Farewell Happy Warrior

Ivan Morgan / August 18, 2023

I bet very few people who read this knew who Hugh Segal was. He died last week at 72.

On paper he was a lifelong Progressive Conservative, chief of staff to Ontario Premier Bill Davis and the chief of staff for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He was a senator and the principal of Massey College at the University of Toronto. He was a writer, pundit, and columnist.

Yet he was so much more than that. He was known as the Happy Warrior. A Red Tory to be sure, but people of all political stripes liked him. He was one of the most influential Canadian political figures of the last few decades.

Which is funny, as he never got elected.

I had the great good fortune to have met him twice when I was a young student. I was drawn to his optimism, energy, and passion. It’s hard to get passionate about Canada – we are not like that. Hugh Segal was a passionate Canadian, and his passion was infectious. It’s hard to get worked up about policy. Hugh Segal was passionate about public policy, and it was infectious.

He would have winced at the word, but he was kind of a hero of mine.

He was no starry-eyed fool. He was streetwise and well versed in politics but was always cheerful and boundlessly hopeful for the future. He was committed to working with political friends and foes alike to come up with workable solutions for the rest of us. That last sentence sounds silly in this political environment. Hugh Segal was not silly.

Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed him to the Senate. Read that sentence again.  Lifelong Progressive Conservative Segal was happy to accept the appointment but told Martin “You do know I’m going to work every day to try to ensure the defeat of your government.”  Martin appointed him anyway.

I don’t think that is even imaginable in today’s increasingly polarized political world.

Segal loved policy and ideas. One of his greatest crusades was his decades long fight for a universal basic income.

He had grown up the son of an immigrant Montreal taxi driver and wanted to spare people the struggles his family had experienced. While many Conservatives, (not to mention folks on the left) were very hostile to the idea, Segal argued it was a policy in line with the Conservative philosophy of smaller and more efficient government and would eliminate the wide and often confusing, overly bureaucratic financial support programs offered by every level of government.

He wrote a memoir called “Boot Straps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada.” In it, he argued the case for a universal basic income. He claimed it would protect all Canadians from poverty.

It would be like the federal guaranteed income supplement for seniors, designed to top up people’s incomes. And like old age supplements, if people worked, they keep most of their cash. That’s unlike welfare, which traps people in poverty and claws back any extra money they earn, basically destroying any incentive to work.

We recently saw this done as an experiment with the pandemic. The federal government paid CERB to people to ensure they had bucks for rent and groceries.

Is it a good idea? The battle rages on. Huey Segal was a thinker and a doer, but most importantly he got people talking.

Segal had his own beliefs and principles, but respected others who did not share them. He taught me that all political parties want the best for their country, they just seek different methods to the same goal.

We need more folks like Huey (he once told me I could call him that). Today’s political landscape is deeply divided with parties of the left and the right demonizing their opponents, trying to convince you the “other side” is Satan’s spawn.

But what about the mounting troubles you and I face? How expensive are groceries going to get? How badly is our health care system going to decline? How many folks are going to find themselves on the street? Who has answers? Not many.

Segal was a person who worked on answers. He was the Happy Warrior, and he fought the good fight for his entire career. As our current Prime Minister said in his tribute to Segal, he brought people together. 

Where are today’s happy warriors?

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