OTTAWA — Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire, a career soldier best known in Canada as former commander of the UN’s ill-fated peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, is resigning — not retiring, he insists — from the upper chamber.
Dallaire’s last day in the Senate will be June 17, after which he intends to focus attention on a growing portfolio of international humanitarian work, the square-jawed senator told a news conference Wednesday.
The decision has nothing to do with either the shadow of scandal that has loomed over the Senate for more than a year, or with the Rwandan-born post-traumatic stress disorder that has haunted him for 20 years, he said.
Rather, Dallaire, 68, said he felt there simply wasn’t enough time in his schedule to be a senator while also pursuing causes close to his heart that are related to defence and human rights in the international arena.
“I have an awful lot of work ahead of me, and it was important for me to leave at this point.”
Dallaire said resigning has left him with a “torn heart” because his nine years in the Senate allowed him to champion issues including veterans and their families, a strong military to help ensure global peace, anti-terrorism, aboriginal rights and better intelligence oversight.
“I think it was a very useful instrument for me to advance things I believe in,” he said.
While Dallaire’s news came as a surprise, it was quickly followed by glowing praise from all political quarters.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked the senator via Twitter for his service to Canadians. Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal said he was “devastated” to hear of his colleague’s decision, calling it “a huge loss.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called Dallaire “an extraordinary Canadian.”
Dallaire, a former lieutenant-general who retired from the Canadian Forces in 2000, was appointed to the Senate in 2005 by prime minister Paul Martin. Offered the choice of sitting as an independent member, Dallaire said Wednesday he thought he could be more effective as a Liberal.
He made headlines in December when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and crashed into a traffic barrier on Parliament Hill — an accident he attributed to the stress of the coming Rwandan anniversary.
As the world marked two decades since the tragedy, Dallaire complained bitterly about lessons he says have gone unheeded — including his sense that the Conservative government wants little to do with the United Nations.
He still bears the mental and emotional scars of bearing witness to the bloody genocide that erupted in the spring of 1994.
“I live every day what I lived 20 years ago, and it’s as if it was this morning,” he said.
“You can’t walk away from the scale of destruction, nor can you walk away from the sense of abandonment that my troops and I had in the field as we continued to face that.”
Playing an active political role, he has provided hope to many living with a post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It doesn’t mean because we’re injured, that we’re on our knees and we’re destroyed,” he said, denying the condition had anything to do with his decision to quit the Senate.
“The PTSD was not a factor in my resignation,” he said.
“The way I’m looking at it, I’m going to be travelling more and more engaged internationally than I am right now, so I’m not leaving one job to find time to do other things — I’m leaving one job because I’ve got a more demanding job.”
Dallaire has long used his role as senator to champion the needs of veterans, saying Wednesday that the recent rash of military suicides had hit him hard.
Dallaire recently pressed the Conservatives to build a replica of the Vimy Ridge monument known as Mother Canada in Gatineau, Que., across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill — a highly visible reminder of the sacrifices soldiers make.
He became wistful as he reflected on how someone from humble beginnings in the industrial landscape of east-end Montreal became a member of the august upper chamber.
“To be able to come to this building and say that I am a participant in the process of governance of this country, from that background — in fact I’ve never gotten over it,” he said.
“I can’t believe that I’m actually participating in the future of this country.”
And despite the scandals that have recently beset the Senate, Dallaire said he believes it continues to play a vital role.
“It’s crucial to the balance in our system of governance.”