Remembering former MP Bob Speller

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

HALDIMAND— Former MP of Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant Bob Speller has passed away following an illness. Speller was originally elected in 1988, winning re-election in 1993, 1997, and 2000. He served as the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food from 2003-2004. Speller worked with former liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

Former Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant MP Bob Speller

“Bob Speller and I were elected to parliament the same year,” former Prime Minister Paul Martin said in a statement. “From the very beginning, he was the kind of person that you would want to talk to when problems seemed insolvable.  He demonstrated this as Member of Parliament, as a Minister of the Crown, and as a friend.”

Speller was born in Hagersville, Ontario and raised his family in a 19th century farmhouse in the hamlet of Villa Nova near Waterford, Ontario.

Current MP Leslyn Lewis and former MP Diane Finley, who defeated Speller in 2004, commented on his passing.

“Bob Speller had the great distinction of representing our community in Ottawa for many, many years. But his heart was always here in Haldimand-Norfolk. My most sincere condolences go out to Joan, Christopher and Victoria at this difficult time for them,” said Finley.

“I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of former Haldimand-Norfolk Member of Parliament, The Honourable Bob Speller. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones in this difficult time,” said Lewis.

During his time in office, Speller served on several parliamentary committees concerned with agriculture, the steel industry, and international trade.

Colleague and friend Brian Gilbertson recalled going to work for Bob in 1999: “I, like many others, got my career start in his office.”

Gilbertson continued, “He was really good at allowing young people to get some good experience in. As long as you worked hard, he would give you opportunities and help you out throughout your career.”

He continued, “He was an extra-ordinarily approachable, down-to-earth and kind guy. I would pop by his house around Christmas time to drop off some Picard peanuts, which I’m sure he had stacks of already. He would invite me in for a beer or to stay for dinner. He and his family were extremely welcoming and down-to-earth.”

When Gilbertson first started working for Speller, he was the parliamentary assistant to the Minister for International Trade, where he was a member of both the Foreign Affairs committee, and the International Trade committee. After, Prime Minister Chretien appointed him as chair of the Prime Minister’s Caucus Task Force on future opportunities in farming: “We did broad-based consultations around the country to create a blueprint of what the agricultural industry should look like going forward. He put together a report on that that I helped him out with,” recalled Gilbertson.

As agriculture minister Speller was largely focused on managing crises in the agriculture sector called by outbreaks of avian flu and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease.

“He was only there for about eight months, unfortunately. What he got done in that eight months was nothing short of spectacular considering the context of what was happening in the industry at that time. We were dealing with avian influenza, the industry itself was struggling and farmers were hurting. What he was able to do was provide a little hope,” said Gilbertson.

In 2004, Speller spearheaded an aid package of nearly $1 billion for farmers affected by the BSE outbreak, garnering praise by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association as “the single greatest financial support that the Canadian beef industry has ever received.”

He was also able to push a tobacco transition package through cabinet that helped many local farmers get out of tobacco farming and find a new use for their land: “To this day I’m amazed he was able to get that through. I looked at it one time when we were working together and I said, ‘If you think you’re going to get that through the cabinet you’re crazy’, and he gave it a shot. Bob Speller was able to figure out how to do it.”

In 2004, the riding of Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant was redrawn as Haldimand-Norfolk.  During the ensuing election, Speller lost to Finley. He ran again 2006, and 2011, but was unable to defeat Finley, with the region voting Conservative in each successive election since.

“The Liberal party asked me after he lost, ‘who do you think could actually win in that riding’, and I said, ‘If Bob Speller couldn’t win, I don’t know who else could.’,” said Gilbertson.

In his later years, Speller ran a successful consulting business largely concerned with advancing agriculture and trade contacts internationally. He is survived by his wife Joan Mouland and his grown children Christopher and Victoria.

“He was the member of Parliament in Haldimand-Norfolk that everyone knew, most people liked him, he was able to get things done. He was a great parliamentarian… his ability to cross the floor and get things accomplished, cutting through party lines, was extra-ordinary to watch. Frankly, we need more Bob Spellers in parliament now. That’s a legacy that should shine through for the community,” summed up Gilbertson. “We’ve lost a giant in the agricultural industry, and the community. It’s a sad day, but we should look fondly upon his memory.”