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A Tribute to Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal, grandfather of the Canadian movement for a basic income guarantee, has died.  Basic income activists and our allies are feeling his loss acutely. He was a relentless foe of poverty, an indefatigable speaker for basic income throughout his life, and for us, an inspiring, humane and dedicated forebear and leader. We, and the whole country, have lost an important presence.

In his book Boot Straps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada (2019), Hugh tells us movingly of people who provided core ideas in his youth which set him on his future path: his parents whose sense of justice he captures in recounting the incident of “The Missing Toy Box,” which “activated a nascent sense of conscience in me”; Prime Minster John Diefenbaker, whose speech at his high school introduced the idea that one person who cared and fought for better things could truly improve people’s lives, and ended with a plea for help “not for myself, but for the future of the country”.  Hugh writes that these words lit a pilot light for him, and he “felt a sense of duty related to that moment”; finally, still in high school, he interviewed folk singer Joan Baez from whom he learned “something profound: that poverty, human rights, war and fairness were connected in far more intense ways than I had understood before.”  

In college, Hugh became an aide to Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, and after graduating volunteered to work for MP David MacDonald of PEI. He was later to become Chief of Staff to Ontario Premier Bill Davis. These men, skilled and socially progressive Red Tories all, cemented his decision to devote his life to public service within the Progressive Conservative Party.  He eventually became Chief of Staff to PM Brian Mulroney, and afterwards was appointed to the Senate by Liberal PM Paul Martin.  His approach to politics in general was balanced, to opponents genial and respectful. All through the years that Hugh was pursuing his full-time, very active and influential political career, he pursued his basic income goal – ever before his eyes – actively and eloquently.  He spoke forcefully for implementation of a basic income for Canada hundreds of times, eventually being asked to design the Ontario Basic Income Pilot, implemented by Premier Kathleen Wynne. 

Hugh was a tireless and stunningly eloquent speaker, but initially lonely, as the subtitle of his book “One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada” makes clear. An income tested basic income was the means to that end in his view.  He quickly became the natural leader, advisor, guide and inspiration to growing numbers of individuals and organizations who, persuaded by him or otherwise, became committed to basic income as well.

Struggling to capture their appreciation of Hugh in words on hearing of his death, individual advocates shared some of their main impressions of him. The two indented paragraphs below look as if they were written by a single individual, but are an assemblage of borrowed phrases from those impressions set in italics to indicate that unusual editing: 

Hugh was a fine, fine human being, statesmanlike without ever being stuffy. He was passionately principled and purposeful, yet always ready with a quick witticismThere aren’t many who have made so many contributions in so many realms including our own.  He smiled a lot, perhaps because he was a true optimist and believed progressive thinkers would eventually shape public policy in a more humane way.  Would that all our political leaders shared his intelligence and integrity.

Though he was our longest, strongest and most compelling advocate for an income tested basic income, Hugh was a modest person, with not an iota of pretense or phoniness. His mind was razor sharp, his views incisive. His comment, “Neoliberalism is the intellectualization of greed,” is a typical example. Always generous with his time and insights, he was considerate to everyone. Even his humour was never ad hominem. He understood politics both broadly and in detail. His loss will leave an enduring hole in our world.

Hugh Segal was a truly remarkable and dear man. We who share his passion to bring basic income to Canada are grateful for the path he marked out so clearly, for the vivid vision he created of a caring country, for his dedication and deep humanity, his optimism, personal warmth and unfailing graciousness.  We can best honour him by holding firmly in our own hearts his faith that our country is capable of taking this step toward social justice. 

May we seek to bring to our efforts a generosity of spirit, affability and dedication approaching his own.

Toni Pickard, on behalf of Coalition Canada

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