It was a remarkable statement from a 74-year-old man. In 1984, after being appointed veterans affairs minister in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s newly elected government, a proud George Hees boasted to reporters that he would never retire. Said Hees, who was visibly elated by his new posting: “I am bloody well going to enjoy it. My Uncle Will told me: ‘Retire and you’ll die.’ ” But last week, Hees, now 78, turned aside that advice and announced that he would not run in the next federal election. With that decision, Hees ended a long and distinguished career and became the last member of former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker’s cabinets to leave active politics.
Hees, who has represented the eastern Ontario riding of Northumberland for 35 years, was first elected to the Commons in a byelection in 1950. Since then, he has won re-election in every election except in 1963, when he chose not to run. In 1957, Diefenbaker appointed Hees as transport minister and in 1960 named him minister of trade and commerce. But Hees abruptly resigned from the cabinet in 1963 to protest against Diefenbaker’s decision to bar nuclear weapons from Canada. Hees returned to politics in 1967 to run for the Tory leadership, but was defeated by Robert Stanfield.
In 1966, Hees was associated with Canada’s first major parliamentary sex scandal, the Munsinger affair. Gerda Munsinger was a German prostitute and suspected spy who had an affair with Diefenbaker’s associate minister of national defence, Pierre Sévigny. A judicial inquiry concluded that Sévigny’s relationship with Munsinger constituted a security risk. But Hees, who admitted having had several meals with Munsinger, saying, “It was a mistake on my part,” survived the scandal.
In the Mulroney cabinet, Hees has been credited with streamlining veterans affairs ministry programs and increasing veterans’ medical benefits and pensions. Said Clifford Chadderton, chief executive officer of the Canadian War Amputees Association: “He was the first person to create the kind of magic that has rejuvenated the veterans’ image in Parliament and in the public eye.” But with last week’s announcement, that magic will soon be gone and a long chapter in Canadian politics will be closed.
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