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Friday November 9, 2012

'A decent guy' who tackled daring legislation as Canada's solicitor-general

Liberal oversaw creation of CSIS, tracked down war criminals and introduced the controversial Young Offenders Act

Special to The Globe and Mail

Robert Kaplan may be remembered as something of a paradox. He was a politician - and a genuinely nice guy.

Kaplan's demeanour never seemed to veer from gentle, thoughtful and amiable. Known widely as "Bob," he projected decency. But make no mistake: As the federal Liberal solicitor-general from 1980 to 1984, he was tough and single-minded enough to shape and shepherd some of the most daring legislation the country had seen.

It was on Kaplan's watch as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer that Canada created its first spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS); tracked down and prosecuted the first Canadian citizen to be charged with war crimes; and introduced the controversial Young Offenders Act.

"He was an activist, especially on war crimes," recalled fellow cabinet member and former solicitor-general Herb Gray. "He left a definite mark on the legislative program of the country."

The files before Kaplan were sensitive, and former prime minister Jean Chrétien, a cabinet colleague at the time, declined to comment on them. But about Kaplan himself, Chrétien recalled: "He practised his French with me. If I addressed him in English, he would say to me, 'Jean, speak to me in French.'

"He was very devoted to his riding [and] very preoccupied with social issues. He was a good citizen and honourable person. I never heard anything bad about him."

Kaplan "was such a decent guy that he probably wouldn't have survived very well in today's House [of Commons]," former Progressive Conservative MP Ron Atkey, the first chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body set up to monitor CSIS's activities, told The Globe immediately after Kaplan's death from brain cancer on Nov. 5 in Toronto at 75.

Kaplan rode the wave of Trudeaumania in 1968 when he was elected to the House of Commons in the Toronto riding of Don Valley, beating his Progressive Conservative rival, Dalton Camp, one of the best-known Tories in the land, by 5,000 votes.

"In order to beat Dalton Camp, you had to have someone credible in the area," said Stanley Taube, who had been Kaplan's friend since 1954 and helped run the '68 campaign. "And Bob was bright, personable and very energetic." Like Pierre Trudeau, he appealed to younger voters.

Defeated in the 1972 election that reduced Trudeau's Liberals to a minority, Kaplan changed ridings to York Centre and roared back two years later with a crushing 16,000-vote defeat of his Conservative opponent. He kept the riding through the next four federal elections, retiring from politics in 1993.

"Whenever Bob had to respond in Question Period, no matter how hard he was being hammered, he always kept his cool and was very well informed," noted former Liberal MP and cabinet member Jim Peterson. "He inspired great confidence in all of us on the government benches."

And he took his share of hammering. Kaplan oversaw the contentious 1984 birth of CSIS, which replaced the RCMP's security arm. While some Mounties welcomed a separate spy agency, especially in the wake of an inquiry that had found widespread RCMP wrongdoings, others did not relinquish power so easily.

Between sorting out jurisdictional roles and placating those who had guarded their territory, Kaplan "faced pressure from all sorts of directions," said John Thompson, past president of the Mackenzie Institute, which studies terrorism, political extremism, warfare and organized crime.

"There were growing pains, and they were going to be very much in place for a decade anyway," Thompson said. "Under Kaplan's watch, it could have been worse if someone else was handling the brief. It was a difficult job and he was good enough for it."

Kaplan "shepherded the CSIS legislation skilfully," Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae told The Globe earlier this week.

The Young Offenders Act was another tough sell. It revamped the 75-year-old Juvenile Delinquents Act, but was widely derided as lax on youth crime, a product of Liberal softness, and was replaced in 2003 by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Robert Phillip Kaplan was born in Toronto in 1936, the first child of Solomon Kaplan and Pearl Grafstein. He studied sociology at the University of Toronto and later graduated from U of T's law school. In one summer, he worked as a guide at the Canadian pavilion at the World's Fair in Brussels. The experience cemented his love of French and international affairs.

The following summer, 1957, he was among some 30 Canadian students chosen to go to Nigeria and the newly independent African nation of Ghana with the World University Service of Canada. The point was to study a changing continent but the trip altered Kaplan's life in another way: It was where he met Trudeau.

The two became friends and according to Taube, Kaplan was among a small group of intimates who encouraged Trudeau to seek the Liberal leadership in 1968. By then, Kaplan had left his Toronto tax law practice to work full-time on Ontario's Draft Trudeau committee.

Once in office himself, Kaplan faced pressure from Canada's Jewish community, which looked to their co-religionist for action on as many as 200 suspected Nazi war criminals living here. Kaplan was often slammed, notably by Holocaust survivors, for perceived foot-dragging on the file.

But that accusation was unfair, believes historian Irving Abella, who worked with Kaplan as head of the Canadian Jewish Congress's war crimes committee.

"I thought he was terrific. He was fighting an internal battle. The prime minister did not want to move on war criminals. He felt that this would be bad for the Jews because it would raise tensions with other ethnic groups. I know that Bob Kaplan courageously fought the prime minister to bring forward the war crimes agenda. He was almost alone in doing it."

Kaplan's sole victory was against Albert Helmut Rauca, a sergeant in the Nazi SS who entered Canada in 1950 and became a citizen six years later. In 1961, the West German government issued an arrest warrant for Rauca, who stood accused of playing a direct role in the murder of 11,584 Jews between 1941 and 1943 in Kaunas, Lithuania, including having personally murdered women and children.

The file languished until 1972 when West Germany asked the RCMP to locate Rauca. But officials were stymied because of spelling discrepancies in his name. Subsequent searches found evidence that Rauca was indeed living in Canada but privacy laws prevented disclosure of his whereabouts.

As solicitor-general, Kaplan had had enough of red tape. He asked (some say ordered) the passport office to divulge Rauca's personal information to fulfill Canada's extradition obligations. In May, 1983, Rauca was extradited to West Germany, where he died five months later while awaiting trial.

"There was only one success [in prosecuting Nazi war crimes] and Bob Kaplan was responsible for it," said Abella.

Emboldened by the Rauca case, Kaplan quietly ordered the RCMP to begin investigating between 100 and 200 other suspected Nazi-era war criminals on lists supplied by Canadian Jewish groups and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. A short time later, the Liberals were voted out of office.

In retirement, Kaplan served with the Canadian delegation to the United Nations. He later became the Honorary Consul of Kazakhstan in Canada, and served on several corporate boards. Last year, Kaplan was in the news when he donated a royal coat of arms that had once hung in the parliament building in the pre-Confederation capital of Montreal. He had purchased the mostly intact metre-high artifact carved out of pine for $300 about 30 years earlier at an open-air flea market in New York State.

Though some faded spots had been coloured in with crayons by Kaplan's grandchildren, he agreed to donate the item to Montreal's Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archeology and History. "We were sad to give it up," Kaplan told The Canadian Press, "but I don't think objects of historical importance should be in people's homes, especially in Canada, where we're still searching for a lot of things."

Kaplan's wife of 47 years, Estherelke died in 2009. Together, they authored a book, Bicycling in Toronto . Kaplan leaves his children Jennifer, John and Raquel, 12 grandchildren, and his brother, Michael.

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