Senator who lived semi-permanently in Mexico having attended less than 10% of Senate sittings and votes. I recall that embarrassment being in the news about once, on a Friday I think.

    Tory Senator Demers was a highly successful Cup winning NHL coach for a franchise then valued at over $400 Million.

    Gee what did Liberal Senator Mahovlich do besides play left wing and win some wonderful Stanley Cups?

    Surely you complainers protested Frank´s appointment to the Senate back then.
    Right that´s what I thought.

  6. I leared how to skate two years ago. I plan on playing for the Colorado Avalanche next season!

  7. As far as I am concerned Harper told the Canadian public that he intended to try to reform the senate, a respectable number of Canadians supported him in this both by voting for his party and by expressing support in the polls. The opposition has deemed this as a unworthy exercise. He is exposing it as a group of people who are irrelevant to the governance of this country, but rather as a group who are being honored for their contribution to our society, sort of like an Order of Canada award. If he could, as a protest, he would probably appoint a trained seal or maybe Rin Tin Tin.

  8. This is a far more balanced profile of Senator Demers than some of the garbage that circulated at the time of the appointment.

    If novagardener could explain how giving a damn about battered women and children could be inconsistent with ANY political party, besides the stupid blanket "but they're conservatives!"…

  9. The Senate is not known for its intellectual giants. The Liberals appointments are some of the best examples. Tommy Banks, third rate band leader from Edmonton, but hard working Liberal, comes to mind. There are a few dozen others, take a look at the bios.

  10. Abolish the Senate and be done with it. 6 months severance pay only, which would be far more than most taxpayers get.

  11. Jacques Demers' move to the Senate hasn't gone smoothly — NO KIDDING, the man can't read or write!!!! Go back to university. Oh wait, you never went?

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