He rebuilt Canada’s Liberal Party and, against all odds, became the 21st Premier of Ontario. Bob Rae had a very busy 35 years in politics and is now enjoying life as a lawyer, negotiator, mediator and arbitrator, with a particular focus on first nations, aboriginal and governance issues.
Rae has always been interested in history, law and politics. History was his favourite subject at the International School of Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied the IB Diploma Programme (DP). “It would be fair to say my course in life was set pretty early,” he says.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with remarkable people and to have been elected 11 times to both the provincial and federal parliaments.”
Reinventing Canada’s Liberal Party
Rae first became involved in politics when he volunteered on ex-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 Liberal leadership campaign. He had his first seat in Parliament in 1978 when he joined the New Democratic Party (NDP), then moved to provincial politics, serving as leader of the Ontario NDP.
After leading this party to victory in the 1990 provincial election, Rae served as the first NDP Premier of Ontario (head of government), a particularly memorable moment in his career. The NDP had been in opposition since its foundation, but when Rae became party leader things changed. “When the election was called in 1990, we were 25 points behind in the polls, but we ended up winning by five points and formed a majority government,” recalls Rae.
He later left the NDP and became interim leader of the Liberal Party in 2011 until 2013, when Justin Trudeau became party leader. Rae has been credited with reinventing the Liberal Party, and played an instrumental role in Trudeau becoming Prime Minister in 2015.
When Rae took the post of interim leader, the once mighty party – which had ruled Canada for most of the 20th century – had suffered a staggering election defeat, collapsing to just 34 seats and third place in the 2011 election.
Rae turned things around. He enhanced internal communications, increased member participation and created sensible policies that won the nation’s votes.
Rae has many fond memories of the International School of Geneva, also known as Ecolint, which is the oldest and largest operating international school in the world. The DP was launched at its La Grande Boissière campus in the 1960s.
“My greatest memories of school are my wonderful friends and splendid teachers. Ecolint was a great experience in my life and it has shaped me in very significant ways.”
Michael Knight, Rae’s history teacher, was heavily involved in the creation of the DP and, in particular, the formulation of the history course: “He was the source of much wisdom and inspiration,” says Rae.
“I wrote my DP history exam under his guidance. But there were many other teachers who also influenced my career choices, such as Eli Wallach, Nancy Poirel, Derek Campbell, and my Latin teachers Gras and Quinn.”
Rae particularly enjoyed the global perspective of the DP, which is reflected in his keen interest in social justice and international issues. “I have worked as a community worker in London, as a legal advisor to trade unions, and as a political leader both nationally and provincially,” says Rae.
He’s also the founder of the Forum of Federations, an international NGO on governance, and teaches at the University of Toronto School of Governance and Public Policy.
Making a change
Rae particularly admires Nelson Mandela, the late inspirational political leader, and Vaclav Havel, first President of the Czech Republic: “He did so much to establish a new kind of integrity in politics and public life.”
And just like them, he wants to make a difference around the world. Rae is currently working as a lawyer at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP firm, which specializes in issues affecting indigenous people.
“My work is now focused on two major issues – the challenges facing indigenous people in my own country, and resolving conflict internationally,” he says. “My work takes me across the world. I recently returned from a Forum of Federations conference about federal governance in Somalia, which was held in Nairobi.”
“I try to stay positive in the face of many setbacks and much violence, because there is no point in letting pessimism set in. One can never tell where these challenges will take me personally. I have learned not to predict these things, but my interest and energy remain undiminished,” adds Rae.