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Carstairs retiring from Senate, politics

Growing partisanship 'very sad'

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OTTAWA -- Longtime Liberal Sen. Sharon Carstairs is calling it a day.

The 69-year-old quietly bid farewell to the Senate Thursday. She will officially retire on Oct. 17 but Thursday was her final day in the chamber as the Senate will not sit again until Oct. 18.

"It's time," she told the Free Press. "I've given 271/2 years to public life."

She is leaving six years ahead of her required retirement at age 75.

Carstairs said a desire to retire while she and her husband, John, are still in good health is chief among her reasons for leaving now. But she admitted so too is a growing sense of dismay at the heightened partisanship in the Senate.

"The day-to-day activities have become very partisan. It's very sad. I suppose that is part of the reason I'm no longer happy here."

In her farewell speech, she warned senators to seek reforms such as term limits but to not allow reforms, such as electing senators, that would make the upper chamber a mirror image of the House of Commons.

"To have two chambers with identical mandates, chosen in identical ways, would be unworthy of our nation," she said.

Carstairs said the first study she was involved in after being appointed to the Senate was a non-partisan fierce debate on euthanasia. She said it was a sensitive topic that could not have been studied properly in the House of Commons and she doesn't think would be dealt with now in the Senate because of its growing partisan nature.

"Now we are having trouble finding unanimity on simple bills," she said.

Carstairs got her professional start as a teacher but has spent most of her working life as a politician. She followed in the footsteps of her father, Liberal Harold Connolly, who served in the Senate from 1975 until 1979.

She was the first woman in Manitoba to head a major political party and the first woman in Canada to be the leader of an official Opposition. She led the Manitoba Liberal Party from 1984 to 1993, was the Liberal MLA for River Heights from 1986 to 1994 and was the official Opposition leader from 1988 to 1990.

In September 1994, prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed her to the Senate. She was deputy leader of the government in the Senate from 1997 to 1999 and leader of the government in the Senate from 2001 until 2003, which put her in Chrétien's cabinet.

Carstairs said she is most proud of having helped put palliative care on the agenda in Canada. She had a role as a minister with special responsibility for palliative care from 2001 until 2003, participated in special Senate committees on euthanasia and aging, and travelled Canada and the world advocating for and learning about best practices in dealing with aging, death and dying.

A Senate committee report she spearheaded helped get palliative care added to the core teachings of medical students in Canada. She also was a key player in the creation of the Canadian Virtual Hospice, a Winnipeg-based website with information on palliative care that averages 1,000 hits a day from around the world.

Carstairs intends to remain in Ottawa in retirement, where she will be closer to her children, who live in Toronto and Guelph. She hopes to chair the board of a network centre of excellence on caring for the frail elderly, which is awaiting approval of a grant from the federal government.

She said she leaves politics with one regret -- after Oct. 17, no direct member of her family will be involved in politics for the first time since 1936.

"I don't see any one of the 19 grandchildren of my parents pursuing a political career," she said. "I think that is a sad reflection on the political future of Canada."

Carstairs said she thinks it's partly because politics today is no longer considered prestigious.

"I grew up thinking politics is an honourable profession," she said. "I think my children, well, they don't think so."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Carstairs political chronology

1984-1993: Leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party

1986-1994: MLA for River Heights

1988-1990: Leader of the official Opposition

September 1994: Appointed to Senate by Jean Chrétien

1997-1999: Named deputy leader of the government in the Senate

2001-2003: Named leader of the government in the Senate

Oct. 8, 2011: Announces resignation from Senate

Oct. 17, 2011: Final day as a senator

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2011 A8

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