Dionne, Maurice

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                                  MAURICE DIONNE
                                 By Cathy Carnahan

Maurice Dionne always loved politics.

He decided when he was only 12 years old that was the career for him. “That was the year Louis St. Laurent became prime minister,” he said in a September 1992 interview. “I listened to the radio every night with regards to the campaign and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a politician.”

After 18 years of teaching throughout New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories and Quebec, he followed through on his resolve. “As I got older I sensed, or I think I sensed, becoming a politician was being in the right place at the right time. It was always in the back of my mind. Then I became involved with the Liberal party here on the Miramichi and became president. When Percy Smith announced he was retiring, I decided I would try to replace him, and with the help of a lot of people, I did.”

Dionne was elected as then Northumberland Miramichi MP in 1974 and held the seat for 16 years.

In May, 1992, Dionne announced he would not reoffer in the next Federal election because he had Alzheimer’s, a disease which steals a person’s memory and ability to function independently.

Dionne and his wife Precille applied the Alcoholics’ Anonymous motto – one day at a time – to their lives. “That’s all we should do anyways, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or if there will be a tomorrow,” Dionne said at the time.

He died at Mount St. Joseph Nursing Home on Monday, November 17th at the age of 67.

He was born in Johnville, N.B., near Bath, on August 26, 1936, the son of the late George and Mary (McLaughlin) Dionne. In addition to his wife, Precille, he is survived by five children and their families.

Dionne attended Our Lady of good Counsel Roman Catholic Church in Millerton.

He grew up on a farm in Johnville. Before he left home for teachers’ college the family moved to a farm on the outskirts of Woodstock. After completing teachers’ college in 1956, his first job as a teacher was in St. George. He taught in various other locations, including Yellowknife and BaieComeau.

In BaieComeau, he met Precille and the two fell in love. They were married in 1961 and began a family in 1963. After moving about in Eastern Canada, Maurice and Precille settled on the Miramichi, where Dionne took a job as principal of Millerton High School in 1966.

Politics has always been his second love. In 1974, he secured the Liberal Party nomination in what was then the riding of Northumberland Miramichi. He served in that capacity until 1984 and was elected again in 1988. He left politics in 1993.

As a politician, his proudest accomplishments included bringing jobs to the Miramichi as a result of the expansion of the pulp mill, dredging the Miramichi River, and securing the prison for Renous. He was also very fond of many different groups who make up the Miramichi riding and was a strong supporter of the Francophone and Micmac communities.

“I am not a city person,” he said during an interview. “I’m a country hick and I just don’t like cities. I was born and brought up on a farm, and the farmer never left me.”

On November 17th, he succumbed to Alzheimer’s after a 12-year battle.

Mass will be celebrated Saturday, November 22, at 11 a.m. from St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church in Renous with Msgr. Joseph Woods officiating. Burial will be in Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church in Millerton.

“Maurice also had a great sense of humour. He loved to tell jokes. He was very much liked and respected on the Hill by everyone – ministers, MPs, security staff, all employees.

“I guess that was because he was such a people person. He was very kind and used to say that he treated people as he would like to be treated.

“When people came to his office, even if he couldn’t help them, they always went away happy with Maurice because he made them feel good. He could have really gone far if it hadn’t been for that Alzheimer’s,” she said.

Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna agrees. “It was just a tragedy that he was afflicted at such a young age. But just like everything else, he accepted that courageously. He was special,” McKenna recalled in an interview Thursday. “I think he would be a role model for an MP. He was able to keep his balance. He was able to remain a team player; but zealously fight for the causes of his constituents. He had a very independent spirit and was prepared to sacrifice his personal ambitions for the cause of his people. I had an opportunity to work with Maurice…and he was marvelous.”

McKenna said the man with the “puckish grin” took little credit for his accomplishments which included the opening of the Atlantic Institution, the dredging of the Miramichi River, the creation of the Newcastle and Chatham ports, downtown revitalization and two major expansions at the Repap pulp and paper mill.

Miramichi MP Charles Hubbard – who worked with Dionne as “a teacher, principal and politician” – described him as a great friend and a great advocate for the area. “Maurice was always a strong supporter of the region. He was extremely well-liked by people in the constituency. His attitude not only towards Miramichi, but to Canada, has always been very positive, and he had great empathy with those in need.”

Hubbard said those who knew Dionne were also aware of his “deep, nasal voice that could be heard in a very large crowd.” Former students can attest to the power and clout of that strong voice of authority. When he spoke, there was a general consensus the best thing to do was obey. Students were mostly unaware of his humour.

However, Exelda Gaston – a special assistant to Dionne in Miramichi during his final three years in office – like his colleagues remembers that he loved to tell jokes and to make people laugh.

“He was very kind and caring. He was caring for his family and for everyone. He always treated everyone the same. And he was witty. He always had a joke. He was a friend and also my boss, but Maurice never made you feel like you were working for him. We worked as a team,” Gaston said.

John McKay, now a Miramichi councillor, was elected to the provincial legislature in the fall of 1974 and Dionne had been elected federally that spring. “Over the years, we worked together on many projects. Maurice was a very strong-willed person and very defensive of the Miramichi. He was very committed,” said McKay. “Of course, one of the very first issues he had to deal with was the phase-out of the ammunition depot at Renous and Maurice worked very hard to have the employment replaced with the Federal prison. Even though it was controversial, it has created employment and provided some economic stability to the region.

“Maurice worked very hard for port improvements, as well as many other projects. He was someone whose career was interrupted too soon.”

                             Became Principal

The reception planned for Saturday is at the former Millerton high school where Dionne became principal in 1966. He kept that position until he was elected to the House of Commons on July 8, 1974, as then Northumberland Miramichi MP.

He was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defence in October, 1975, a position he held until October 1977. He was elected chairman of the Atlantic Liberal Caucus in June, 1976, and was re-elected in October, 1977.

He was defeated in the general election of 1984 by Tory Bud Jardine, but re-elected to the House of Commons in 1988. From then until his retirement in 1993 he served as associate critic for transport, associate critic for Veterans’ Affairs, critic for supply and services and critic for the National Capital Commission. At a party to honour Maurice Dionne in Miramichi on November 21, 1992, Jardine was among the more than 500 people who attended. “I’m very pleased Bud came out to join us tonight. He and I are friends, and I hope that is how politics will be played in Canada,” Dionne said.

He leaves behind his wife and their five children.

Source: Miramichi Leader – November 21, 2003

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                                    By Brent Taylor

Maurice Dionne’s 10 year struggle against Alzheimer’s disease is over. He died last week, still in his 60’s. He was diagnosed in 1992 and retired from parliament the following year – electing instead to offer himself up as a candidate for experimental medicines that may have helped him battle his disease.

It is a rare person who can have a career in partisan politics and yet be almost universally liked. Maurice Dionne was one of those politicians. He was first elected with Pierre Trudeau in 1974 and served for ten years until the Mulroney landslide of 1984 when Bud Jardine carried Northumberland-Miramichi for the Tories.

Maurice Dionne was returned to parliament in the following election and served a term as a member of the opposition. Cathy Carnahan’s articles in last week’s Weekend did an excellent job of reprising Maurice Dionne’s public service career.

If your only contact with Maurice was as your member of parliament working on your personal issues and problems, you may not know how much of a political visionary Dionne was in Ottawa.

When he was first elected in 1974 he, along with all back-bench members of parliament, was assigned duties on committees. Parliamentary committees oversee areas of public policy, conduct hearings, call witnesses and generally keep members of parliament busy learning how government works.

But committees are also places where dust can gather and governments can pasture MPs who don’t really want to sit for hours and debate issues – most of which will probably never see the light of day.

Once he saw these committees in action, Maurice Dionne became quite disgusted with how they worked. He saw members of parliament assigned to a committee and then not show up for its meetings – choosing instead to send another idle MP instead. Thus, many committee meetings were held with seat-fillers instead of duly-assigned members.

In one year on Dionne’s Standing Committee on Transportation he recorded over 3,000 MP substitutions. It’s hard to imagine that many absences on the part of MPs who were actually assigned to the committee, but it was true.

He knew that, if left unchanged, parliamentary committees were virtually useless. So he went about looking at why committees didn’t work and suggested ways to change them. In 1982 the Canadian Parliamentary Review published an article by Maurice Dionne on committee reform. His insights were uncanny. They mirror what MPs of all parties are saying now – over 20 years later – about committees.

For instance, one reform Maurice wanted to see was more independence on committees so that MPs could vote to elect their own chairmen. Here is what he wrote in 1982: “It is absolutely essential, I believe, that committees choose their own chairmen. That may be heresy to members of the cabinet, but I think it is the way it should be done.”

And 20 years later, that’s the way it will be done. Just last year – after a long struggle – Paul Martin and dozens of other Liberal back-benchers joined with the opposition in voting to have committees choose their own chairs, and by secret ballot too.

In fact, committee independence has been highlighted by the incoming prime minister as a key plan in his platform of eliminating the “democratic deficit” in Canada. Other measures proposed by Paul Martin include more free votes, sending legislation to committees earlier in the process and getting the committees more actively involved in legislation.

Writing in 1982, Maurice Dionne also wanted committees to be smaller and harder on absenteeism to get more involved in legislation, to have permanent staffs, rooms and budgets and the right to operate more at arm’s length from the partisan political machinery of government.

Now, in 2003, Paul Martin wants to allow MPs to have more freedom to introduce private member’s bills, select their own members for committees, and use the committee system to approve government appointments.

Paul Martin has Maurice Dionne to thank for some of the measures that have become keys to his leadership platform in 2003. Maurice Dionne spoke out about those things back when speaking out “wasn’t cool.” Here is how Maurice Dionne concluded his 1982 essay in the Canadian Parliamentary Review: “Committee reform, although important, is not enough. Both houses of parliament must also be renewed to meet the needs of the present… Unless we act now, respect for Parliament will continue to decline until it has no meaning and no purpose. Then what?”

Indeed, Maurice Dionne had a vision, and we were fortunate that he shared it with us, and that his vision has now been taken up by his political successors – including our next Prime Minister.

Maurice Dionne may have left us, but his contributions will live on.

Source: Miramichi Leader – November 25, 2003

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