Senator David Smith: you can make a difference in politics

When Senator David Smith chats, he easily drops names like Jean Chretien, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and even Bill Clinton. And it's not some ego thing. Smith has lived a life of politics which has included running a national election campaign for former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Senator David Smith
Senator David Smith

During a recent visit to the Rotary Club of Cobourg, Smith reflected on a career which dates back to the 1960s. In that time, he has become acquainted with every prime minister since "Dief" (former prime minister John Diefenbaker). And when he spends time at his summer home in Cobourg, he has hosted the likes of Chretien and former Prime Minister Paul Martin during quiet, no media, low key dinners.

In 1972, David Smith was elected to Toronto City Council and re-elected in 1974 and 1976, moving to federal politics as a an MP for the riding of Don Valley East from 1980 to 1984, and also served in Trudeau's cabinet as Minister of Small Business and Tourism.

Smith saw a lot of Trudeau during those years. As he explains it, Trudeau use to visit his office quite often because Smith had two of the most attractive female assistants in the building. Joking aside, Smith was also aware of what he could learn from Trudeau. In fact, during a visit by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she shared with Smith that on the world stage, no one was equal to Trudeau. In fact, Thatcher told Smith that Trudeau "was on his own" from an intellectual level.

After the federal election in 1984, Smith returned to the practice of law, but remained active in politics, chairing election campaigns for Chrétien in the 1993, 1997 and 2000. Smith recalled the 1993 election campaign when he was in charge of Ontario. The Liberals swept 98 out of a possible 99 seats in Ontario and Smith said he was taken aback when Chretien jokingly asked him why he couldn't deliver all 99 seats. Smith remembers sharing that story when former U.S. President Bill Clinton was visiting Canada. He said Clinton was impressed with the Ontario outcome and offered Smith a job on the spot.

"Chretien never kidded me about that campaign ever again," said Smith.

The senator now sits as an independent after Liberal leader Justin Trudeau began pushing for a non-partisan Senate last month. At the time, Smith was quoted as saying  “we’ll be like the Liberal caucus, but probably the independent Liberal caucus".

But that's just the beginning. Recent scandals involving senators Pam Wallin and Mike Duffy have kept the Senate in the limelight.

"Well, it isn't boring," said Smith.

On the topic of current Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Smith described him as "very impressive".

"Not perfect, but a very impressive guy," explained Smith.

While Smith has lived a life of politics, he also believes that politicians can make a difference.

Back in 1981, the UN declared the International Year of Disabled Persons. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wanted Canada to get involved and had Smith chair a national committee. After touring the country visiting Canadians with disabilities, his committee filed a report called Obstacles. For the first time, disability was included in the Charter, but Smith was emphatic that the phrase "mental or physical disability" be included.

He kept making arguments within the government to amend the Charter by including “mental or physical disability.” After making about five speeches on this point in different meetings, Smith said Trudeau stood up and said, “David, you don’t have to make your speech again, we’re putting it in.”

Even recalling the moment years later brought tears to Smith's eyes.

"You can make a difference," concluded Smith.

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