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.