OTTAWA – Mauril Belanger loved Parliament so it seems fitting that it has become something of a shrine to the veteran Liberal MP who died Tuesday after a courageous battle with an incurable neurodegenerative disease.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the MPs who signed a book of condolence set up in the rotunda of Centre Block, just a few steps away from the House of Commons over which Belanger had presided as honorary Speaker just five months ago.
“We will all miss you,” Trudeau wrote. “Your passion, your strength, your perspective, your rigour, your dedication and your wisdom.
“Your legacy of service and hard work will continue to inspire us and all who follow in this place but we will nonetheless miss you, and your friendship, most dearly.”
Belanger died Tuesday at age 61, after a 10-month battle with amytrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He received the devastating diagnosis last November, just weeks after winning re-election in his Ottawa-Vanier riding for the eighth consecutive time since entering federal politics in a 1995 byelection.
Belanger had been the front-runner to become the elected Speaker of the House of Commons but the diagnosis forced him to withdraw from the race. Even as the disease quickly robbed him of his ability to speak and walk, he soldiered on as an MP.
WATCH: Ralph Goodale reflects on the passing of his ‘good friend’ Mauril Belanger
In January, he became the first MP to use an electronic voice in the House of Commons, re-introducing his private member’s bill to make the lyrics of O Canada more gender neutral. He was brought to Parliament Hill by ambulance to see his bill pass its final hurdle in the Commons in June.
In a sign of the respect and admiration Belanger engendered among parliamentarians from all parties, MPs named him honorary Speaker for a day last March, an unprecedented honour. Belanger sat in the Speaker’s chair for about 20 minutes, using a tablet computer that converted pre-programmed text to speech.
“The guy’s a real inspiration, I think, not only to politicians but to all Canadians as to what you should do in the face of adversity,” said Hull-Aylmer Liberal MP Greg Fergus, a close friend and one of a number of Ottawa-area MPs who lined up to sign the book of condolence.
“He just continued on and did his work.”
WATCH: House of Commons offers touching tribute to Mauril Belanger
Gov. Gen. David Johnston also paid glowing tribute to Belanger.
“Every so often, our lives are graced by the presence of a truly remarkable individual,” Johnston said in a statement.
“They teach us invaluable lessons about compassion, fairness and generosity. Their time with us, however brief it may be, changes us for the better. Mauril Bélanger was one such individual.”
Fellow MPs praised Belanger, a Franco-Ontarian, for his lifelong advocacy of minority language rights and democratic development in Africa, his work ethic and his devotion to his constituents.
“I think his greatest legacy is his commitment to his constituents,” said Halifax Liberal MP Geoff Regan, who was elected Speaker after Belanger was forced to bow out.
“This is a guy who took service to people extremely seriously.”