I have had many remarkable experiences as a Senator for which I am very grateful. One of the particularly special experiences has been the chance to work for 9 years with Senator Roméo Dallaire – we were appointed on the same day in March 2005.
Roméo Dallaire is so widely known, nationally and internationally, for all the remarkable things he has done and continues to do. Clearly, we all know his history in Rwanda and the remarkable work he has done since following from that horrifying and terrible experience. We know it because he wrote an enormously widely read book, a book that was captured in a feature movie, and because he works so hard at advocating for so many important causes related to genocide, peace, nuclear disarmament, child soldiers, PTSD, and veterans. He is in many ways a Canadian icon with a huge international following.
But, because he is so well known, listing his accomplishments in a tribute runs the risk of being redundant. So, in order to mitigate this risk, I thought that I would highlight some facts and observations about Senator Dallaire that might not be so widely known:
1. Despite the fact that he has become a Canadian icon, he was not born in Canada. He was born in Holland in 1946 to a Canadian military father and a Dutch mother.
2. Coming from a military family forged in WWII may in part explain why he chose a military career, but he did so very young. In fact, as a boy, he used to recreate some of the great battles of history with toy soldiers and toy military vehicles. He was and is, to say the least, intensely focused.
3. He rose quickly to the general ranks of the army and he is amongst the youngest generals ever commissioned in the Canadian military.
4. He has received 37 national and international honourary doctorates and fellowships.
5. Roméo Dallaire runs a special foundation which, among other things supports, in partnership with Dalhousie University, an institute to fight the scourge of child soldiers. Another helps vulnerable youth in Quebec and still another runs an institute on genocide at Concordia University in Montreal.
6. He defied a direct order to leave Rwanda and stayed in the thick and horror of it with a handful of Ghanian soldiers, all at profound personal risk, to do what he could in the face of that overwhelming genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered in 3 months.
7. He was instrumental in redefining the culture of professional leadership and the curriculum offerings needed to do that to bring the military out of its crisis in the 1990's following the Somalia scandal.
8. His book, Shake Hands with the Devil, has sold over 1,000,000 copies in many different languages. In fact, not all that long ago, I was talking to a cab driver and when Roméo Dallaire somehow came up in the conversation, the driver reached under his seat and pulled the book out. He was reading it, he said, between fares.
9. He is a special advisor to the UN Secretary General on conflict areas in Africa.
That reflects perhaps one of the most important things that I have observed about Roméo Dallaire over the 9 years we have worked together – that he resonates so powerfully at a human level. While it is his actions that speak for his courage and his character, somehow it is his humanity that defines what it is about him that is so compelling to people. He has dedicated his life to protecting and uplifting the vulnerable in so many different ways.
It is Rwanda that also defined him in a tragic and important way. He was severely injured there, suffering sometimes debilitating levels of PTSD as a result of his experience. And, he lives with the gripping, visceral pain of this affliction. Yet, somehow he has wrenched from that pain the energy and commitment and determination to fight for others’ safety and security, for peace, for children made to be soldiers, for veterans, and for so many other vulnerable people.
I remember several years ago he said to me that his doctors were making him take a break because he was succumbing to the PTSD. I looked and him and said, Roméo I cannot even imagine what you go through every day, but in some way you have somehow been chosen to do what you do, to undertake this huge responsibility to defend the most vulnerable, and you have clearly exceeded expectations.
Over those 9 years, I have admired, respected and honoured Roméo Dallaire so much. To use a military analogy, I would follow him out of the trenches into any battle he deemed necessary to engage. In fact, as I think about it, he seemed every day to be inspiring me and so many others to follow him into any number of battles over things important to and for Canadians.
Most of us talk about and many try really hard to make the world a better place. Senator Dallaire has truly done it and continues to do it. It has been a great privilege to know and work with him over this time in the Senate.
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