With 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.”