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Bill Graham, ex-interim Liberal leader and post-9/11 foreign affairs minister, dies

OTTAWA — Condolences from Canadian politicians past and present poured out Monday as they learned about the death of Bill Graham, who served as foreign affairs minister when the country decided against joining the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. "Mr.
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Interim Liberal party leader Bill Graham is given a standing ovation in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Tuesday Nov. 28, 2006. Graham, who served as foreign affairs minister when Canada decided against joining the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, has died. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson CANADA

OTTAWA — Condolences from Canadian politicians past and present poured out Monday as they learned about the death of Bill Graham, who served as foreign affairs minister when the country decided against joining the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"Mr. Graham will be remembered as a master negotiator and a skilled statesman who shared his love for Canada with the world," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement Monday evening.

Former Liberal MP John English told The Canadian Press that Graham died Sunday, according to a member of his family who shared the news with him earlier Monday.

English said Graham had cancer and died peacefully after being in poor health for some time. 

"He was a fun guy. I went out with him for drinks just three or four weeks ago. He wasn’t drinking … He enjoyed a good glass of wine but he couldn’t join us," he recalled.

"He’s such a wonderful presence. So positive, so optimistic. He’s a person to be taken seriously, but he never took himself seriously. He was full of laughter. He laughed very easily.”

Graham, 83, was serving as chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Both he and his wife, Catherine, were students there and married in the chapel. They had two children: Katy and Patrick.

Graham was first elected as a Liberal member of Parliament for the riding then known as Toronto Centre-Rosedale in 1993, after two unsuccessful runs.

Former colleagues eulogized Graham as a skilled MP, having spent time on the backbenches before entering cabinet, and someone who demonstrated a deep passion about helping those in his community. 

George Smitherman, who represented the same downtown Toronto area for the Liberals provincially as Graham had federally, said Graham had a remarkable way of connecting with people, no matter their background.

Smitherman, who is gay, said he first arrived in what is now known as Toronto Centre as a kid finding comfort with his sexuality and at the time Graham and the local Liberals had embedded AIDS activism in their politics.

“That, to me, was one of the most defining attributes of the way political parties ought to operate,” Smitherman said.

“It was really a huge impact on me in my life.”

Longtime Liberal MP John McKay said Graham was a "complete politician."

"A good constituency person, a good national person and a good international person. Not many people can say that," said McKay, who represents the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Guildwood.

“He was (an) immensely smart, decent, classy man," he added. 

In January 2002, months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the world, Graham was appointed to serve in cabinet as foreign affairs minister by then-prime minister Jean Chrétien.

At that time, Canada had to decide whether to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and then navigate its relationship with its closest ally when it opted against doing so.

Graham was roundly praised for not only assisting in that decision, but his overall handling of the role at a turbulent time in international relations. 

"He was an outstanding minister of foreign affairs and a skilled parliamentarian," tweeted John Baird, who served as foreign affairs minister under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. 

After his time in foreign affairs, Graham was moved to the defence portfolio.

Eugene Lang was his chief of staff at the time and said Graham, who was well travelled before entering politics, was well liked by most everyone, including MPs of different political stripes and public servants. 

"He treated everybody with a huge amount of respect. There was no arrogance in Bill."

Lang said while Graham was only in the role of national defence minister for less than two years, he had many accomplishments, including securing a funding boostand also recommending the appointment of Rick Hillier as chief of defence staff.

Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin released a statement after learning of Graham's death, saying he "helped our government and the country navigate a challenging period of history as we deployed into Kandahar in southern Afghanistan." 

"His loss will be felt by all who knew or worked with him."

After the Liberals lost government to the Conservatives in 2006 and Martin resigned, Graham stepped into the role of the party's interim leader.

“The Liberal party owes him a huge debt of gratitude," said McKay, who said he was an obvious choice for many. 

Harper said Graham was the first official Opposition leader he faced after winning government. 

"Bill was always a gentleman," he tweeted. 

"He always kept the best interests of the country in mind."

Former Liberal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale, who was Opposition House leader when Graham was interim Liberal leader, called his former colleague "wise and thoughtful, especially in matters of foreign policy and defence."

"In an era of deep polarization and extremist populism, Bill’s sense of moderation, propriety and balance is sorely missed. Our love and respect surround his family, friends and colleagues," Goodale said in a statement.

Longtime Liberal cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett said she remembers Graham as someone who was comfortable around everyone and a generous listener in conversation.

"There's no one else you'd rather have dinner with. And I think that's what a lot of us feel," she said Monday. 

"He just was so special. It's just really hard to believe he's gone," Bennett said, her voice breaking. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 8, 2022.

— With files from Allison Jones and Jordan Omstead in Toronto

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly referred to Liberal MP John McKay, who represents the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, as a former MP.