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His Excellency

Posted on August 13, 2010
20100813-mario

Michael Ignatieff, Mario Laguë and Paul Martin at a Tim Hortons in Windsor, ON just before a rally. Photo: Martin Charbonneau

You probably don’t know much about Mario Laguë.

He was an advisor to federal and provincial leaders, an Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, and a Canadian ambassador. Most recently, he was one of Michael Ignatieff’s closest aides, as Director of Communications in the Opposition Leader’s Office.

The reason you probably don’t know much about Mario is because that’s how he wanted it. For three decades, he kept a low profile. He served with humility.

Yesterday, Mario was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way to work. Canada lost a life-long public servant. We lost a colleague, a mentor, and a friend.

His office was next to mine, and I would often arrive to the sound of his voice booming down the corridor. When Mario was at his desk, it was like the walls didn’t exist.

At 52, he was a senior figure in Ottawa, where political staffers tend to be much younger. He was our boss, but we relied on him as much for wisdom as for direction. It’s not often that you get to work with someone who helped keep Canada together, as Mario did during the 1995 referendum. His passing prompted tributes from Prime Ministers past and present, other party leaders, national journalists (here, here, and here), and from Michael Ignatieff. He was a man of great stature, but there was never a whiff of condescension or superiority about him. We were many years his junior, but we were colleagues just the same.

For his patience and good humour, we repaid him with affection. In May, when Michael Ignatieff’s birthday coincided with game 7 of the Habs-Penguins semi-final, Mario left the party to watch the game on the third floor of Stornoway. His colourful commentary — often long strings of four-letter words — soon filled the whole house, and, by the second intermission, the rest of us had joined him. Most of us just sat on the floor — there may have been other, more comfortable places to watch, but not with Mario. When the Habs won, he was the centre of our celebrations.

During the Liberal Express tour, when he wore a broad, floppy sun-hat, we called him “Safario.” Other times, we called him “Your Excellency,” a reference to his service as Canada’s Ambassador to Costa Rica. I won’t write down what he called us back.

* * *

I spent yesterday morning packing for the next leg of the Liberal Express tour, so I heard about the accident by phone. Peter Donolo, our Chief of Staff, had just gathered the team in the office cafeteria and told everyone what had happened.

When I arrived at work, some people were sitting at their desks, staring blankly at their computer screens. Others were crying in colleagues’ arms. I dropped my stuff in the hallway — I didn’t want to go to my office, to look at the closed door beside my own.

We spent the day in muted disbelief, sharing stories, retelling jokes, and digging up old photos. Some of us couldn’t bring ourselves to watch the news, or to look at photos of the crash that were soon posted on the web. I kept my composure until I saw the first picture of Mario’s motorcycle, wrecked on the asphalt. I’ve been breaking down ever since — alone in my office, in the taxi to the airport, and on the flight to Winnipeg. (To my fellow passengers: Sorry about the sniffling. Rest assured it’s not contagious.)

Today, we’re back on the bus. As Michael Ignatieff said yesterday, “The Express continues, the bus continues, the tour continues, the team continues. But there’s a hole in our hearts.”

Our thoughts are with Mario’s wife and daughters. Those of us who share their grief — Mario’s friends and colleagues all over the world — are grateful for the time we had with him, however short it was. We’re thankful for the times he made us laugh. And we’re proud to have known a man who inspired us with his love for family, country, and cause.

It still doesn’t seem possible that Mario’s gone, that he won’t be there to tease me the next time I write a joke that isn’t funny or an applause line that doesn’t work. But we’ll continue. I can only imagine what Mario would say if we didn’t.

So farewell, Your Excellency. We love you, and we miss you.

- A.G.

Adam Goldenberg, Michael Ignatieff’s speechwriter, will be blogging from the Liberal Express (almost) all summer. For up-to-the-minute reports from the bus, follow him on Twitter. Email him at adam@email.liberal.ca.

PS. Please consider signing Mario’s memorial book.

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