Senator Sheila Finestone, one of Canadian Jewry’s foremost parliamentarians, has, throughout her career as a liberal politician, championed the protection of human rights for all Canadians. She was born in Montreal on January 28, 1927, to Monroe Abbey Q.C. (1902–1993) and Minnie Cummings Abbey (1902–1999), first generation Canadians, and leading figures in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world of community service and philanthropy. She received her B.Sc. from McGill University, married Montrealer Alan Finestone (1923–1997) in 1947, and had four sons, David (1950), Peter (1951), Maxwell (1953) and Stephen (1956).
Finestone’s early public service was as a volunteer in the Jewish community of Montreal. Active in synagogue Shaar Hashomayim—the second oldest in North America (incorporated in 1846)—she later served as First Vice President of the YM-YWHA, and Vice President and President of the Women’s Federation, Allied Jewish Community Services. Involved in the establishment of low-cost housing for Jewish seniors, she helped launch Project Genesis, a storefront center providing legal, accounting and social assistance to seniors and those with limited resources. Project Genesis, now under McGill University sponsorship, has been established in Israel, Jordan and Ramallah.
In 1976, Finestone’s volunteerism moved outside the boundaries of the Jewish community. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, she was responsible for organizing the hospitality for the widows of the Israeli athletes massacred at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. In 1977 she was elected president of the Quebec Federation of Women and then was invited to serve on the Executive of the “No” Committee of the Quebec referendum of 1980. At that time of the Quebec referendum, she was instrumental in organizing the Yvette Rally of women that was a landmark force for keeping Quebec in Canada. She then went on to serve as president of the Quebec Federation of Women. While advocating reforms to the Canada pension plan to better serve women and children, Finestone recognized that in order for her to make the changes she wanted to make, she would have to enter federal politics.
In 1984 she was elected as the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal, the constituency previously held by the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Subsequently she was re-elected in 1988, 1993 and 1997.
Throughout her eighteen years in government, Finestone was a passionate catalyst for change, primarily for women and minorities. In 1993 she was sworn in as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, and in this capacity led the Canadian delegation to the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women, in Beijing, China. While in opposition, Finestone served as Critic for and Vice-Chair of the Standing Committees on Communications and Culture, Status of Women and Youth. At the time of her appointment to the Canadian Senate, Finestone was Chair of the Standing Joint Committees on Official Languages and as well as Human Rights, and was a member of the Standing Committees on Justice, Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Finestone was a Special Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on Anti-Personnel Landmines, and a promoter of the International Criminal Court.
Finestone was invited to the Senate in 1999. She was instrumental in the creation of a number of private members’ bills, one addressing citizens’ rights to be heard when changes are made to Canada’s broadcast system and another addressing the privacy rights of Canadians. Recognizing that advanced global technology is often excessive in the life of ordinary citizens, Finestone’s tenacious development of Bill S-21 aimed to protect Canadians from unprecedented intrusion.
Globally, Finestone was Chair of the Canadian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and an elected member of the IPU’s twelve-member World Executive, an extraordinary achievement for a Jew and a woman. In 1987 she founded the IPU’s Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians.
As a Jew, and a steadfast supporter of the State of Israel, Finestone often found herself in hostile company. Yet, during a lifetime of public service, she successfully brought her Jewish values to the core of her concerns—peace, security, democracy, the status of women and global human rights.
Awards include: McGill’s Centre for Research and Teaching on Women “Person of the Year” Award (2001), and the Samuel Bronfman Award for exceptional service to the Montreal Jewish Community. A recognition that Finestone is especially proud of is the Jackie Robinson Community Service award, bestowed by the Montreal black community.
In January 2002, Senator Finestone officially retired from the Senate. Finestone’s life of activism and service confirms her belief that “living in society goes beyond caring about yourself.” By challenging the status quo, and by being innovative in her approach to the issues, Finestone distinguished herself, Canadians and the Jewish community, with integrity and conviction.
Mathew, Archana. “‘My Problem is I think I am 39’: An interview with Senator Sheila Finestone.” McGill Newsletter, Centre for Research & Teaching on Women. March 2001; Grier, Diane Ayton. “Red Chamber Renaissance: Some McGill Senators are Giving Government a Good Name.” McGill News, Summer 2001; Karby, Rosalind. “Justice, Justice, Shalt Thou Pursue.” Outlook Magazine, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Summer 2000; Lipsitz, Edmond Y., ed. Canadian Jewish Women of Today: Who’s Who of Canadian Jewish Women, 1983.