On Thursday morning, I lost an amazing colleague and Canada lost a great Canadian. Mario Laguë was riding his motorcycle to work when he struck an SUV making a left turn into his path just a few blocks from my home in Ottawa.
Mario worked as Director of Communications to Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. His office was a short way down the hall from mine. I saw him almost every day, and often worked with him directly whenever my tasks involved communications. He was always friendly — the kind of guy who can be humble and down-to-earthly human in a political world where many others are too full of their own importance.
I don’t normally speak publicly about what goes on behind our office walls, but I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets to say that many of my co-workers at the Liberal Research Bureau were demoralized after the 2008 election defeat of leader Stéphane Dion. A new management team initially brought in by Mr. Ignatieff was smart and energetic, but lacked experience and made mistakes. Then, last fall, Peter Donolo was brought in as Chief of Staff, and he brought with him a management team of stars. One of the brightest of these was Mario.
Mario had a witty sense of humour. It came through in media reports. Invariably a reporter would quote an unnamed “Liberal source” who had some sharply clever response that mocked the bungling of the Harper Conservatives. To anyone who knew him, it was obviously Mario. At meetings, Mario could be decisive and quick to get to the point, but then he would let go a wry comment that would have us all in stitches.
I admired his approach to communications. All too often Conservatives twist and distort the facts, spinning small events and big lies. Liberals earnestly struggle through the weeds of issues, attempting to make logical, but obscure arguments that are lost on the public. Not Mario. He could instantly zero in on the essence of an issue, saying in simple terms why it matters to Canadians. He had an inner gut for public opinion. I never once heard him call for twisting or torquing an issue, but I often heard him urge sensible restraint when colleagues became a bit too enthusiastically partisan. Whenever he questioned my work, I knew after a little reflection that his instincts were right.
I remember when the tragic earthquake struck Haiti and Mario seemed emotionally shaken, quickly realizing how serious it was. In quiet tones, he told us it looked very, very bad, and above all we should not try to exploit this tragedy for partisan purposes. This was a time to be supportive of effective action, while being respectful of those on the government side who would be front and centre of Canada’s response to the tragedy.
I regret that I never got to know Mario as a close friend. From the moment we first chatted, I knew we shared many common interests. We were close in age — boomers in an office dominated by 20 and 30 somethings. We shared the cultural reference points of those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of us had a fascination for the world outside Canada — particularly Latin America, where he had served as Ambassador to Costa Rica and in other diplomatic roles in Mexico and Venezuela. I had hoped that one day we would chat about our common experiences abroad, but that’s a conversation that now will never happen.
Not too long ago Mario asked me if I would mind doing him a small favour not related to work. He wanted me to scan electronically some papers for him that he needed to insure a motorcycle. As I scanned the papers, I had a thought — not quite as strong as a premonition, but clear nonetheless — that riding a motorcycle in and around Ottawa was a risky activity, and I hoped he would be okay.
The last time I talked to Mario was a chance meeting in the washroom where he told me he had been out exploring the countryside and had discovered Perth, a town west of Ottawa that I also like very much. He said that while looking at photos on the Internet of local places to travel to, he’d been surprised to come across so many of my shots. I vaguely thought it would be fun if I had a motorcycle, to tag along on his explorations.
But then Thursday morning I got a call from a colleague who gave me the sad news shortly before it broke in the media. I was away in Quebec on a French immersion course and couldn’t share the grief with colleagues and friends who knew Mario.
Today I drove through that intersection at Scott and Parkdale near my home where Mario’s life was taken from him at the age of 52. There were eerie police markings still on the pavement showing where the SUV stopped and where Mario landed. I felt an anger at the attitude of so many SUV drivers who seem to feel that because their vehicles are bigger, they own the road. But most of all, I felt a profound sadness about the waste of a life of a man in his prime, an amazing man I would have liked to know better.