OTTAWA – Bob Rae, a fixture on Canada’s political scene for more than three decades, is giving up his seat in the House of Commons in order to devote himself to work on behalf of First Nations in northern Ontario.
Rae said he is leaving politics so he can focus on his new role as chief negotiator for First Nations in talks with the province about development of the Ring of Fire mining development in northern Ontario.
“This is going to be a major undertaking,” an emotional Rae told a surprise news conference Wednesday in the foyer of the House of Commons.
“It’s clear to me that it will take a lot more time and it simply isn’t possible to do both jobs at the same time.”
TIMELINE: Key events in Bob Rae’s life and career
The 64-year-old Rae’s unexpected announcement caps a political career that has spanned 35 years and two parties. It came after he privately broke the news to the Liberal caucus in what he described as a difficult moment.
“I have a passion for my work as a negotiator and for First Nations,” Rae said. “When you make a difficult choice, you show your emotions.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair offered his best wishes on Rae’s departure.
“Bob Rae has served Canadians for 35 years, he deserves our full respect and I wish him and his family well,” Mulcair said.
“This is a tough life, politics, and on a day like this, all of us of whatever political stripe simply have good thoughts for someone who has served for 35 years like Bob Rae and I wish him well.”
Rae began in politics as a New Democrat and later shifted to the federal Liberals, even seeking the party leadership at one point.
He was first elected to the Commons in a 1978 byelection, but moved to Ontario provincial politics four years later, when he became provincial NDP leader and later served as premier.
In 2006, having joined the Liberals, he unsuccessfully sought the party leadership, but won a seat in the Commons in 2008, becoming interim leader after Michael Ignatieff lost his seat in the 2011 election.
He refused to speculate abut his political legacy.
“I don’t write history,” Rae said. “That’s someone else who’s going to do that.”
Rae is the scion of a noted family. His father, Saul Rae, was a highly respected Canadian diplomat and took the family to postings that included Washington and Geneva. His brother John is a senior executive with Power Corp. His sister Jennifer once dated Pierre Trudeau and went on to a career with IMAX.
Rae himself graduated with honours from the University of Toronto, where he also later received a law degree.
For a time, he roomed with Michael Ignatieff, who later would be a rival for the Liberal leadership.
His university record brought him a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.
He has said his first foray into politics was as a volunteer during Pierre Trudeau’s legendary first campaign in 1968, when he was 19.
As NDP leader, he led his party to its first and only Ontario victory in 1990 and was premier until 1995. It was a time of economic troubles and his efforts to cope left a controversial legacy.
In 2006, he was a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal party, running against Ignatieff and the eventual winner, Stephane Dion.
He returned to the Commons in a 2008 byelection in Toronto Centre, a seat he held in the general election later that year.
He made a tepid bid for the party leadership again in 2008, but stepped aside in favour of Ignatieff.
Rae in recent years was a fixture in the Commons with his fiery speeches and a shock of white hair that grabbed the eye on television.
But the lawyer, author and arbitrator finally found himself caught between two careers and opted for the work of conflict resolution.
“I have a lot of passion for Canadian politics,” Rae said. “It’s been a very difficult decision … and quite an emotional one for me.”
Toronto Centre no longer a Liberal stronghold?
Divided between Tory neighbourhoods in the leafy north of the riding, and NDP voters in Cabbagetown and the co-ops nearer downtown, Toronto Centre has tended to elect Liberals with comfortable majorities. But the riding, now nearly surrounded in Toronto’s core by NDP orange, may no longer be an easy Liberal hold.
The 2011 election saw a sharp rise in NDP and Conservative support, and an equally dramatic drop for Liberal incumbent Bob Rae, who announced his resignation today. A byelection will be a test for the Liberals in this once-secure seat, but also for the NDP – was their jump in support a one-off connected to Jack Layton’s popularity, or a more enduring shift?