“Well, Mr. Pearson, you might be in the wrong business.” Deepak Obhrai said the words in such a genial manner that I could only smile in return.
It was early in my political time as an MP in Parliament when Obhrai stopped me on my way down the stairs leading to the underground tunnel between Centre and West Blocks. Eager to learn of my involvement in the conflict in South Sudan, he was a seasoned pro, peppering me with questions and wondering what I thought of Canadian policy in that region of Africa.
Hi interest was natural. Though of Punjabi descent, Deepak was born on Tanzania, close to Sudan, and the Sudanese turmoil in all its manifestations held a fascination for him. He wondered about coming on a trip with one of our teams sometime and then asked why I decided to run for Parliament.
“I want to help develop an all-party consensus on how to approach South Sudan and do the same thing with poverty issues both in Canada and overseas,” I replied. That’s when he responded with his “wrong business” comment.
Deepak Obhrai’s sudden passing this last weekend will fill a lot of people with sadness – even those that often tussled with him on committee or in the Parliamentary chamber itself. He really wasn’t like anyone else, in part owing to his eastern understanding and his frank way of putting things. His sense of humour most often dispelled what could have been outright partisan attacks. If a member of another party had an idea for helping a needy area in some developing land somewhere, Obhrai would sit the person down and promise to raise the subject with the appropriate people.
He did that with me almost immediately, working with the then CIDA minister to assist in the construction of women’s centres in the southern regions of Sudan. It worked, partly owing to his attention. It had to be seen as being accomplished only by the Conservatives, of course, but he nevertheless lent his influence to the matter.
During late-night debates, we would occasionally talk about how much we had in common. Born the same year (1950), he later represented the northwest region of Calgary where I grew up. He was loyal to his party and to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but he could easily admit that Calgary was more than just a Conservative town.
But he was Conservative, having won his election to serve as an MP as part of the Reform Party in 1997, becoming Canada’s first Hindu member of Parliament. When he was named Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and then had the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation added to his responsibility, it caused our paths to continue to intersect as I fulfilled my role as official Opposition critic to the International Cooperation file.
That overlap of assigned interests brought us a better understanding of one another. He would at times phone to ask my input on issues like Africa and foreign aid. When the time arrived for South Sudan to vote on its own referendum to become its own nation (subsequently successful, bringing the Republic of South Sudan into the UN as the newest country), the Foreign Affairs Committee that we both worked on together set aside a series of meetings on how to deal with that decision and how the new government should be recognized. That was partly due to his urgings.
What matters in all of this is that Deepak could just as easily have ignored my experience instead of soliciting it, as he sometimes did. He was genial, good natured, at times highly partisan, and at other times hardly political at all. He truly cared about the human condition, especially in the world’s most troubled regions, and used that compassion to attempt to move his government to offer relief.
He was no fool. He had an eastern understanding of life and government that not only reflected his upbringing but brought nuance and innate knowledge to how the government of Canada should respond in relatively unknown parts of the world. Being Hindu, African and coming from Calgary ultimately made him a somewhat exotic blend of political pragmatism and humanitarian impulses.
It made sense that it would be Deepak Obrhai that would stand up to Conservative leadership hopeful Kelly Leitch (he was also running for the same prize) when she caustically said she would screen immigrants for Canadian values. He would forcefully state: “”All successive Canadian governments have encouraged immigrants to come to this country and build it into a prosperous democracy, including her (Leitch’s) own ancestors. Canada needs immigrants. Her screening proposal and that immigrants pay for it is a Trump-style policy.”
The reality that it was Deepak who spoke against that Trumpian mindset only made sense, since his whole life, and its success, flew directly in the face of Leitch’s policy. It was one of his finest moments.
And now he is gone before he could reach 70. The mourning at his loss that will continue on into this week will be genuine, in part because he was genuine in his convictions and sincere in his care for others. He grew up in Africa, India and England, but it was in Canada that he rose to his full potential. Canada has a way of doing that and Deepak Obhrai had his own defiant way of proving it. Parliament will be the poorer for his death, but Canada will always be richer for his life.