'The most decent man in politics': friends mourn death of long-serving MP Mauril Bélanger

Mauril Bélanger was a self-effacing Parliamentarian of quiet dignity and determination who didn't stop working even as his Lou Gehrig's disease progressed, friends and close colleagues of the long-serving MP remember.

Bélanger first elected as MP in Ottawa-Vanier in 1995

NDP MP David Christopherson speaks with his friend, the late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, in the House of Commons in May. Bélanger has died at age 61 after being diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, shortly after the federal election last fall. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Mauril Bélanger was a self-effacing Parliamentarian of quiet dignity and determination who didn't stop working even as his Lou Gehrig's disease progressed, friends and close colleagues of the long-serving MP remember.

Senator Jim Munson was the first politician Bélanger told about his ALS diagnosis just following the 2015 federal election.

"We held on to each other. We cried. It seemed like an eternity. And we talked ... about courage and strength," Munson told CBC News in an interview Tuesday night, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Bélanger's death.

"He was determined, though, to go about his work. He was that kind of person. He was very determined to continue, and you could still see in him — if you can believe this — that I can beat this ... and if I can't beat this in the time that I have, I will continue to represent my constituents."

As the weeks went by and his condition deteriorated, robbing him of his ability to speak, Bélanger and his staff kept working, even making a trip to Namibia as part of his duties with the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association, an organization he helped found, Munson recalled. And he appeared in the House of Commons to defend his private member's bill to make O Canada's lyrics gender-neutral.

"I'm going to remember him as a person of kind spirit, a person who understood what Parliament is about ... and I feel I have to remember him by getting this [gender neutral O Canada bill] passed in the Senate of Canada this fall so that we can be, truly, a Mauril Bélanger inclusive society," Munson said.

A book of condolences will be available for members of the public to sign starting at about 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill.

Senator Jim Munson, a close friend of the late Mauril Bélanger, remembers him as a kind person who understood what Parliament is about. (CBC)

'It was courage'

Liberal MP Greg Fergus, elected to the Hull–Aylmer riding in Gatineau, Que., in 2015, had been friends with Bélanger for nearly 30 years.

In an interview Tuesday night, Fergus said Bélanger "was known within Liberal party circles as a man who knew the rules and who would fairly interpret them," He said that Bélanger was "courageous" following his diagnosis, making phone calls to colleagues to let them know he was withdrawing from the race to become Speaker of the House of Commons.

"This is where I saw the courage, is when he said, 'C'est la vie, there's a lot of work to be done still.' ... He was just very courageous and graceful."

Fergus recalls being at Bélanger's side during an ALS walk. Their group had left the crowd to turn back because Bélanger was feeling cold when a man they didn't know approached. 

"He stopped in front of Mauril and he just said, 'Merci, Mr. Bélanger.' Simple. Just, 'Merci, Mr. Bélanger.' And it was pregnant with meaning, and it was just one of those moments where I said, wow, this is a man who has affected so many other people," Fergus said.

And afterward, as things got worse for him, Fergus said Bélanger didn't stop.

"It was courage. It's saying, these are the cards that you were dealt, but you're going to play them right to the last hand, and he did. He continued to push for the issues that were of great concern to him ... and at several occasions where I think most people in his situation might not have continued on, he continued to do so ... at risk to his health," Fergus said.

"He just continued working. He never stopped working, his staff never stopped working. ... He was just a great Parliamentarian."

Liberal MP Greg Fergus was friends with Bélanger for nearly 30 years, and says he was "courageous and graceful" following his ALS diagnosis. (CBC)

'The most decent man in politics'

Andrew Cohen, a columnist and journalism professor who lives in Bélanger's riding, said he "took his constituency very, very seriously," but never considered it his possession, even after winning eight elections.

"I keep thinking of the word dignity when I think of Mauril," Cohen said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Wednesday.

"I think of a person who was very comfortable in his own skin and felt that politics was honourable. In the age of self-celebration ... this was a man with no ego, a man thoroughly decent.

"He is, to me, the most decent man in politics. I never knew anybody who was so self-effacing."

Andrew Cohen, a columnist and journalism professor, says that, in his opinion, Bélanger was 'the most decent man in politics.' (CBC)

With files from Amanda Pfeffer