QUEEN’S PARK – It’s a tremendous honour for me to represent the government caucus and Premier McGuinty today as we pay tribute to that great northerner, Leo Bernier, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 81.
While I didn’t know Leo as well as some members in the House, such as Jim Bradley or Norm Sterling, both of whom sat in the Legislature with him during his years as minister, I can certainly tell you that Leo was a legendary figure to all of us in northern Ontario. Although he retired from the Legislature in 1987, he has certainly left a long, impressive shadow for those of us who have subsequently been elected to represent northern constituencies over the years.
That might be even more true for those of us who have had the privilege of following in his footsteps as northern development ministers. The fact is that Leo set a very high standard indeed. As the first minister of a separate, stand-alone ministry with the vast reaches of northern Ontario as his domain, Leo was a true force of nature. Known far and wide as the king of the north, Leo made sure that not only was the north not forgotten but that we were the beneficiaries of government programs and funding as we had never seen before.
It was said that Premier Davis never made a decision that would impact the north without Leo’s advice, if not his blessing. At a time in our province’s history when the economy was booming, Leo made sure that the north received more than its share of the benefits that went along with those years of prosperity. Of course, it did not hurt at all that Leo was a tall, physically imposing man with a gregarious nature, a big smile and a fierce determination to see that the north’s voice would be heard.
When Leo left the Legislature in 1987, after more than 20 years of devoted and remarkably successful service, he continued to be an imposing and influential figure. That became particularly clear to me when I joined the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines in 1987 as an employee. Leo’s years as minister may have been over, but his presence was still very much felt. I well recall the stories told to me by a number of my ministry colleagues at that time of their years spent working for Leo—they rarely referred to him as “Minister,” except when he was there; when he wasn’t, they called him Leo. They told me how proud they were to work for him and how intensely loyal they were to him.
That particular reality came home to me very strongly again this past summer when many of those same staffers attended Leo’s funeral services in Sioux Lookout. Leo was very clearly a man who left a strong impression on all northerners, but to be with the northern development employees who were determined to pay their last respects to their old boss only reinforced to me the amazing impact he had on his front-line, on-the-ground staff.
It was also at Leo’s funeral services that I truly understood that, while he was a commanding presence in politics in northern Ontario, more than anything else he was an extraordinarily well-loved family man: a devoted husband to Marjorie for over 60 years, the father of four children, grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of eight. Recently widowed, Leo clearly adored his wife, Marj. As Leo’s son John said at the time of his passing in a newspaper story I read, “He missed Marj. She was his candle.” What was clearly evident at Leo’s funeral and the reception that followed was how much his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren truly loved him. What greater legacy can a man leave than a large family that loved him and that will always be proud of him?
But in some way, all of us in northern Ontario were part of Leo’s family. He looked after us, he fought for us and set a remarkable example for all of us who followed him. There is probably no really proper way to honour the legacy of a man like Leo Bernier, but he meant so much to us that I believe we must find a way to mark his passing so that no one will ever forget the extraordinary work he did on behalf of all northerners.
So I’m pleased to tell you that we are in the process of moving forward with plans to rename the stretch of Highway 664 between his birthplace of Sioux Lookout and his beloved community of Hudson the Leo Bernier Highway.
This will be a small gesture, but one that will be forever etched in the hearts and souls of all northerners that this very special man was once and will always remain an incredibly important part of our lives.
On behalf of Premier McGuinty and the entire Liberal caucus, I offer our condolences to the Bernier family and to Leo’s close friends who have joined us here today. You honour us with your presence.
Michael Gravelle MPP
Thunder Bay Superior North
On November 17, 2010 members of the Ontario Legislature spoke in tribute to Leo Bernier, a truly legendary Northern Ontario political leader.