Photo by Alex Filion
Madame Senator. Josée Forest-Niesing wasn’t initially comfortable with being addressed so formally. “Just call me Josée,” she told everyone when first addressed in her new role as a Canadian senator.
“Someone had a conversation with me and said, ‘We understand how you feel but it is not about you, it is about the position you hold.’
“The reality is this is a significant opportunity, privilege and responsibility. I have to allow others to treat me with the respect the position deserves.”
That’s one of the many things Forest-Niesing has had to learn since becoming a member of the upper chamber of Parliament in October.
Forest-Niesing, 54, is one of a new breed of “ordinary Canadians” in the Senate. She applied for the job online and sits as an independent member.
Appointments are no longer a reward handed out to friends of the party in power.
In 2014 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Liberal senators would sit as independents and no longer be part of the Liberal caucus.
Forest-Niesing met the prime minister only once before her appointment.
“I was asked to chauffeur Justin Trudeau when he visited Sudbury years ago when he was running for leader.”
But it was her resume, not her driving skills that got her a job in the Senate, which she can keep until she is 75.
Her first days in Ottawa were like the first day of school with so many things to learn, she says. But there’s no textbook or course on how to be a senator, she has to listen and learn quickly. She was on the job the day after being sworn in.
Retired senator Marie Charette-Poulin, who also has roots in Sudbury, was one of the first people to call and congratulate her.
“She spent an hour on the phone with me,” says Forest-Niesing. “She was an exemplary senator. She gave me wonderful advice which I appreciated.”
The new Ontario senator, one of 24 representing the province, brings a Northern Ontario perspective to the 105-seat upper chamber that reviews bills passed by the House of Commons prior to receiving royal assent.
Born and raised in Sudbury, Forest-Niesing attended Collège Notre-Dame, and got an undergraduate degree in law, justice and political science at Laurentian University. She studied law at the University of Ottawa. Called to the bar 1990, she work in estate law, real property law, insurance law, civil law, education law and employment law with Lacroix Forest LLP for almost 20 years.
Forest-Niesing, is married to Robert Niesing, owner of Niesing Construction, and has two adult children, Veronique and Phillipe.
The rookie senator is vivacious and attractive. She appears to be the picture of health, but 10 years ago, she contracted an autoimmune disease and had to take a leave of absence from her job.
She is still taking medication for her condition, but “with the help of specialists in Toronto, my condition is under control.” she says while sitting in the living room of her ultra modern downtown home.
“I am blessed and cursed with having an invisible condition,” she says. “It wasn’t invisible for the entire time. I lost my hair from chemotherapy…all those fun things.”
As her health improved, she took on high profile volunteer roles. She served as president of the Art Gallery of Sudbury, and in 2016 she was appointed to the Ontario Arts Council. She was chair of the University of Sudbury board for seven years, a Caisse Populaire Voyaguer board member and was an executive member of the Sudbury Liberal Riding Association.
She was also founding chair of the Centre canadien de français juridique as well as chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s Official Languages Committee. She had been named to the Health Sciences North board shortly before she was named a senator.
She has stepped away from her volunteer work because she wants to devote her time and energy to her new job. As well, she wants to avoid any conflicts of interest, but there is nothing in the rule book requiring her to do so.
“I want to learn my new job,” she says. Later, when I get a handle on this, if I can serve my community in any other way, I may consider it.”
Since 2016 any Canadian can apply to be a senator if they are between the ages of 30 and 75, own property with a net value of $4,000 in their province, and have an overall net worth of $4,000 in real and personal property, have the ability to bring a perspective and contribution to the work of the Senate that is independent and non-partisan and “have a solid knowledge of the legislative process and Canada’s Constitution, including the role of the Senate,” according to Canada.ca.
The Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments reviews applications of prospective appointees and make recommendations to the prime minister.
Originally nominated for a senate appointment by three organizations, Forest-Niesing was flattered but didn’t think anything would come from it.
“My initial reaction was it is pie in the sky.”
Her husband convinced her she had the right stuff for the job and that she had nothing to lose to keep the application active.
The Senate sits when the House of Commons is in session. Forest-Niesing returned to Ottawa in February. She is looking forward to learning new things, and sits on the Senate’s social sciences, and finance committees.
“No one tells ‘you are a senator now and we expect you do this much work,’ but the expectations are that you will attend sessions and committees and ask relevant questions,” says Forest-Niesing.
Although there have been calls for the Senate to be abolished or seriously reformed, Forest-Niesing is enthusiastic about the work she can do on behalf of Canadians.
“”It is important that I listen to Canadians and serve in the interest of Canadians.
“It is a new life, anything can happen. My imagination is my only limitation. I do plan on doing great things, (in addition to my work in the Senate). I just don’t know what they will be. I got a million things in my head.”
Madame Senator Josée Forest Niesing says she has the perfect job.