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‘He was like a brother to me’: colleagues reflect on death of long-serving Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai

By Nina Russell      

First elected in 1997 as a member of the Reform Party, Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai became the first Hindu MP in the House of Commons, and was said to have 'been able to see the humanity beyond the politics,' according to caucus colleague Stephanie Kusie.

First elected in 1997 as a member of the Reform Party, Mr. Obhrai became the first Hindu MP in the House of Commons, and was said to have "been able to see the humanity beyond the politics," according to caucus colleague Stephanie Kusie. The Hill Times file photograph
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Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, who died last week after a brief battle with cancer, is remembered by his colleagues as a man “who took his job very seriously, but never took himself too seriously” and who “recognized humanity beyond the politics.”

Mr. Obhrai died on Aug. 2, surrounded by his family, after being diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer just weeks ago. He was 69. 

Liberal MP Mark Eyking (Sydney-Victoria, N.S.), who says his decades-long friendship with Mr. Obhrai “definitely made my life better,” recalls having gone on as many as 30 trips together since 2001, when they first sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee together.

“He was like a brother to me,” Mr. Eyking said in an interview with The Hill Times. “[Those we visited] could never tell who was in power because we always looked at each other like equals.”

Among those trips was one to the Middle East in the wake of 9/11, which, Mr. Eyking, said was part of a Chrétien-led effort to engage with Muslim communities. While their trip included stops in countries in North Africa and Asia, Mr. Eyking remembered a stay at a particular hotel in Cairo. 

Liberal MP Mark Eyking says he travelled to about 30 countries with Deepak Obhrai when they both sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Hill Times file photograph

“I was conscious that whoever was in power has higher status. But sometimes, you don’t want that higher status, with all the security. … And when we went to Cairo at that time, things were not all that stable,” he said. Anticipating being swarmed by security, Mr. Eyking remembered saying he was Mr. Obhrai to the concierge. “I ended up in his room, which was nice and quiet, because there was no security around.” 

Mr. Obhrai was not so lucky, and the next day, told Mr. Eyking, “I don’t know how I got my room, because they had security in the windows, all around!”

“So he was up all night, and even though he had a better room than me, he didn’t sleep,” Mr. Eyking laughed.

First elected in 1997 as a member of the Reform Party, Mr. Obhrai became the first Hindu MP in the House. Colleagues said the Calgary MP took the utmost pride in his work and was always proud to represent Canada on the international stage. Mr. Eyking also said that Mr. Obhrai, unlike many politicians, didn’t have an ego. 

Despite their different backgrounds—Mr. Obhrai was a Tanzanian-born Hindu, while Mr. Eyking is of Dutch background—the Liberal MP described Mr. Obhrai as “like a brother,” and said that their families also knew each other, since they often stayed at each other’s homes when travelling.

“I remember when Harper was prime minister, Deepak and I come into the Calgary Stampede together, and Harper says, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ And Deepak goes, ‘Well, he stayed at my place,’ ” Mr. Eyking said. 

Though Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie’s (Calgary Midnapore, Alta.) only knew Mr. Obhrai for two years, she remembers him as a deeply generous and wise man who always took time out of his day to make sure his colleagues felt supported.

She also recalled that during her 2017 byelection campaign, which was happening amid the Conservative leadership campaign in which he ran, he took the time to door-knock with her. 

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie remembers the Calgary MP for his generosity and wisdom. The Hill Times photo by Andrew Meade

“I think people were always really excited to see him at the door with me during that 2017 byelection,” she said. 

Mr. Obhrai was knocked out of the leadership campaign during the first round, but their door-knocking efforts during the byelection proved successful. In 2017, Ms. Kusie succeeded former Conservative MP Jason Kenney with 77 per cent of the vote.

She remembered that Mr. Obhrai also made the effort to welcome her and her family on the Hill when they came down to see her sworn in as an MP. “He took my entire family into his office, and this was during his leadership election, so he had a very busy schedule as a candidate within that. [He] showed us all of this incredible memorabilia he collected throughout the world.”

Mr. Obhrai is also remembered as a defender of human rights and as being unafraid to speak his mind, even when it contradicted party leadership. He spoke out in opposition against Bill C-24, a Harper-era legislation that allowed the government to revoke the citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorism-related offences. Mr. Obhrai abstained from voting during the bill’s third reading. In May 2014, rose in the House to remind his colleagues that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” (The Trudeau repealed that part of the bill that Mr. Obhrai was opposed to.)

Conservative MP Dean Allison (Niagara West, Ont.) got to know Mr. Obhrai when he was chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Mr. Obhrai was parliamentary secretary. Mr. Allison remembered his good sense of humour and sense of style—he was known for always sporting a scarf. 

Conservative MP Dean Allison says that Mr. Obhrai had a great sense of humour who loved to ‘tease and be teased.’ The Hill Times file photograph

“He would always be having fun, always be joking around,” Mr. Allison said. “He liked teasing people and he liked being teased, and he could give as good as he took.”

As the longest-serving member of the Conservative caucus, both Ms. Kusie and Mr. Allison attested to his wisdom and willingness to give advice to his colleagues.

“I remember him most for the fact that he was so approachable,” Mr. Allison said. “As dean of the Conservative caucus … you could always walk right up to him and ask for advice and talk about things.”

“In this day and age, where we’ve come to value youth so much even within politics, it was really wonderful to have someone there with all the … experience and the wisdom and the richness of everything he had done and bring that to our caucus,” Ms. Kusie said.

Tributes for Mr. Obhrai were quick to flood social media after his family posted a statement to Twitter, announcing his death Saturday morning. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) wrote that “Deepak was a constant source of joy inside the Conservative caucus. He brightened every room he walked into and often injected warmth, kindness, and good humour into our deliberations.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), in his statement, expressed his condolences and commended Mr. Obhrai for his decades of service.

“Mr. Obhrai was a champion of diversity and human rights. He will be remembered for his dedication to the Indo-Canadian community and his hard work on behalf of Albertans and all Canadians.” 

Premiers Doug Ford of Ontario and Mr. Kenney of Alberta were among those who paid tribute to him. As parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister from 2006 until 2015, Mr. Obhrai succeeded in “articulating the principled foreign policy of the Harper government,” Mr. Kenney said, and “defended Canada’s economic interests around the world.”

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