Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I'll Be Attending the Funeral

So will hundreds of other Notre Dame alumnists and politicos.

Gib Parent dies at 73

Welland Tribune

Posted 1 hour ago

A local parliamentarian who served two terms as Speaker of the House but never lost sight of his working-class roots has died at age 73.

Gilbert (Gib) Parent died in Toronto yesterday, his brother Romeo said.

Mr. Parent died of pneumonia but had also been recovering from colon cancer surgery.

It was announced in the House of Commons by current Speaker Peter Milliken.

"He was a real leader," said Mr. Parent's brother, who lives in Welland. "We're going to miss him."

Parent last saw his brother Sunday. He was having difficulty breathing but was smiling and in good spirits.

He described him as "very patriotic."

"He loved his country and was thrilled to be able to serve it."

Mr. Parent was born in Mattawa, Ont., and moved to Welland at the age of five, the son of a janitor. Mr. Parent excelled in sports. While attending Notre Dame College School, he earned a football scholarship to St. Joseph's College in Indiana.

An accident that almost took his life ended Mr. Parent's football career in his freshman year. His scholarship might have been lost had another coach not asked him to try out for the school's baseball team. He graduated from St. Joseph's with a bachelor of science degree and went on to obtain a teaching certificate from the Ontario College of Education. He achieved several other degrees during his life.

Mr. Parent returned to Welland to teach French and physical education at Notre Dame before taking a job teaching at Denis Morris High School in St. Catharines.

He left the separate school board to become a vice-principal in Thorold with the Niagara South Board of Education.

His first foray into politics came when he won a seat on the Welland County Roman Catholic Separate School Board. He would also become board chair.

He entered federal politics when he was first elected MP in St. Catharines in 1974.

"He served more than 20 years in Ottawa and the only time he ever lost an election was to Allan Pietz during the (Brian) Mulroney sweep (in 1984)," his brother said. "He came right back in the next election."

In 1993, Mr. Parent dominated the polls, besting his nearest opponent by more than 12,000 votes.

It was following this election that Mr. Parent let his name stand for Speaker of the House. He held the position over two terms, from 1994 until his retirement in 2000.

Mr. Parent later served as Ambassador of the Environment, a job created by then- Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Mr. Parent retired from political life in 2005.

"Throughout his political career and even after, Gibby work hard for the riding," his brother said.

While in Ottawa, Mr. Parent negotiated a deal to set up the Welland Canal trust fund, a multimillion-dollar legacy fund to maintain in perpetuity 280 hectares of land and water running through Welland's downtown once held by Public Works Canada.

But it's not just Mr. Parent's political accomplishments his brother chose to remember yesterday.

"Family was always very important to Gibby. We were poor but there was always lots of love. We were always taught to give. Gibby invested his life in the community."

Even when he lived at the Speaker's residence, Mr. Parent's thoughts were never far from the Rose City.

"Every year he planted the City of Welland roses in the garden at Kingsmere estate outside Gatineau. Every winter the deer would come and eat them. He would have to replant the bushes in the spring. Those roses were his pride and joy."

Parent said his brother loved people, loved campaigning and loved knocking on doors at election time.

He remembers elections when there would be 1,000 campaign workers involved in Mr. Parent's campaign.

John (Boxer) Belcastro was at Mr. Parent's side as his campaign manager in the political years -- and as a good friend growing up. They both taught and coached together at Notre Dame.

The news of Mr. Parent's death came as a shock to Belcastro.

"He was a good friend. We knew each other our whole lives," he said.

Belcastro said Mr. Parent had the ability to reach across party lines and straddle social barriers.

"Everyone knew him and liked him on The Hill."

He was on a first-name basis with everyone from the janitor and cafeteria worker to senators and Cabinet ministers, Belcastro added.

"He was very well-respected. He was very friendly with everyone and he liked to tell stories. He was a great storyteller."

Mr. Parent never lost sight of his small-town roots and return to Welland regularly to play cards and golf with his brothers and friends.

Belcastro said the city has lost a great advocate who was able to secure Welland more than its share of grant money over the years.

"He was always working hard for Welland," Belcastro said. "He always had the ear of many of the Cabinet members."

Belcastro said Mr. Parent called Ontario Premier Mike Harris personally when the province was thinking about moving court services to St. Catharines. Belcastro credits Mr. Parent as one of the people who worked quietly behind the scenes to save the historic Welland courthouse.

Belcastro also said Mr. Parent's ascension in Canadian politics is a great story in itself.

Mr. Parent ran in St. Catharines in 1974 beating out Conservative incumbent Trevor Morgan. In 1979, Mr. Parent ran in Welland beating Allan Pietz. Mr. Parent was back at the polls in 1980 beating out NDP candidate Robert Wright. He lost the seat to Pietz in 1984 and won it back in 1988. In 1993, Mr. Parent beat Reform candidate Don Johnstone. Mr. Parent last ran in Niagara Centre in 1997, again winning the seat. He stepped aside as Liberal incumbent for the riding prior to the 2000 election.

"He was very much just a regular guy," Belcastro said. "His accomplishments are a credit to Welland. We all became a little more famous because of his time in Ottawa."

Norm Asselin, of Welland, went to Coronation School with Mr. Parent from the time they were both in kindergarten.

"I was best man at his wedding and he was best man at mine," Asselin said.

"I can't believe this. It's a big blow."

Asselin and Mr. Parent were close throughout their lives. Asselin would often visit Mr. Parent at Kingsmere. He remembers golfing with Prime Minister Jean Chretien and former NHLer Frank Mahovlich.

Growing up, Mr. Parent and Asselin played baseball on the same team, from the peewee level on up.

Asselin remembers hitchhiking to Fort Erie with Mr. Parent when they were younger and then travelling to Buffalo to see Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis live.

"He was so generous -- unbelievably generous," Asselin said. "He never forgot his friends. He always kept in touch."

Asselin remembers Mr. Parent for his skill at public speaking. He said his friend was also easy going and wasn't easily bothered.

"He was always doing things that nobody else would think of doing," Asselin said. "I'm going to miss him."

John Maloney, a veteran Liberal MP who lost the Welland seat in the last election, referred to Mr. Parent as a "mentor" who counselled him after his defeat about the transition from politics to private life.

"It's a sad day," Maloney said from Port Credit yesterday. "Gib had the greatest respect for the institutions of Parliament and its traditions. He held one of the highest political offices in Canada and he still had time for the average person."

Welland Mayor Damian Goulbourne discussed the loss of Mr. Parent at the start of last night's city council meeting.

"I think we all know the great work he did for our community," he said.

Goulbourne said many Welland area residents fondly remember Mr. Parent, and the work he did advocating for the needs of the city at the federal government.

"I'm sure many of us around this horseshoe (city council) and in our community have stories about what Mr. Parent did in his role as an elected official.

"We would not be the city we are today if it wasn't for his leadership."

Sitting St. Catharines' Conservative MP Larry Dykstra also paid his respects to Mr. Parent.

"I was very sad to hear today of the passing of Gib Parent," Dykstra said. "He served the communities of Welland and Thorold ably for many years and was also one of the 17 members of Parliament that have represented St. Catharines (1974-1979).

"Gib's respect for Canada and his passion for politics were well-known and his reputation as a true parliamentarian was well-earned. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and former colleagues during this difficult time."

Visitation will be held tomorrow at H. L. Cudney Funeral Home in Welland. Funeral mass is at St. Kevin church on Friday morning.

Mr. Parent is survived by a wife and six daughters.


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