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Bill Tierney: People like Clifford Lincoln don’t come around too often

Clifford Lincoln fits me in right away. In between his daily hour on the exercise bike and a meeting with the mayors of Pointe-Claire and Baie-d’Urfé to discuss the latest developments in the Train de l’Ouest campaign for better train service to and from the West Island.

Lincoln is 84 and fit. He loves sports and knows a lot about it. Meeting Lincoln face-to-face in his Lakeside heritage cottage is like reading his memoirs: it’s the same man, the same generosity of spirit, the same sharp memory, the same liberal principles, the same refreshing simplicity. Internationalist, environmentalist, conservationist, community man, family man, he still exhibit the same charm that has carried him through his extremely successful life in Canada.

It’s hard not to make a hero of Lincoln. You just know that people like this don’t come around very often.

If you listen carefully, you can hear a faintly southern African sound in the voice of this man from Mauritius, his tropical childhood home, a long way from this lakeside cottage on Lac St-Louis. You are with a man who has travelled the world many times and mingled with many brilliant people.

Behind him, I become aware of his mother (of 10), who gave him, among other things, the gift of bilingualism that has been the key to his Canadian life. He has always been at ease in our two national languages and the negotiations between the two cultures that characterize Canadian life. His fluency and even the simple elegance of his French was the first thing that struck me when he visited our very Quebec Ste-Anne council, accompanied by George Nydam, back in the early 1980s. This multilingual duo had come to argue the case for establishing a West Island Business Development Council supported by all West Island towns to promote economic development in our area. It was the first time I heard people talking passionately about the West Island. And I was going to experience that passion for the West Island for the next 30-plus years.

This Saturday at Pointe-Claire city hall, 451 St-Jean Blvd. at 2 p.m., Lincoln is launching his memoirs, Toward New Horizons. It’s an opportunity to meet and chat with this West Island political icon. It is an event that will provide the opportunity to review his impact on our community, right down to his leadership in the recent campaign for better public transport, the Train de l’Ouest movement.

Lincoln remembers without nostalgia. He has strong memories of his mother. An anecdote, not in the memoirs: how she bribed the youngest of her 10 children not to smoke. Consequently, Lincoln never smoked and, in fact, became the first minister in Canada (Quebec Minister of the Environment in those days) to propose and enact an anti-smoking law. That law was the beginning of the Canadian war on tobacco.

Lincoln learned three things from his experience with that first no-smoking legislation, principles that guided him through his 30 years of public life: First, you should never underestimate your opponents. Second, you should only work to enact legislation that is a catalyst for real change. And third, don’t be too radical to start. Move slowly.

As a member of Ste-Anne council, I remember the general shock among councillors at that first law: Most members of our council smoked in the little committee room where we met and there were even ashtrays on every row for the public in the council chamber. Come to think of it, teachers and students at John Abbott College smoked in the classrooms in those days! Banning smoking was a huge change.

But Lincoln learned that his modest law (no doubt inspired by his mother) was a first step and made it possible for later ministers of health to enact much tougher laws. In public at least, Quebec is now smoke-free.

Lincoln was part of the multi-talented generation that came into Quebec politics in Claude Ryan’s slipstream to defend federalism after the first referendum in 1980. It was the period of the nationalist giants of modern Quebec: Lévesque, Parizeau, Landry. It was the Trudeau era. Robert Bourassa was premier during Lincoln’s time. Lincoln describes a very different person from the rather crabby bespectacled bureaucrat whom we saw in public. According to Lincoln, Bourassa was a charming man, funny and informal, deeply kind and very confident of his own competence.

These insights abound as Lincoln passes through his memoirs. It’s an exciting way of looking back over those 40 years.

Bill Tierney is the former mayor of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and a retired teacher at John Abbott College. billtierney@videotron.ca

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