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“It’s a privilege”: Senator Ghislain Maltais retires
April 18, 2019

He is known for his passionate, unscripted speeches in the Red Chamber and as an advocate for the Atlantic salmon fishing industry. Senator Ghislain Maltais was appointed to the Senate on January 6, 2012 and served on several committees during his tenure in the Upper Chamber, most notably as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

Senator Maltais is saying goodbye to the Senate and closing the book on his more than 36 years serving the Canadian public. SenCAplus asked the senator to share his reflections on his time as a senator.

Senator Ghislain Maltais, with Senators Jean-Guy Dagenais, Diane F. Griffin, Terry M. Mercer and Robert Black, visiting Nk’Mip Cellars, the first Indigenous-owned winery in North America.

In 2014, Senator Ghislain Maltais was appointed Honorary Colonel of the 62nd Regiment of Shawinigan. He is also a member of the Fondation des artilleurs de la Mauricie.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed you to the Senate in 2012. What was that moment like for you?

The question we ask prime ministers when they call us is, “Why me?” The prime minister answered, “I’m looking for someone who knows the people. Your background shows that you can work with middle-class Canadians, and I need someone who understands that world.”

That was one of the main reasons, but it was also because I already had a lot of experience with legislation. Mr. Harper told me that was why he appointed me, because he needed someone like me.

I was very happy, because it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege to be appointed to the Senate, and we have to honour that and accept that, not as individuals, but because we can serve the Canadian public. That’s what matters to me.

Our swearing-in certificate states that we represent our region, our province and our country. We must never forget that. We don’t go to the Senate to be famous. No, everything we do has repercussions for the least among us. That is what’s important. Legislation benefits all Canadians.

Can you recall a project that was particularly enlightening?

I have worked on a lot of causes, and one of them is related to my passion. We had a problem in Canada — the disappearance of the Atlantic salmon. At the time, I was a salmon fisher, and I could see the species was gradually disappearing. I have children and grandchildren who benefit from this extraordinary sport, and we release our catches to preserve the resource. We also use hooks that do not injure the fish when they are released.

Today, the seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are destroying salmon and cod resources. Unfortunately, seals no longer have any predators now that humans have mostly stopped hunting them. I believed it was important to fight to protect salmon rivers, which are a major source of income for many villages in Eastern Canada. That is an issue that interests me a great deal.

I also worked in agriculture for a long time and it’s important to me because, without agriculture, we wouldn’t have any food to eat. We have started to do reports on a number of issues, including agricultural technology and agricultural progress until 2019.

Over the next 10 years, agricultural methods will need to change and be friendly to the environment. Right now, farmers are doing the most to protect the environment and are producing the fewest greenhouse gas emissions. We travelled across the country to hear what farmers had to say about this issue.

Why should more Canadians care about what happens in the Senate?

Many decisions are made based on Senate reports. That happens because those who prepare these reports are not a homogenous group of people; they are people with a lot of ideas. We have legislators, lawyers and former judges, and the experience of all these people ends up in the bills and reports we produce. As a result, our reports are truly valuable if they are used properly. The Canadian agricultural groups that I correspond with wait for our reports like they do their favourite agricultural publication, because it reflects what they asked for.

The Fathers of Confederation thought of that. We have a Westminster-style government, with an elected House, but they saw the need for people who think carefully about the legislation passed by the elected House. That is our job. We have to do it parsimoniously, fairly and with Canadians in mind.

Senators Norman E. Doyle, Jean-Guy Dagenais and Ghislain Maltais listen to testimony from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada.

When we return a bill to the House of Commons with amendments, we do so because we have held hearings across the country, listened to people and the people have told us what they like and what they don’t like. So, the Senate plays a crucial role in this democratic system.

You’re known for your unscripted speeches in the Senate. Why do you think that is an effective way of addressing the Upper Chamber?

It reflects my training. I was classically trained, so I learned to master the French language. I think that oratory is something that springs from knowledge, of language and of various topics, so I have no need for notes. If I know a subject, if I have read about an issue, I can discuss it.

I do, after all, have many years of experience in public life, so having a speech written for me is not my style. I do it with ease, it’s no problem. Three or four notes on a piece of paper is enough for me. It was something I did constantly in the Quebec National Assembly, and because I have spent my life in the public sector, speaking to groups became routine and even easy.

Normally, we provide a copy of our speeches to make life easier for the interpreters, but since I have no speech prepared, I speak slowly so they can understand.

In the last several months, many senators have been appointed and now all 105 seats have been filled in the Senate. What advice would you give to the new senators?

Read the Rules of the Senate and reread their swearing-in certificate every day. Remember that they are not there for themselves, but for Canadians. That is the best advice I can give them. Before they do anything, they should ask themselves, “How will this benefit Canadians?”

What are your plans for retirement?

Retirement is good for two kinds of people: the elderly and the rich. I am neither.

On May 1, I will start working again, not because I must, but for fun. I will be a consultant, and I will work about eight months a year. I will work on contract and take the summers off. I want to go fishing with my children and grandchildren. I have five grandchildren who are excellent salmon anglers.

Senator Ghislain Maltais in his office before his retirement.

Senator Ghislain Maltais is also looking forward to fishing trips with his family during his retirement.