Axworthy, Christopher

AXWORTHY, Christopher

1947 - 2023

It is with sadness that we announce that Christopher S. Axworthy, KC, passed away peacefully in Ottawa on August 11, 2023, after losing a battle with cancer. He was in the company of Michelle Van De Bogart, his wife, partner and loving friend for 28 years. He is survived by Michelle, his sister Deborah Axworthy and her children Sophie Dean and Calvin Dean, his sister Janet White and her son James White, and his step-daughter Myfanwy Van Vliet.

Chris was born on March 10, 1947, in Plymouth, England, to working class parents. To a large degree, growing up working class in 1950s Britain shaped his commitment to social justice and his belief that as a society, we should leave no one behind.

Chris attended London Metropolitan University on a scholarship, where he earned his Bachelor of Laws before crossing the Atlantic to attain his Master of Laws degree at McGill University. By then, he had come to appreciate Canada, so after graduating, he willingly accepted a teaching position at the University of New Brunswick. After teaching there for three years, in 1977 he took a tenure track position at Dalhousie University in Halifax. While at Dalhousie, one of his core research areas was cooperatives and their legal and economic impacts. While on sabbatical, in 1984, he was asked to consider a position at the new Centre for the Study of Cooperatives at the University of Saskatchewan. He became its inaugural executive director.

Once settled in Saskatoon, Chris became active in the New Democratic Party and the city’s cooperative organizations. He was elected to the Board of Directors of Saskatoon Co-op in 1985 and served as its Vice-President while future Saskatchewan Finance Minister Janice McKinnon served as President.

In 1988, Chris was drawn to enter the political arena where he would earn the nickname “Giant Killer” by defeating three successive high profile contenders to win and hold a seat for the NDP in Canada’s House of Commons. In 1988, Axworthy upset longtime Conservative MP Ray Hnatyshyn in the riding of Saskatoon-Clark’s Crossing. In the following election, in 1993, he faced well-known talk show host Roy Norris, and held on to his seat by the thinnest of margins. In 1997, in the new riding of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, he more comfortably defeated the Reform Party’s Elwin Hermanson, who would later become leader of the Saskatchewan Party.

One of the reasons for his enduring political success in a tough political environment was his commitment to being accessible to his constituents, and to be effective for them. Despite his obligations in Ottawa, he made a commitment to be available in his constituency office at least one day per week while the House of Commons was sitting. This meant that for a large part of the year, he flew across the country twice each week in order to be available in his riding. Tbanks to his longtime constituency assistant and friend, Doris Dick, he was also known for being effective in providing direct help to constituents dealing with day-to-day challenges. Because his riding included the city’s core neighbourhoods, his regular availability ensured that he would stay connected to the people he represented.

Throughout his time as a federal Member of Parliament, Chris was also a steadfast supporter of the Saskatchewan NDP, taking time to canvass in provincial constituencies across the province, and to attend events in far-flung communities. Supporting local candidates and meeting members were “chores” that seemed to energize him. For a shy British academic, he truly loved meeting people.

Since its 1991 election, Chris had admired the government of Premier Roy Romanow, and its pragmatic and compassionate approach to bringing the province back from the brink of financial disaster. In 1999, he decided to seek a provincial NDP nomination in order to join the provincial government caucus. He subsequently resigned his federal seat and sought the NDP nomination for the riding of Saskatoon-Fairview, within the boundaries of his federal riding. Later that year, he would win both a byelection and a general election in that constituency, taking the byelection with 64% of the vote and the general election with 57%.

Premier Romanow invited Axworthy to join his cabinet, naming him Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. When Romanow resigned from politics in 2001, Axworthy sought the leadership of the provincial NDP, finishing second to Lorne Calvert. Premier Calvert kept Chris on as Attorney-General and added the positions of Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. It was the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio that he found the most rewarding, challenging him to build trust with a broad community, while at the same time being an effective advocate. He resigned his position in Calvert’s cabinet and his provincial seat in the Saskatchewan legislature in 2003.

His previous political success eluded him, however, when he decided to seek a federal seat for the Liberal Party, after having been a longtime New Democrat. Despite having been elected five times within the boundaries of the riding of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Chris chose instead to run in the much more difficult riding of Saskatoon-Wanuskewin. He explained that he made the decision because he would not run against an NDP incumbent and because he “couldn’t run against Doris”, his longtime assistant who was then working for the NDP MP in Axworthy’s former riding. He lost twice as a Liberal in the new riding to Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott.

He returned to academic life in 2003, rejoining the faculty at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. In 2008, he was appointed Dean of the College of Law at the University of Manitoba, but was lured away two years later by the prospect of becoming the founding Dean of the new College of Law at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. He was responsible for attracting and assembling a faculty for the new school and ensuring that it was prepared when the first students arrived in 2011. He retired from academic life in 2013.

Chris and Michelle moved to Ottawa, where Michelle’s work had taken her. The two of them travelled, and Chris returned to the UK for a self-tour in a camper van, reconnecting with family and visiting football pitches across the island.

It is impossible to sum up a life like Chris’s.   He was a complex collection of contradictions who could both aggravate and charm at the same time; a formally-trained English lawyer who connected with his working class and working poor constituents; a shy academic who loved the warmth of a room of constituents; a consensus-builder who didn’t shy away from controversy; a friend and partner who would always return to those he loved.

In politics and in life, he was a rare individual. His smile, his wit, his intelligence and his quirks will all be sorely missed.

In lieu of flowers, in memory of Chris Axworthy, please make a contribution to May Court Hospice at 114 Cameron Avenue, Ottawa K1S 0X1.

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2 messages received

Chris Axworthy

My sincere condolences to the Axworthy family.

Chris was a good man, and a very agreeable colleague. He always had a smile at the ready.

May he now RIP.

Sergio Marchi

Sergio Marchi, August 29, 2023

La famille de feu M. Chris Axworthy.

Mes sincères condoléances aux proches de M. Axworthy. J'ai de bons souvenirs de lui lorsque résidait à Saskatoon. Entre autres lorsque j'étais président de la Fédération des Francophones. de Saskatoon au milieu des années 1990. Reposez en paix M. Axworthy. Richard Nadeau, Gatineau.

Richard Nadeau, Gatineau., September 11, 2023