Sudbury Senator Josée Forest-Niesing passes away after COVID battle
After a long, hard-fought battle with COVID-19, Senator Josée Forest-Niesing has passed away.
Forest-Niesing, a life-long Sudburian, had served this community as a lawyer before her appointment to the Senate in October 2018.
Speaker of the Senate George Furey issued the following statement to senators and senate personnel Saturday, writing in part:
"Senator Forest-Niesing had contributed to her community as a member and chair of numerous boards of directors, and she will be remembered as an ardent and passionate defender to justice in both official languages."
Forest-Niesing fought on for French-language rights and was part of the debate in the Senate earlier this year after seeing some French programs cut from Laurentian University.
She told CTV Northern Ontario, she feared the insolvency crisis could set a dangerous precedent when it came to future post-secondary funding.
The senator issued a statement later, where she urged her Senate colleagues to express their concern over what had happened in the city.
"The axe has fallen — 28 French-language programs have been eliminated; more than 100 teachers have lost their jobs (some have even been deprived of their maternity leave); and they could see their pensions sharply reduced. The loss to students, teachers, staff and the entire community of northern Ontario is immeasurable," she wrote.
Her official page on the Senate of Canada website lists her many accomplishments and feats of public service including serving as a member or chair of numerous boards of directors, including the Art Gallery of Sudbury, the Carrefour francophone de Sudbury and the University of Sudbury.
Forest-Niesing had been fully vaccinated and had been admitted to hospital due to complications back in October.
She lived with an underlying condition prior to contracting COVID-19 but was discharged from hospital on Nov. 14.
In a statement from her office issued last week, she reminded all Canadians to continue to take the pandemic seriously and about the importance of vaccination.
Details of her funeral service or memorial are still being finalized.
The news has come as a shock for many including some of her colleagues who have been weighing in over Twitter.
Nickel Belt Member of Parliament Marc Serre has known Forest-Niesing for years, their fathers went to high school together.
Serre said the two were some of the biggest advocates who worked to help save a Francophone school in Minnow Lake.
"It's really heartbreaking, she's not only a colleague but she was also a friend," Serre told CTVNews. "And Josée was always there to help people first, a kind, compassionate, caring lady that always put her community and her family first so she'll be really missed. She's been involved in the community on a number of fronts."
Serre fondly remembered her father, lawyer Normand Forest, who served as the chair of the Laurentian University Board of Governors, and how Forest-Nieising followed her father into public service.
Her father was one of the first few francophones from the region to attend post-secondary school.
"She's also worked tirelessly to protect the Francophone culture, our language, our rights in Northern Ontario, like her Dad, it's a difficult day for our community," he said.
"She always, always put the community first and was also very proud of her French heritage and culture," said Serre.
Alan Arkilander is a long time lawyer in the city and a family friend of Forest-Niesing's.
"I became a partner at her father's law firm Lacroix, Forest, Del Frate LLP in the mid-1980's and met her when she articled. To become a member of the firm it was required that you be a Liberal and a Montreal Canadiens fan. Josée met both requirements. She was a well regarded lawyer and very involved in the community, especially in Francophone matters, as was her father. We have lost a strong advocate of Northern Ontario and la Francophonie," said Arkilander.
Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger met Forest-Niesing after her appointment to political office. While he didn't have a lot of interaction with her lately, he says it's a big loss to the community.
"I'm absolutely shocked and saddened at the news, I thought like many I'm sure, the news was encouraging and that she was out of hospital recovering after her struggles with COVID-19, and to see this news, I'm just filled with condolences for our senator and her family as well," he said.
"The last time I saw her was prior to the pandemic and so it's been awhile but I was really looking forward in getting to speak with her again, Bigger added.
She had worked closely with her Independent colleague and friend, Senator Lucie Moncion on promoting the rights of Franco-Ontarians, particularly after the cut of several programs by Laurentian University earlier this year.
"It's just the most awful news today, it was one of my colleagues who called me and I just started to cry," said Moncion.
"I think it's such a loss and we were all hopeful that Josée was going to pull through this because she was sick for a long time and we had good news last week, that she was going home to recuperate and then receiving this call this morning was just a shock."
Moncion says they had worked hard to get some bills past through the Senate abut they were pro-rogued one reason or another.
She plans to carry on the mantle of fighting for Laurentian, French-language programming and post-secondary funding in Forest-Niesing's name.
"She had a motion about Laurentian University, hoping that the university would get back on its feet, and all that could possibly be done was being done to protect this educational institution, which is so important to the vitality of Sudbury but also all of Northern Ontario," she said.
The North Bay senator adds her friend and colleague was also passionate about the issues facing entrepreneurs and having decision makers address the issues facing business owners head on in this part of the province.
"She had a way of reaching across, keeping the channels open, keeping the conversations going and that soft touch which belied the very sharp legal mind that she had - her presence will be sorely missed," said another friend, Senator Ratna Omadvir.
Omadvir described Forest-Niesing has a force in the red chamber but also the kind of person that you wanted to be associated with or hang around after work was done.
"I can speak for many senators, especially the Independent ones, we're all shocked and devastated. We thought she was on her way to recovery and knew she had been released from the hospital.
Omadvir says her thoughts are with the senator's family, her loved ones and the community now grieving it's loss of such an indelible figure.