In memoriam: Senator Josée Forest-Niesing
Parliament Hill is normally a place for thick skin and sharp elbows. Senator Josée Forest-Niesing always stood out for her smile — and for her ability to get things done.
“A hammer in a velvet glove,” Senator Bev Busson said. “She was a great champion for French-language rights, human rights in general, gender equality, Indigenous rights.
“When she spoke, everybody listened.”
Senator Kim Pate said she had “a visceral response to injustice.”
“We hit it off the minute she arrived in the Chamber,” Senator Pate said. “Her positive attitude, that effervescent personality and brilliant smile.”
A driven, highly intelligent and principled person who made allies everywhere, Senator Forest-Niesing was appointed to the Senate in 2018 after a career as a Sudbury lawyer and Superior Court of Justice Small Claims Court judge.
Senator Forest-Niesing, 56, died on Saturday, November 20, 2021 after contracting COVID-19. She was considered particularly vulnerable due to a pre-existing medical condition.
Her closest Senate colleagues remember her as a star with limitless potential who spoke eloquent French and English.
“She was perfectly bilingual, very astute. Diplomatic but no pushover,” Senator Diane Griffin said. “I think she would have eventually become the Speaker of the Senate.”
Her causes were many and diverse.
As a proud Franco-Ontarian, she became a fierce critic of cuts to French-language programs at the struggling Laurentian University. In an April 2021 speech she pleaded with senators to support Northern Ontario’s francophone community, which depends on the university “for its vitality, its support and its future.”
Two months later, her motion was adopted.
Senator Busson said she commanded respect.
“I was really impressed with the way she spoke and carried herself,” Senator Busson said. “She didn’t stand up unless she had something important to say.
“I became so proud that she was my friend.”
Senator Busson and Senator Griffin worked with her on another cause: updating Senate committee mandates. While this may seem like a relatively minor issue, Senate committees can change legislation and conduct influential studies — yet the mandate of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, for instance, still refers to telegraphs and makes no mention of the internet.
A meeting of this working group on November 17, 2021 was the last time they would speak to her.
“She was participating from her bed at home,” Senator Griffin said. “We were saying, ‘Are you really sure you should be here?’”
The response was typically good humoured.
“‘Oh no, it’s no more stressful than watching television,’” Senator Forest-Niesing replied, according to Senator Griffin. “God love her.”
She had also become an advocate for Indigenous rights, particularly after discovering her own First Nations heritage. She told the story in her speech at third reading on Bill C-15, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
“As I learn about the traditions and culture of Indigenous peoples, I develop a deeper appreciation of that richness, that sense of respect and that spirituality. I am so grateful that life has given me an opportunity to embrace my dual identity.”
The discovery of her history was a comfort to her in one of the few instances where her poise wavered. It was October 16, 2018 and she was waiting to be sworn in to the Senate. She and Senator Brian Francis were the last people to be called in to take their seats.
“She was nervous,” Senator Francis said. But he had an eagle feather with him.
“She knew the importance of the eagle feather and how powerful it was, and mine was blessed. I said a prayer to the Creator for her. And touched her with the eagle feather while I was saying it, and she found it to be very powerful. It calmed her down.”
Then she squared her shoulders and took her place in the Senate Chamber for the first time.
Senator Pate remembered walking into the building with her not long after and greeting the security guards by name.
“She was learning everybody’s name. I was in awe, her ability to recall everybody’s names.”
The two senators were heavily involved in trying to change Bill C-83, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and another Act, which purported to eliminate segregation in prisons.
“We worked incredibly closely on amendments the Senate made to that bill,” Senator Pate said.
And when the government rejected the amendments, Senator Forest-Niesing didn’t give up.
“Her immediate response was to come and say, ‘If they’re not going to ensure there’s oversight and accountability, we have to.’”
Senator Pate also remembers her counting down the seconds of a late-night sitting as she awaited news of her first grandchild then “racing to Sudbury to meet him.”
“She remained positive and optimistic and caring for everybody else right up until the very end,” Senator Pate said.
“I don’t know any other way to honour her legacy except by continuing her work.”
Senator Josée Forest-Niesing, seated, was joined by her family when she was sworn in to the Senate in October 2018. From left, son Philippe Niesing and daughter-in-law Catherine Sampson, daughter Véronique Niesing and son-in-law Andrew Moss, and husband Robert Niesing.
Senator Forest-Niesing helps hold the Franco-Ontarian flag on September 25, 2019 at the University of Sudbury, where the flag was officially raised for the first time in 1975. (Photo credit: Office of the late Senator Forest-Niesing)
Senator Forest-Niesing — in her lawyer’s robes — meets with Grade 6 students on the Senate Chamber on May 17, 2019.
Senator Forest-Niesing prepares to be sworn in to the Senate on October 16, 2018.
One of the few things that rivalled Senator Forest-Niesing’s dedication to her work was her limitless love for her grandchildren. (Photo credit: Office of the late Senator Forest-Niesing)
Senator Forest-Niesing and husband Robert Niesing break ground on what would become their dream home in the heart of Sudbury. (Photo credit: Office of the late Senator Forest-Niesing)
Senator Forest-Niesing and her husband share a smile and a selfie while travelling. (Photo credit: Office of the late Senator Forest-Niesing)
At a ceremony on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, the Honourable George J. Furey, Q.C., Speaker of the Senate, presents a flag that was flown at half-mast on the Peace Tower, as well as a book of condolence from parliamentarians, to the family of the late Honourable Josée Forest-Niesing.
In 2021, the senator embarked on a project to make her own traditional ribbon skirt; she collected the materials and told her family about her project. After the Senator’s passing, her mother completed the skirt and her family donated it to the Senate for display.
Statements on the Passing of the Honourable Josée Forest-Niesing
Senator Forest-Niesing contributed to her community as a member and chair of numerous boards of directors, and she will be remembered as an ardent and passionate defender of access to justice in both official languages.
On behalf of the Senate of Canada, I would like to extend my condolences to all her family, friends and loved ones.
The Honourable George J. Furey, Q.C.
Speaker of the Senate
Click here for Speaker George J. Furey’s full statement on Senator Forest-Niesing’s passing.
I am profoundly saddened by the death of my colleague, Senator Josée Forest-Niesing. She was a proud Franco-Ontarian, a lawyer and a passionate community leader.
In her 20 years as a lawyer, her practice focused on family law. From her volunteering in many community groups, Senator Forest-Niesing was destined to act as an advocate for respect for official languages in the Senate. She invited us to take steps so that equality of the languages would become part of daily life and to pay particularly close attention to this issue in the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Over and above her qualifications as a lawyer and dedicated community member, she always showed great compassion — a particularly important trait for our institution which is, above all, human.
As Government Representative in the Senate, I offer my condolences to her family and to her loved ones.
Senator Marc Gold
Government Representative in the Senate
On behalf of the Conservative Caucus in the Senate, I wish to convey our condolences to Senator Forest-Niesing’s family, friends and staff. We were all shaken by her early departure. Senator Forest-Niesing was a proud and passionate northern Franco-Ontarian, and her voice will be greatly missed. Her focus, her grace, her attentiveness and her compassion made her an impactful parliamentarian. We will cherish the memories of working with her in the Senate of Canada.
Our heartfelt condolences go out to her loved ones in these difficult times — please know that her Senate family is grieving with you.
Senator Don Plett
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
The Honourable Josée Forest-Niesing left a mark on all that she did and everyone she met. She could light up any room with her poise, kindness and intelligence. She was an outstanding Canadian dedicated to her country and to her Franco-Ontarian and Indigenous roots. Senator Forest-Niesing devoted her career to human rights and social justice and brought this passion to her work in the Senate. She was committed to a more independent, less partisan Senate and to the modernization of the Upper House. We will miss her deeply.
Senator Yuen Pau Woo
Facilitator of the Independent Senators Group
On behalf of myself and my colleagues in the Progressive Senate Group, we were extremely saddened to learn of the death of our colleague Senator Josée Forest-Niesing. Her death is the loss of a strong voice for minority language communities in national conversations. Her defence of access to justice and public service in both official languages, sign language and for Indigenous communities will remain a part of her legacy and the great impact she made over her lifetime of public service. We will miss her friendship, as well as her valuable contributions to our work on behalf of Canadians in the Senate of Canada. Our thoughts remain with her family and friends.
Senator Jane Cordy
Progressive Senate Group
We are heartsick to lose our cherished colleague and friend, the Honourable Josée Forest-Niesing. The Senate, her community and Canada are mourning the untimely passing of a passionate champion for Franco-Ontario. She deeply cared about public service and I hope we will live up to her example of grace and kindness as we find inspiration in her legacy. On behalf of the Canadian Senators Group, my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to all those who loved Josée. May she rest in peace.
Senator Scott Tannas
Leader of the Canadian Senators Group