In Tribute to Peter H. Russell (1932 – 2024)

February 6, 2024

The department was very sad to learn of the recent death of Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Peter Russell. To remember him, his colleagues, former students and friends share their memories of him below in a series of tributes. A number of obituaries are posted at the bottom of the page.

From Robert Vipond, Political Science faculty (retired) and Charlie Keil (Principal, Innis College):

Click here to read the memorial resolution for Peter, which was read jointly at the Arts and Science Council Meeting on February 14th, 2024.

From Ed Andrew, Political Science faculty (retired) and colleague:

I was lucky enough not only to be a colleague of Peter’s for a half century but also to be a fellow resident of Christie Gardens, where Peter and Sue spent their last six years (except for summers at their island cottage in Georgian Bay and innumerable visits to the Arts and Letters Club). I saw Peter twice in the last week of his life; the first time alone when he was in pain but clear-headed and very much the captain of his sinking ship and the second time with a mutual friend, Brydon Gombay.

Peter recounted with great animation how his friend Andre Gombay reported in reverent tones that he had just met Brydon McCarthy, shortly to become Brydon Gombay. Peter said in his booming voice, “It was just as if he had just met the Queen of Sheba”. I remember vividly one night, when I was dining with my grandson Eli at Christie Gardens, Peter joined us. Since my grandson was often awkward when residents joined us, I was uncomfortable until I mentioned that my grandson is a great hockey player and Peter said he played for Oxford, and his team easily trounced Cambridge, which did not have Canadian Rhodes Scholars playing for them as Oxford had. Peter said the year before Oxford beat Cambridge by the ungentlemanly score of 30 to 0, and after the first period Oxford was leading by 12 to 0, when Lester Pearson, a Rhodes scholar like Peter, said that this would be the last Oxford-Cambridge game unless they let up on Cambridge but they couldn’t let Cambridge know that they were not trying hard to win. Peter told Eli how difficult it was to hit the goal posts rater than into the net. Eli was intrigued and after Peter left, Eli confided that not all old geezers at Christie Gardens were boring.

From Sylvia Bashevkin, Political Science faculty (retired) and colleague:

Peter Russell and I had our fair share of disagreements, but one thing we agreed on wholeheartedly was the need for U of T political scientists to serve their larger communities. Peter lived and breathed this perspective every day of his life, and he imparted it to others with great gusto. In about 1992, he made a powerful case that I should take on the presidency of the Canadian Political Science Association. I was in my thirties and the mother of two young children. Peter insisted that Joan Pond, the CPSA’s veteran administrator, did the lion’s share of daily work. He assured me I’d have the full support of both my predecessor and successor in the position. He was right about Joan – she was an invaluable asset to the organization. It was nothing short of terrifying when Joan announced her decision to retire soon after I joined the executive. My predecessor turned out to be a busy world traveller, usually to places with no communication access, so I was effectively president for two years – coinciding with a period when the CPSA’s federal parliamentary internship program neared insolvency.

Some ten years later, I approached Peter about an opportunity to lead University College, U of T’s founding college. As a former Innis College principal, he gave me a strong pep talk about the importance of improving undergraduate education and elevating the profile of our department within the university. I reminded Peter about our conversation concerning the CPSA presidency. The responsibilities had proven to be far more than I’d bargained for, and certainly more onerous than he’d described to me at the time. “Well,” Peter replied, “these jobs are unpredictable and when things go sideways, you just need to get the work done. It’s all for a good cause!”

I remember Peter for his energy, insight and encouragement. He set remarkable standards for scholarly excellence and good citizenship. I’m deeply grateful that he embodied those values so consistently for so long.

From David Cameron, Political Science faculty and colleague:

Peter Russell´s image and presence are so strong in my mind that I find it hard to believe that he is gone. Peter is not a man you easily forget. While manifestly an accomplished academic, Peter was also a passionate advocate for causes he believed in. Once Peter developed a head of steam, advancing an argument about something that mattered to him, it was a foolhardy person who stood in his way. Peter at these moments reminded me of a couple of wonderful remarks Royce Frith made years ago about being a lawyer:
– “State your truths as hard as cannonballs.”
– “I may be wrong, but I am in no doubt.”
Rest in peace, Peter. We are going to miss you.

From Milan Ilnyckyj, former student:

I met Peter Russell in 2012 when he taught a hybrid undergraduate and graduate course on his forthcoming book about Canada as a country founded on incomplete conquests. Each week, he sent us a draft chapter as a Word file and we all discussed it. At the same time, I was taking the core Canadian Politics PhD seminar and reading Professor Russell’s earlier book about Canada’s constitutional history. At the end of a class about the Treaty of Niagara, I mentioned that I had never heard of the 1971 Victoria Charter, a prior effort to put a charter of individual rights in our constitution. Even though we had just been immersed in a completely different time and context, Professor Russell immediately knew all about it, in even more detail than in his constitutional history book. As all our many subsequent conversations would show, his knowledge was indeed vast. Also vast were his kindness and humanity. I never felt like I was dealing with an eminent figure, or a person with any arrogance whatsoever.

When Professor Russell injured his legs in 2017 and ended up in the Bridgepoint hospital for three months, I went to visit and have a talk with him. I ended up suggesting that I could come in weekly, and I did. Sometimes only for half an hour, sometimes for three or four hour chats that spanned his vast experience in scholarship and dealing with governments. We talked about political philosophy, the environment, his history with government commissions, the proper role of the security services, Quebec’s place in Canada, Canada’s place relative to the United States, nuclear weapons, and much more besides.

Professor Russell saw the roots of studying politics in history and ethics, and always maintained a focus on how we ought to live together and what we can achieve through sound laws and institutions. As a Rhodes Scholar, he studied politics, philosophy, and economics together. He was not a social scientist seeking to confirm or refute hypotheses, but rather a man who drew on history and philosophy to elucidate how we might all live better together. Peter was not an ideologue, but a man who could admire both Gandhi and the monarchy, and believe that several parties working together can make better policy than a majority government implementing its own political program. We spoke many times about climate change and the paradox of living in a democratic society where the public insist on leaders whose plans are destroying our future, and the tragedy that those who support sufficient action to address the problem cannot get elected.

Peter Russell was a giant: a giant of kindness; a giant of generosity with his time, affection, insight, and knowledge; and a giant of humour. He was never hung up on his own suffering, always cheering others on. He was a giant of humility – a man you could have taken a long intercity bus ride with and never have learned of his decorated career and accomplishments. He was also a giant of honesty – he would tell you straight up when he disagreed with you and why, and was remarkably willing to share himself in his writing and teaching

It is proper that we mourn a man like Peter Russell, and proper that we grieve his loss, for his absence from the rest of our lives. At the same time, the greatest and most meaningful tribute which we can pay to him is to remember the way he made everyone who he spoke to feel heard and important, and to emulate what we most admire about Peter in our own lives, in our relations with one another, and in our communities.

From Larry LeDuc, Political Science faculty (retired) and colleague:

When I joined the Department in 1986, Peter and Sue hosted Helen and I at an event at their lovely Wychwood home, giving us an opportunity to meet some of my new colleagues. A few years later, I succeeded Peter as Graduate Director, and found that my main job in that role was to implement and extend many of the reforms that he had introduced to our graduate programs. I adopted as my own the challenge that Peter routinely gave to our incoming PhD students in his welcome talk. “Is there anyone in this room who thinks that they cannot complete a PhD in four years? You have two years to complete your course work and other requirements and two more to write a dissertation.” No one in the room ever raised their hands!

Over the years, I found that Peter and I shared many similar views on these and other academic issues, as well as a number of other interests, some academic, some outside of academia – electoral reform, minority government, Bridge, travel, cottage life, to mention only a few. When the first edition of my co-authored book, Dynasties and Interludes, was published in 2010, Peter read the entire manuscript and provided many helpful suggestions, as well as a much appreciated jacket blurb.

In 2016, I testified before the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform. As Peter had testified before that same Committee on the previous day, I found myself referencing many of his comments on the core issues.

For me, Peter has been over many years a friend, a colleague, a mentor and a role model. I will miss him, but I am grateful for all the support that he has always given me and glad to have this chance to say a last thank you for his many contributions to our Department, the University and Canadian Political Science. And for the signed copy of his monumental work, Canada’s Odyssey, which represents the capstone of his incomparable scholarly legacy.

From Louis W. Pauly, Political Science faculty and colleague:

Our colleague, Peter Russell, was always ahead of his time. New colleagues and young students may not always have perceived that fact. He hid it well under the guise of the classic Oxford don, the supporter of monarchy because it worked to stabilize parliamentary democracy, the admirer of Winston Churchill, and the wise adviser to established leaders. But the giveaway was his perennial openness to new and disquieting ideas. He held true to foundational beliefs and hopes, but he never hesitated to subject them to skeptical debate. He adapted, and he exercised life-long capacities for empathy and humility. He was a Canadian patriot, but he devoted his life to exploring the country’s imperfections. Long before it became conventional, he focused attention on the implications of its deeply problematic treatment of the people who lived on its land in the centuries before Confederation. Unsettled by the country’s environmental policies, he long ago became an enthusiastic supporter of the Green Party.

Peter was devoted to the University of Toronto, but he was always the first to call out policies that he felt promised unfair outcomes. When invited to serve—whether as principal of Innis College, as graduate director in our Department just before he “retired,” or as founder of Senior College in the years after he “retired”—he never said No. And he answered similar calls in the affirmative in the many local, national, and global communities to which he belonged outside the University. From the day he joined our antecedent Department in 1958 to the last seminar he attended in Sidney Smith just a couple of months ago, he respected and valued our staff members, and he inspired his colleagues and students. He wanted to know what they were thinking, and he listened to them. In fact, he loved them, and that love motivated him.

Peter’s scholarship continued to his last days—and beyond. New books will be coming out posthumously. Particularly impressive, though, was the innovative trajectory of his thought late in life. It reflected an irresistible sense of curiosity, a willingness to accept uncertainty, and an openness to change. In 1992, he published the first edition of Constitutional Odyssey, a seminal examination of contemporary Canada’s efforts to hold itself together. Twenty-five years later came the updated, more expansive, and more accessible portrait he called Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests. In the course of that journey, he obviously reflected back on his Oxford days studying political theory. He now had enough new empirical material to challenge Bodin and Hobbes on the meaning, purpose, and future of the doctrine of state sovereignty. In his 2021 book, entitled Sovereignty: The Biography of a Claim, he contended that Canada’s failure to complete its constitutional business, the unfinished nature of its underlying social contract, and the fractures within its polity—all should be understood as harbingers of a promising future within and beyond Canada’s territorial boundaries. Good enough and aspiring is better than perfect and unachievable. From the grave, though, I can almost hear him calling out. “Doubt it. Argue about it energetically and with civility. Stay open to diverse perspectives. Avoid pessimism. Remain hopeful. And challenge yourselves to exceed the standard I set during my own long years in this fortunate place and on this blessed land.”

From Bob Rae, Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations:

The irony is that as a Modern History undergrad I never took a course from Peter Russell. But I met him socially and before I headed to Oxford in 1969 he told me to connect with two people – Isaiah Berlin and Bill Weinstein, both of whom became my tutors in political philosophy. After I finished my MPhil and was struggling with the inevitable “what’s next”? questions, I went to see Peter who was kindness personified. He encouraged me to pursue law, do some teaching, and then donated to my first election plan. He advised me on minority governments, security and intelligence, the constitution, indigenous issues, and life itself. He was not afraid of argument, or disagreement, but his deep sense of purpose and civility was always such a feature of his personality that I truly looked forward to the next encounter. My debates and jokes with him are sadly now only a memory, but they are unforgettable, and I shall always treasure how his kindness helped steer me in a good direction. A man of many talents, the greatest of which was his ability to reach out and share them with the many thousands whose lives he touched.

From Igor Shoikhedbrod, former student:

I was very saddened to hear about Professor Russell’s passing. As an aspiring teacher with an interest in law and politics, I would frequently turn to Peter for advice about the latest scholarship in the field. My Ethics & Law students at Trinity College also loved his guest seminar. Peter was great at telling stories in ways that resonated with students and colleagues alike. As I wrote to him in a recent message, sadly the final one, “I am currently teaching a third-year course on Law & Politics, which has me returning to your work every time.” Peter will be missed. Sending my deepest condolences to Peter’s family and loved ones.





Title photo of Peter Russell provided by Innis College. Photo credit: Chiao Sun.
Right: Photo of the U of T flag flying at half mast in honour of Peter Russell on January 22, 2024.

Other tributes: