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senators’ statements — Tributes

The Late Honourable Wilbert J. Keon, O.C.

May 7, 2019

Hon. Larry W. Smith (Leader of the Opposition)

Honourable senators, I rise today to pay tribute to our former colleague, Senator Wilbert Keon, who passed away last month. Senator Keon proudly represented the province of Ontario in the Senate of Canada for almost 20 years. Dr. Keon, or Willie as he was known to his friends, was a visionary with sharp intellect, an optimistic spirit and a great laugh. It is hard to overstate how much he will be missed by his family, friends and former colleagues, by the Ottawa Valley and by those who benefited through the 10,000 open-heart surgeries he performed over the course of his medical career.

From a young age, Wilbert Keon knew that he wanted to be a doctor. He was, quite simply, one of the most respected cardiac surgeons in the world. In 1976, he founded the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, a global leader in cardiac treatment and research.

An Officer of the Order of Canada, the Canadian Medical Association awarded him its highest honour, the F.N.G. Starr Award. He was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. In 2004, upon his retirement as president and CEO, a monument in his honour was installed at the Heart Institute. It is inscribed with the following words:

One of the greatest heart surgeons of his generation who also demonstrated extraordinary compassion throughout his remarkable career.

Those words, “extraordinary compassion,” are the key to Senator Keon’s work, not only as a doctor but as a member of the Senate of Canada. This was especially evident through his lengthy membership on the Social Affairs Committee, where he ultimately served as vice-chair. Senator Keon was proud of Canada’s system of health care but also viewed it with a clear, critical eye, recognizing the need for improvement. His desire to help his fellow citizens lead longer, healthier lives was found in the work of the committee over the course of many years, including a comprehensive 2002 report on the federal role in the health care system.

Senator Keon was deputy chair when the Social Affairs Committee released its 2006 report, Out of the Shadows at Last, the very first national study of mental health, mental illness and addiction. This report was enthusiastically received, especially by those who worked in the field of mental health for many years without the benefit of national attention. The report ultimately led to the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada the following year under the previous Conservative government.

Senator Keon was known not only for his role in founding the Heart Institute and the Mental Health Commission, but also for founding other health care organizations like Genome Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research recently called Dr. Keon one of its architects recognizing his tremendous impact on Canada’s health research community. Indeed, it is truly difficult to find any element of modern health care in Canada that Senator Keon has not touched in some way.

Nine years ago this month, Senator Keon stepped down from the Senate of Canada. However, according to his family, he really didn’t retire or slow down until about three years ago.

I know the thoughts of all honourable senators are with Senator Keon’s family today, his children, Claudia, Neil and Ryan; his grandchildren; his sisters; and especially his wife of almost 60 years, Anne. Thank you for sharing your loved one with all of Ottawa, all of Canada, for so many years. Senator Keon will be greatly missed and he will be long remembered.

Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals)

Honourable colleagues, I join Senator Smith in remembering a wonderful former colleague, Dr. Wilbert, Willie, Keon who died at the age of 83.

He spent nearly 20 years in this chamber where his commitment, dedication and hard work in the service of Canadians were on constant display. People and their health and well-being were always his focus. He was a driving force, together with other members of the Social Affairs Committee, in the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. And close to his heart, he chaired the subcommittee on population health and its in-depth examination of the disparities facing different sectors of our population.

To say that his career before he came to the Senate was successful would be a gross understatement. Dr. Keon was the founder of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and where he, in 1984 along with his surgical team performed their first heart transplant.

He continued this trailblazing and two years later Dr. Keon performed Canada’s first artificial heart transplant. He also pioneered what he would describe to us as one of his greatest achievements, a life-saving technique, that of putting a patient on a heart-lung machine to restore blood flow in an acute heart attack, which has become standard practice.

Among many accolades, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and made an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Ontario.

It must be noted that Dr. Keon continued to practise, albeit informally, even here in the Senate after he was appointed a senator. As many senators and staff can attest, he was quick when needed to provide sound medical advice. He often put his physician skills to good use. I know there are many examples here in the Senate where his interventions made a concrete impact on the good health of his colleagues and others.

Honourable senators, Dr. Keon never faltered in his mission to improve the health and well-being of others. He was a good, kind and caring man, and his contributions in cardiology and here in the Senate will long be remembered.

On behalf of the Independent Senate Liberals, I would like to offer my deepest condolences to his wife Anne, his children Claudia, Neil and Ryan and to their families, his loved ones and friends.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette

Honourable senators, on behalf of ISG, we pay tribute to Senator Keon.

The Senate has been blessed by a gifted Canadian citizen in its chamber. One of the most amazing senators of our time has been the late Wilbert Keon, who served in the Senate for 20 years. For 14 years he did double duty, that is his Senate duty and still served as CEO of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

Founder of the world-renowned University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Dr. Keon was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in October 2007. My good friend from Edmundston, Jean Pedneault, gained 20 additional years of his life thanks to a heart transplant he received from the institute.

It is difficult to list all the Canadians who received the greatest care at the institute. I can only say that all that care would probably not have existed if not for the brilliant scientific and medical mind of Dr. Keon.

Appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Mulroney in 1990, I had not witnessed any indication from Senator Keon to be partisan. He was a gentleman at all times. He was quite proud of his son Ryan in his bid to run for office to serve Canadians. The duty to serve was well ingrained in their family.

I remember fondly our last conversation on the bus, as he was retiring from the Senate. One of his plans was to spend time with his wife in Ireland. He was also looking forward to travelling in his sports car to the Maritimes, as he had done a few years earlier. He was amazed at the scenery driving through New Brunswick and I concurred with him.

It was with surprise and sadness that we learned of his passing in April. In our hearts and minds, it is hard to accept the passing of such a role model. I extend my deep condolences to his wife Anne, his children Claudia, Neil and Ryan. Thank you for sharing him with us all.

As I conclude my tribute, on behalf of ISG, we express our greatest appreciation for Dr. Keon, his contribution to the medical field, to our institution, and, most importantly, for being humble with it all. It is testimony to the great Canadian that he was.

May he rest in peace after a life of giving. Thank you.

Hon. Terry M. Mercer (Deputy Leader of the Senate Liberals)

Honourable senators, when we’re called to this place we all take a moment, after being thankful for the call, to have a look at the list of those who will be joining when we come here. When I came, I knew a lot of people who were already here. I knew all the Liberals who were here because of my previous life involved in the party. However, as I looked at the other people who were here, there was one person I really wanted to meet, and that was Wilbert Keon. He was among the superstars in this place. We may have bragged about having Frank Mahovlich in our caucus, but the Conservatives had Wilbert Keon in theirs and no man was a bigger superstar.

Wilbert Keon — a doctor, surgeon, senator, and we all need to remember that politically he was a GST senator, appointed at the time when the Conservatives needed some extra senators to get the GST passed.

Senator Keon was a community leader and an extraordinary one. As my colleague said, he was a visionary. He changed Ottawa. He changed medicine. He changed surgery in this country. He changed the treatment of heart patients in this community and country.

I am a patient at the Ottawa Heart Institute. I don’t seem to have a heart problem but I have had a stroke and have received great advice from the team that Wilbert Keon assembled at the Ottawa Heart Institute. But I want to talk, very briefly, about the time I spent with him in this place.

The Senate put together a Special Committee on Aging, and Dr. Keon was on that committee. It was chaired by Senator Carstairs. I had the pleasure to sit on the committee. It was my first time to work with Wilbert. As always, he was a teacher.

As things went along, it became a little more complicated with respect to aging, and in particular with respect to the heart. He was always there to give us some background and help us understand what might be going on in some people’s lives, but he was always willing to do that. And he was always willing to talk in a nonpartisan way. I appreciated that because we need to get our work done here. There are times when we need to be partisan in here, but there are also many times when we don’t need to be partisan. We need to get the work done. He was a good guy to work with, especially on the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee.

It was interesting when we learned later on that his son was the Liberal candidate in Nepean-Carleton in a federal election and that Wilbert didn’t bat an eye about the fact that he was sitting here as a Conservative and his son was running as a Liberal candidate. I think it says a lot about him as a Canadian that he was in support of his son trying to serve Canadians.

The lasting memory of Wilbert Keon rests out in the west end of the City of Ottawa — the Ottawa Heart Institute. It’s a monument to him and his hard work. It’s a monument to the work that he did on behalf of tens of thousands of Canadians.

It would be really interesting if we could invite all of his patients to sit in the gallery today. Number one, the gallery is not big enough. Number two, the chamber is not big enough. Number three, this building is not big enough to welcome the patients who Wilbert Keon took care of.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve lost a great Canadian. We’ve lost a great senator. I extend my best wishes and warm condolences to his family.

Hon. Jim Munson

Honourable senators, Dr. Willie Keon was a friend, a friend of everyone, a friend in the Senate and a friend of mine.

When he passed away a month ago, Ottawa, Canada and the rest of the world lost a selfless man — a selfless man who really lived the meaning of the concern of others rather than with his own.

What can you say about a person who spent his entire life as a doctor, giving? Well, there is much to say. In this community, it seems everybody knew someone whose life had been saved because of the humble heart surgeon who cared. Maybe it was his Irish roots in the small community of Sheenboro, Quebec. If you are from around here, Sheenboro, as they say, is just up the line in the Ottawa Valley.

Maybe it was because he was the youngest of 13 children. Maybe it was because he came from a close-knit family where people cared for each other. Whatever it was, this humble and, in many respects, shy man created a “world class centre for cardiovascular excellence,” in the words of Dr. Robert Roberts who succeeded Dr. Keon at the Ottawa Heart Institute.

Dr. Keon was a visionary, an innovative cardiac surgeon who performed Ottawa’s first heart transplant and Canada’s first artificial heart transplant. He was a doctor with a common touch, a good heart and a caring manner. In his lifetime, he performed more than 10,000 open-heart surgeries.

At his funeral, they came from every walk of life. James Brooks was a patient 30 years ago. In his words:

Seeing my family grow, playing with my grandkids now . . . he’s made a monumental difference in my life . . . I would not be here today, I can guarantee you that.

Honourable senators and to those who didn’t know him, I wish you could have seen Dr. Keon in the Senate. I got to know him well as a rookie member of the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee. I wanted to do something about autism. It was Dr. Keon who guided me on a path of persuasion in convincing the committee to do the report Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis. This report is a template in the autism community across the country as we fight for a national autism spectrum disorder strategy.

In that same quiet and diligent manner he was one of the key architects of a number of landmark Senate reports, as has been said by other senators, including Out of the Shadows at Last, dealing with mental health.

Dr. Wilbert Keon didn’t need headlines. He just needed and wanted to help and heal others. He didn’t look at the Senate through a political lens, but as a platform where ideas could become policy and policy could lead to programs.

He really believed in the common good. The good doctor saved lives, allowed people to live longer, and along the way he gave and gave and gave.

Dr. Keon was a selfless man. Thank you.

Hon. Michael Duffy

Colleagues, I’m not going to repeat — even though it bears repeating — the many fine things that have been said about our former colleague, Dr. Wilbert Keon. I think in his life and in his service here there is a lesson, especially for our new independent senators.

I well remember the day that Dr. Keon was sworn in. The local media was full of criticism, saying the Senate of Canada — that terrible place — was no place for somebody of his skills and his professional standing as a heart surgeon.

Dr. Keon was pretty discouraged, but he hung in despite that initial negative tone of the media. What we saw throughout his 20 years here was how he was able to take the professionalism that he had from the medical side and put it to work in the interests of all Canadians in terms of health policy.

As we go forward here, it’s easy for people to criticize newly appointed senators, but the fact is that Dr. Keon is a shining example of how someone who made a very strong contribution outside of the Senate can bring that here and build on it to make a better Canada.

My wife Heather and I have a special bond with Dr. Keon. We got married in the Heart Institute. We extend our sincere condolences to his widow and to his family with thanks for all the many things he has done. Canada is a better place because of Wilbert Keon.

The Hon. the Speaker

Honourable senators, I would ask you now to rise and join me in a moment of silence on behalf of our departed colleague.