The Late Honourable Aurélien Gill—TributesPublished on 1 April 2015 Hansard and Statements by Senator Charlie Watt, Céline Hervieux-Payette (retired), James Cowan (retired), Jim Munson, Joan Fraser (retired), Wilfred Moore (retired)
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):
Colleagues, I rise today to pay tribute to our late friend and colleague, Senator Aurélien Gill.
Senator Gill retired from this chamber in 2008, following a long and dedicated life of public service. I’m delighted that so many of his family members could be with us today, looking over this place which he served so well. Welcome.
Senator Gill profoundly affected all of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with him. Before being appointed to the Senate in 1998, he served as a teacher, a public servant and a successful businessman in Quebec. In all of these roles he was, as he was throughout his life, a leader.
He was born in Mashteuiatsh or, as it is also known, Pointe-Bleue, Quebec. Following his studies at Laval, he went on to the National Defence College in Kingston, where he studied under some of the country’s greatest strategists. It was during this time that he travelled throughout the world and saw firsthand the conditions of other Aboriginal peoples and especially the positive actions that had been taken elsewhere that could be taken here.
Colleagues, sometimes one has an experience that proves to be a turning point, setting the course of one’s life. That was such a time for Senator Gill. He resolved to devote his life to our First Nations people — a promise he kept. We are all the beneficiaries of that dedication.
In preparation for today, I reread the tributes paid to Senator Gill when he left this place. Colleagues described his “irreproachable integrity and dedication,” his “remarkable generosity”, “extraordinary talents, energy and eloquence.” He was called a: “leader of intelligence, commitment, confidence, passion and bravery”; a “spontaneous man who showed great generosity in his everyday life”; “sincere, and frank”, and a man with a lesser-known “gift for livening up social functions.”
But, colleagues, even more than his charming and gregarious nature, it was his devotion to improving the lives of this country’s first inhabitants that shone through the most. That is where Senator Gill truly made his mark and where he truly distinguished himself by his vision.
From 1974 to 1985, Aurélien Gill served as Chief of the Montagnais at his home in Lac-Saint-Jean. He went on to found and serve on numerous organizations aimed at creating a world where respect, equality and dignity would prevail — a world where Aboriginals could assume responsibility for their own affairs. He continued this effort throughout his 10 years of service in the Senate, working tirelessly to advance the cause of Aboriginal peoples.
His deep and long-standing connection to his Montagnais roots and to Aboriginal communities at large were evident to everyone who served alongside him in this chamber.
I had the privilege of being his colleague for three and a half years and, in that time, I saw him advocate for First Nations independence with extraordinary passion, eloquence and vigour. He earned the respect and admiration of his many colleagues, engaged us with his fiery speeches, and educated us all on the very serious challenges facing First Nations.
In his last remarks in this place, Senator Gill said:
Certain topics are very difficult, but the issues facing First Nations people must be resolved. A path and a solution must be found. That day is not far off, for the world is changing, and it will change for the better. One day there will be a representative assembly of First Nations. . . . We, the First Nations people, have not only survived, but we have made a contribution; we have worked towards making the world a better place for all Canadians, without exception, without excluding anyone.
He told us that he had “great faith in the future,” that it had always been his most profound desire to “live in a just, beautiful and noble society.” He brought that goal much closer for all the rest of us.
To his family and friends, thank you for sharing him with this country and with those of us in this place. He is deeply missed.
Hon. Wilfred P. Moore:
Honourable senators, I also rise today to pay tribute to a very dear former colleague, the Honourable Aurélien Gill, who passed away on January 17, 2015, at the age of 81 years.
Aurélien was a teacher by trade, but he was also a community builder and activist, as demonstrated by his lifelong dedication to advocacy in the interests of Canada’s indigenous peoples. He served as chief of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh from 1975 to 1982, as vice-president of the Quebec Association of Indians from 1973 to 1975, and as chairman of the Atikamekw and Montagnais First Nations from 1975 to 1976. Senator Gill was also a key participant in the founding of the National Indian Brotherhood, now known as the Assembly of First Nations. He was a generous adviser to indigenous peoples in other countries.
Summoned to the Senate by the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien on September 17, 1998, Senator Gill further promoted the cause of Aboriginal peoples through his work on the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. Part of this work was the recognition of the fact that the relationship between the Aboriginal peoples and the Crowns of both England and France has been nothing short of disgraceful. Yet, despite the erosion of Aboriginal society over the years and the dependence upon government policy, Senator Gill foresaw that Aboriginal peoples might one day control their own destiny.
Such was the vision of Aurélien Gill when on April 30, 2008, he tabled Bill S-234, An Act to establish an assembly of the aboriginal peoples of Canada and an executive council, to establish a third chamber of Parliament. Recognizing the need to break free from the bonds of the archaic, paternalistic Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs, this bill would encourage Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to play a greater role not only in their own affairs, but also in those of the country as well. An Aboriginal assembly would provide the voice of the peoples recognized in the Constitution Act, 1982.
In the world of inventors, when a person is the first person to think of a product or process, it’s called a “flash of genius.” Aurélien Gill had that flash of genius when he conceived of his brilliant system of self-government for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Much thought went into that bill, and I encourage fellow senators to read it. It is much more than just food for thought; it is the template for Aboriginal government in Canada. As Senator Gill put it:
This country will never be complete as long as Aboriginal peoples do not have a place in this political architecture.
He also said:
How can we be anything less than passionate about this, when this concerns the future of our many children, their education, their health, their environment, their pride, their culture and their identity?
After Aurélien’s retirement from the Senate in 2008, we remained in contact. I continue to advocate on behalf of his bill, distributing it to numerous chiefs and speaking about it at opportune times. I thank you, honourable Aurélien, for your work and vision. Meegwetch.
Senator Gill is survived by his wife, Aline; three daughters, Guylaine, Carole and Marie-Claude; and 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I wish Aline and all of you present to know that it was an honour to serve with Aurélien, who taught me much about life among our Aboriginal peoples. We were good friends. He enriched all our lives, and I thank you for sharing him with us.
Hon. Joan Fraser (Deputy Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, I had the enormous privilege of joining the Senate the same day as Aurélien Gill. Even at the time, I knew it was a privilege, although it was only with the passage of time that I realized just how much of a privilege it was to be paired, if you will, with such an extraordinary man.
One of the ironies of political life is that Aurélien Gill represented a senatorial division in Quebec called Wellington. Wellington was one of the greatest warriors in the history of England. He was the man who conquered Napoleon, and he was well known, apparently, for his haughty, difficult and even snobby disposition.
Aurélien Gill was anything but those things. Aurélien was a man with an enchanting smile. Just look at any photo of him. He was always smiling. Even as I look at those photos today, I feel like his smile makes me smile.
I think one of the best descriptions of Aurélien that I ever read was in his obituary. Among other things, it said:
Mr. Gill was a unifying force and was always actively involved in his community, region and country. He worked on promoting respect, cooperation and partnership. To his family and friends, he was the epitome of integrity, justice and perseverance.
All these words are true, especially the first descriptor, “unifying force.” He was a unifying force. It was hard not to like Aurélien Gill or answer his calls.
The current chief of Mashteuiatsh — like Senator Martin, I have a hard time pronouncing the name of Aurélien’s favourite place in the world even though he tried to teach me how for 10 years — Gilbert Dominique, said:
I think he will certainly inspire us because he never gave in or gave up. He believed very strongly that we had rights, that we . . .
—he was talking about Aboriginal peoples—
. . . had rights and we could certainly build our future on that basis.
As Senator Moore said earlier in his tribute, Aurélien Gill never stopped fighting for his people and for his country, but particularly for his people. He taught us what we needed to know about Aboriginal peoples, and we thank him for that. I offer our condolences to his entire family.
Hon. Céline Hervieux-Payette:
Honourable senators, I would first like to offer my condolences to the family. I had the opportunity to meet them a few minutes ago.
If it weren’t for Aurélien Gill, I might never have known about Pointe-Bleue. The name alone brings to mind a beautiful countryside, a fantastic region, and above all, a place where people help each other and are extremely welcoming. I encourage any of my colleagues who have never been to Pointe-Bleue to go for a visit and maybe have a coffee with his daughters while they are there.
I always knew that Aurélien was proud of his heritage. Some people forget about where they came from, but he did not. He worked his whole life to advance the cause of Aboriginal peoples in a positive and generous manner. I don’t think that we who arrived in this land well after the Aboriginal communities have been that generous, and I believe that the example he set of sharing is worth serious consideration.
I would also like to share a little secret with you. If Aurélien were with us today, I can tell you that he would very likely have been asked to participate in a well-known television show called Dancing with the Stars and that his talents as a dancer would have put some participants to shame. After some caucus meetings, I remember going to bed rather late but filled with gladness because his love of life transcended his work in the Senate, where he made a lot of friends.
When I think of everything that he did for his community, I feel I must tell his family that he was a proud man and that they should be proud of him. He was a Canadian who made a great contribution to this country, and I too was always proud to serve with him. He will always be remembered fondly. I will not say goodbye, but rather, until we meet again. I am sure we will see each other again one day and have the chance to get into a bit of trouble and maybe dance a little.
Hon. Charlie Watt:
Honourable senators, today I rise to give tribute to our former colleague, Senator Gill.
Long before I was a senator, I worked very closely with Senator Gill. For many years he touched a part of me in a way that some other people probably would not have. That’s how close a relationship I had with Senator Gill.
He was Quebec director-general at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Before that, he was the vice-president of the Quebec Association of Indians. That was between 1973 and 1975. He was also the chairman of the Council of Atikamekw and Montagnais from 1975 to 1976. So we had many years of experience with each other and in dealing with the different matters that were before us. Actually, I have known Senator Gill for over 40 years.
As some of you senators are fully aware, in his final years he introduced a private member’s bill, Bill S-234, to establish an assembly of Aboriginal peoples of Canada, along with an executive attached to it. And we shared his vision for a third house of Parliament — an Aboriginal people’s chamber — with support right across the country.
Last week, I hosted a round table with the First Nation leaders, and I can assure you that Senator Gill’s vision is still alive in the minds and the hearts of our community leaders today.
Aboriginal people are under-represented in this chamber, and those of us who remain miss him very much. We carry a disproportionate load because the community is growing rapidly, yet Aboriginal representation in this place continues to shrink.
I had an opportunity today to meet with his family. Unfortunately his wife didn’t have the strength to come here. The rest of his family is here, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I met his three daughters, Guylaine, Carole and Marie-Claude. We are all happy to receive them here in Ottawa.
I would say Senator Gill was most effective and very focused on the matters that he dealt with. I was fortunate to have many years’ experience with Senator Gill, a strong advocate for the indigenous people, and I was honoured to call him my good friend.
Thank you, honourable senators.
Hon. Jim Munson:
Honourable senators, and to the Gill family, I have another statement to make, but I’m caught up in the moment. I’ll say a few words.
I was the new kid on the block in 2003, and Senator Gill was already here. He took me aside and showed me a few things. I’m not allowed to say what they were, but they were all good. Every darn bit of it was good. He was a mentor in my life as well and helped me understand even more about the issue of Aboriginal rights and speaking with one voice.