A desire to make a difference
In Ottawa, before he became Senator Wetston, The Honourable Howard Wetston CM, QC (‘69) was known as ‘Suitcase’ Wetston.
“I worked in the public service for most of my career,” he says. “I looked at whatever job I was in as an opportunity to make a difference — I packed my suitcase and went wherever an opportunity arose. When I didn’t feel what I was doing was making a meaningful difference anymore, then I moved on. To me, the nickname was a metaphor for taking a risk — I was willing to take risks with my career. My career in public service was a lifelong experience of learning.”
Prior to being appointed to the Senate in November 2016, Wetston was chair of the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC). Before that he served as chair of the Ontario Energy Board and on the Federal Court of Canada, Trial Division.
“I have this approach with respect to organizations I have had the privilege to lead,” he says. “I take the best of the organization and I try to make it better. When I left the OSC, I felt I had made it better.”
Wetston had every intention of slowing down after he retired from the OSC.
“Well, that didn’t work out,” he says, with a laugh. “I had never been in politics, but under the new appointment process you had to apply for Senate positions. I applied and was appointed and it has been an incredible opportunity to learn more about this country and the legislation that we are responsible for reviewing. [As an independent Senator] I’m an apolitical parliamentarian — I vote according to my experience and my conscience.”
Of course, he always has an eye out for what could be done better.
“I think we can improve the efficiency of the organization, the way in which we manage the legislation we have to address,” he says, noting each senator carries a significant workload. “It has been a real eye opener for me, even though I studied the law my whole career. You have a responsibility to review legislation — not to second guess what the government wants, but an opportunity to improve it by way of amendments. I find it quite meaningful.”
Wetston’s remarkable career is even more extraordinary when you consider the challenges his family faced.
“My parents were Polish Jews who ended up in Uzbekistan at the end of the (Second World) War. They fled to the American zone by train and my brother was born on a cargo train coming from Russia to Germany,” he says.
Wetston was born in a displaced person camp in Germany in 1947 as the family tried to find a place to start anew.
“Jewish settlers at that time weren’t that welcome,” he says. “We ended up in Cape Breton because we needed to be sponsored and my mother was able to track down a distant uncle in Sydney, NS.”
Specifically, they settled in Whitney Pier — at the time one of the most polluted neighbourhoods in the country, dominated by a steel mill and the ovens used to turn coal into coke to power it.
“There were other Jewish families in Whitney Pier, but we were the only Jewish family in the coke ovens,” he says. “It was a very diverse community, but we accommodated our differences. Sports and education were our unifying features. Going from there to Bay Street was dramatic in the differences, but you come to appreciate that sometimes you are tested through difficult times and have to remain strong and resilient and maintain a positive outlook.”
Wetston completed a Bachelor of Science in geology at Mount Allison, then went on to Dalhousie University to study arts and economics before attending law school. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2016 for his transformative leadership in the public service, his contributions as a jurist, and his work in making Canadian business practice more inclusive of women on corporate boards and in senior management roles.