Editor’s note: The Senate of Canada has posted an in memoriam article on its website in tribute to Senator Josée Forest-Niesing. The Sudburian passed away Nov. 20 after having been hospitalized for COVID-19.
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 Nov. 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.
“On reading a marriage certificate that we found, we learned that my great-grandmother, Agnès Lafond, was a member of the Abénakis de Wôlinak First Nation,” she said in her June 15, 2021 speech.
“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 Oct. 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.”