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‘Time and space for everybody’: Senator Munson says goodbye to the Senate
July 14, 2021

Senator Jim Munson was appointed to the Red Chamber in 2003. He spent three decades as a journalist reporting across Canada and around the world. The power of story has shaped Senator Munson’s career from war zones to committee rooms. During his nearly 18 years serving in the Upper Chamber, Senator Munson has championed the rights of children and people with disabilities through legislation, committee work and by setting an example of inclusion.

Upon his retirement in July 2021, SenCAplus asked Senator Munson to reflect on his time in the Upper Chamber.

During your 30 years as a journalist, you covered the Gulf War and Tiananmen Square, the FLQ crisis, dozens of elections and many other seminal events. How did this prepare you to be a senator?

As strategic preparation for the Senate, it was nothing of the sort. I was living for the moment and the story, but it gave me a window into politics and Parliament Hill. And the curiosity factor helped. As a teenager in New Brunswick, I was interested in politics and the give and take between reporters and politicians. It was always in my blood.

As a journalist I covered a lot of horrible things, wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Gulf War, Northern Ireland. Entering the Senate gave me an opportunity not just to tell a story, but to try to do something about that story.

As a journalist and as former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s director of communications, you spent years in proximity to the Senate before being appointed to it. Did anything about the Senate surprise you once you became a senator?

During my first days in the Senate, a few senators told me, “You think you were a hot shot as a reporter? You think that you had all the power in the Prime Minister’s Office? You have no power here. You're one of us.”

I found it intimidating at first. I didn’t walk through the halls with bravado, but paid attention. I knew what I wanted to do but had to figure how, because procedurally I didn’t know what was going on. I had seen orphanages in Phnom Penh and refugee camps in Lebanon. I had covered Ethiopia’s famine. And I had lost my 10-month-old son, who had Down Syndrome. I wanted to carve out a role around disability and children’s rights — issues where there was very little discussion.

Why were the rights of the child and of people with disabilities such a significant focus for you?

Our son Timmy was born in 1968: the same year the first Special Olympics was held. He died in 1969 and when I joined the Senate, I asked myself, “Where would Timmy be in the world of inclusion?” At that time, there was no world of inclusion — or only a very small one — for a child with special needs to participate in anything that we would consider to be part of normal life. For me, it was this moment of seeing the spirit of Timmy and the spirit of the Special Olympics.

When I joined the Upper Chamber, I met with Special Olympics Canada and used the vehicle of the Senate to open the door to sustainable funding through Liberal and Conservative governments, with thanks to the late Jim Flaherty, the former Minister of Finance who had a heart of gold.

This to me, as a senator and advocate for children’s rights — the right to play, the right to participate, the right to be an athlete — was a profound and meaningful moment. It opened the door for me to realize the concept of the Senate was to fight for minorities. If, as a senator, I could make a difference in people’s lives, that’s a difference I wanted to make.

Your passion for this issue went beyond legislation and committee work. You put it into action hiring staff with different abilities. Can you share more about that experience and why it is so important?

You can't just sit here and shout from the Peace Tower that you must have inclusion unless you do it yourself.

Senators were asked to be involved in the Friends of the Senate Program at a special breakfast, where I met my esteemed assistant Michael Hurley-Trinque, who has Down Syndrome. I was impressed with his friendliness and immediately told my assistants that we were going to get involved. Michael has now been with our office for 12 years.

Senator Munson with his assistant Michael Hurley-Trinque. The pair have worked together for 12 years.

He has made a profound difference, not only in our office bringing joy and doing his work, but everyone who meets Michael sees the face of inclusion in a workplace. Obviously, he made an impression because he's been picked up as a number one draft choice for Senator Mary Coyle.

This is not tokenism: this is realism. This is having somebody in your workplace, paying them a salary, giving them a sense of independence and purpose. And it's not that hard to do. There's time and space for everybody.

Your bill to create an annual Kindness Week in Canada became law this spring. You’ve had other legislative triumphs as well. Which pieces of legislation are you most proud of and what impact do you hope they will have?

Being the sponsor of the Accessible Canada Act in the Senate was a privilege. It’s a piece of legislation this government has passed that has not received enough attention. This inclusionary act will open many doors. I'm not just talking about having ramps going into doors: I'm talking about hiring practices, accessible practices and the whole gamut. It sets the foundation for a better day and for Canada to be a strong leader.

The World Autism Awareness Day Act helped to galvanize the autism community to speak with one voice and helped to put programs in schools. It has kept us focused on the national autism strategy, which is now in the hands of the government.

The Kindness Week Act speaks for itself. Teachers have told me they'll be able to use Kindness Week as part of their curriculum. And one of the main purposes of the bill, which was developed with the late Rabbi Reuven Bulka, was to combat bullying in schoolyards. I also hope governments put money into programs. Corporations can do work in the field of kindness and attitudes inside the workplace. On a natural level, it’s scientifically proven that kindness improves your serotonin levels, mental well-being and quality of life. There's no downside to this.

Senator Jim Munson with his son Claude on the Great Wall of China during the senator’s time reporting in that country. (Photo credit: Mike Nolan)

Senator Munson (third from left) and cameraman Mike Nolan (second from left) near Doha, Qatar during the First Gulf War. (Photo credit: Mike Nolan)

Senator Munson participates in the 6th annual Rolling Rampage race on Parliament Hill in 2017. The event celebrates the achievements of elite wheelchair athletes and brings awareness to the challenges overcome by persons with disabilities.

Senator Munson speaks at a Friends of the Senate breakfast. The program encourages senators to hire local high school students who have mobility, sensory or learning impairments.

As the senator representing Ottawa and the Rideau Canal, Senator Munson regularly bikes along the waterway to work at the Senate of Canada Building.

What will you miss most about the Senate?

I will miss being with people, talking, debating and sharing stories. There are so many stories that have touched me along the way. Just when you feel like you’ve learned everything, you go to a committee hearing — especially one for the human rights committee or social affairs committee.

When I hear a story, I’m always listening to it through the ears of a journalist, but it’s not like being a journalist, where you move on quickly to something else. You can be a sponge for the stories, absorb them and try to work on a report that will help people.

What are your retirement plans?

I’m going to take the word retirement and retire it. I’ll be working as a special adviser for the Victoria Forum and as an executive-in-residence at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. I hope to stay involved in Special Olympics Canada and volunteer with the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance I will endeavour to golf and play old-timers hockey. What I really enjoy in life, whether at work or at play, is the camaraderie. I’m at peace and in a place of joy when I’m around people.