Politics is the art of the possible, but for people of principle it can also become the art of the impossible.
In December 1988, Clifford Lincoln told the National Assembly that he could not remain in a government cabinet that had decided to ignore Liberal party resolutions, the Supreme Court, and every lower court that had declared French-only signage unconstitutional.
In a bid to appease nationalists, the government of Robert Bourassa had decided to invoke the Not withstanding Clause to override the court judgment, and Lincoln, along with fellow Liberals Richard French and Herbert Marx, quit the cabinet.
Lincoln’s dramatic statement, that “rights are rights are rights” – simple, strong, and elegant – resounded, became synonymous with the man and his values, and solidified his reputation for integrity and the rule of law, irrespective of consequences.
He remained in caucus, but did not run again provincially in 1989. His move and the dramatic words that accompanied it had such an impact that he was able to generate support for a run at the federal Liberal leadership and then to be elected as a member of Parliament in 1993, where he continued to serve, including as minister of the environment, until retiring from politics in 2004.
But Lincoln never stopped being active in public affairs, from the moment he arrived here from his native Mauritius until today. At 89, he is completing M.A. studies in law at the University of Ottawa to strengthen his work on the environment and in support of Indigenous rights.
His record of outstanding community service covering a broad range of public-interest issues is why he was chosen among the winners of this year’s Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Award.
The citation from the Quebec Community Groups Network that will hand out the award October 26 praises Lincoln for being “a bridge-builder and consensus maker.”
“Driven by his unerring sense of justice and adept at balancing the needs and aspirations of differing communities, he continues to make a real and lasting difference in such areas as English-language rights; the environment; education; public transit; health and social services; and the rights of the intellectually handicapped,” it says.
Eric Maldoff, the veteran advocate for the rights of English-speaking Quebecers, praised Lincoln for being “a model of personal engagement, thoughtfulness, fairness and integrity.” As he was building a career here in business and the insurance industry, in 1958 along with concerned parents Lincoln co-founded the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped, which set up day centres and residences.
His move into politics emerged after he witnessed the devastating effect on the Montreal economy that followed the election in November 1976 of a Parti Québécois government. A young Clifford had spoken English and French at home, was educated in both languages, and decided to emigrate here in part because it fit his mixed linguistic heritage. The election of the PQ propelled him into political action as he saw his own business interests affected as investment capital was drying up and head offices moving.
He completed the training in international insurance and arbitration he had started in Southern Africa – he could not stomach the apartheid regime – and was involved in real-estate transactions when the consequences of the PQ win began to sink in.
The Lincolns settled in Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue and had six children. First elected in the riding of Nelligan in 1981, he joined the Bourassa cabinet in 1986 as minister of the environment, which he loved.
His life was not without its challenges. The period in 1988 when he quit the cabinet he remembers as “the worst year of all.” First, his wife Lise died in Rome when they had gone for the investiture of her brother Jean Margéot as a Roman Catholic Cardinal. She was struck by a speeding car and died in hospital. (He remarried in 1996 to Jocelyn Hay.) Then the toxic fire at a PCB warehouse in Saint-Basile-le-Grand erupted, and he was in charge of the evacuation. Then the Notwithstanding Clause was invoked.
After leaving Quebec politics he carried out an environmental study for the McConnell Foundation, where he first met aboriginal leaders from the Algonquins in Lake Barrière.
It’s an example of how his leadership and counsel inspire confidence. When he retired as an MP in 2004, after serving since 1993, they asked him to negotiate for them. He was proud to say during an interview last month, that the Lake Barrière Algonquins had just signed an agreement with the Quebec government – “a landmark that will identify their territory, set up co-management, natural resource access, and revenue sharing.”
He was deeply involved in what he calls “a grass-roots movement to bring proper train service to the West Island.” He also worked on the project to get the Quebec government to commit to fund the RAM electric light-rail train network that is planned to link the West island, South Shore, and Deux Montagnes.
Looking back on his political work, Lincoln is proud of what he accomplished, especially as environment minister provincially and federally.
“If you have convictions and are prepared to work hard and find allies, you can certainly get things done. If you go there willy-nilly without any vision, without any conviction, then you might as well be working for Starbucks.”
Retirement in the usual sense is not among his plans. Every week, Lincoln travels to Ottawa from his Baie d’Urfé home to pursue his master’s degree in law at the University of Ottawa, focusing on environmental law and global sustainable development.
“I worked on two big projects – the Algonquins and the trains – and now that they’re put to bed, I thought I need a bit of a mental challenge. It’s going well!”