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Education and human rights foremost on ex-MP’s mind

Martin C. Barry

June, 2010

By the time most people are in their late 70s, they’re more likely to be considering retirement than taking on the responsibilities of a new job. However, Warren Allmand never was one to fall into line with what most people are doing.

At 77, he’s become the president of the Thomas More Institute, a Montreal-based centre for adult education.

Deciphering Allmand, best known as the Liberal MP for Notre Dame de Grâce for more than three decades, isn’t always easy. The best word that comes to mind is independent.

Allmand was born in McAdam, N.B., in 1932, a year he describes as the worst of the Great Depression. His railway worker father lost his job and by the late ’30s, Allmand says some of his schoolmates weren’t wearing shoes and were living in tarpaper shacks.

“These conditions touched me and I thought: ‘This is not right’,” he says. “Even then, when I was only in Grade 1 or 2, I was thinking how to have better housing, better planning. And then the war came. Well, for some reason or other I thought: ‘War is ridiculous, they’re killing each other on both sides.’

“It’s true that the Nazis were attacking Europe. They were the enemy. But I thought there must be a better way. So when you ask me why I got into politics, my nature was to do something about social problems, war and peace, political issues.”

Allmand won his first federal election in 1965, which was a watershed year for the Liberal Party.

Allmand made it to the cabinet in 1972 and in the years ahead he gained a reputation for being out of step with the leadership. Knowing he was giving up chances for further advancement, he ended up sitting for many years in the backbenches.

Former MP Warren Allmand sides with citizens clamouring for democratic reform. Photo: Martin C. Barry

The day after Allmand retired as an MP in 1977, he became president of Rights and Democracy. Created by the federal government more than 20 years ago as an arm’s-length agency to encourage and support human rights and democratic values around the world, in recent years it has been embroiled in a controversy revolving around the appointment of directors to the board by the Conservative government.

“Since early 2009, they started appointing people who won’t tolerate any criticism of the government of Israel’s policy,” Allmand says. “When I was president of Rights and Demo­cracy, for any country that violates human rights, it was our job to point out when countries didn’t live up to human-rights standards.

“Canada has always supported Israel—the right of Israel to exist—but it hasn’t always supported everything that the Israeli government has done,” he says. “But now under Harper everything that Israel has done—and in particular the building of these settlements in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, which is contrary to international law—Harper has supported them. And he’s appointed people to the board of Rights and Democracy who have that same point of view.”

Five years ago, Allmand won a seat in N.D.G. with Montreal city council’s ruling majority. He refused to vote with them on a number of occasions—notably when the administration wanted to make it illegal for protesters to wear masks at demonstrations, and when a proposal was being considered to change the name of Park Ave. to Robert Bourassa.

During his term, he sided with citizens who clamoured for democratic reform. When he decided not to run last year, he continued to attend borough council meetings.

Allmand calls his posting at the Thomas More Institute a full-time job, though he’ll only be at the office three days a week. A longtime fitness buff who used to run marathons, he keeps in shape at the gym and playing executive-league hockey. In addition to his duties at the institute, he’ll teach a course on international human rights at McGill University.



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