The start of fall has been a particularly tough this year. Yesterday I was informed that James Wright had passed away in a terrible accident.
Many of you – especially outside Montreal – will never have heard of Jim. This fact is not a reflection on Jim’s impact on those around him, but is rather a reflection of his understated nature. Simply put, Jim was an extraordinary person. A man who relentlessly gave his time, his energy and himself to others and yet, despite his innumerable achievements, always kept a surprisingly low profile.
Indeed, this low-key diminutive style regularly caught me off guard. Everywhere I turned in Montreal I would inevitably discover that regardless the cause or group, Jim somehow seemed to be involved. The breadth of his volunteer activities are too numerous to name. Heather Munroe-Blum – the Principal of McGill – listed a few in her press release:
Jim was a graduate of McGill (BA ’65) and Université Laval law school. In 1969, he joined the law firm of Martineau Walker (now Fasken Martineau) where he worked for 30 years. From 1977 to 1979 he was the deputy director of the Compliance Branch of The Foreign Investment Review Agency. In 1999, he was appointed executive director of EPOC Montreal, an organization that provides job training for disadvantaged young adults. In 2003, he was appointed director of the Sauvé Scholars Foundation, which provides one-year study fellowships at McGill to young leaders from around the world. From 1991-99, Jim served the City of Westmount as a councillor. He also served as president of the Wexford Foundation and the University Club of Montreal.
And yet even this list fails to capture of all Jim’s activities – such as his role as a Board Member (and I believe, one time president?) of Volunteer Canada and a Governor on the Board of McGill University.
But the list of volunteer activities – while revealing – fails to capture what made Jim so impressive. What defined Jim’s was his optimism and compassion, traits made evident by the manner in which he and his family opened up their home and their lives to those they helped. Many Canadians opt to dedicate their lives to public service but I’ve yet to meet one who did it with Jim’s warmth, openness, and giving nature.
This was how I got to know and love Jim. Those of us fortunate enough to become Sauvé scholars were generally outsiders to the Montreal community. This was true for me, a Canadian, but even more so for my fellow scholars who hailed from far away places such as China, Nepal, Bhutan, South Africa, Iran and Pakistan. Jim’s connections within McGill and throughout the Montreal community enabled the program to run smoothly and maximized the opportunities available to us scholars.
More importantly however, Jim made Montreal our home, not simply by his work as the program’s Executive Director but by literally opening up his own home and life to us. All the scholars (and their friends) regularly visited the Wright’s house for parties, dinners and other get togethers. Indeed, more than one Sauvé Scholar took up temporary residence in the Wright house to bridge between their time as a Scholar and their subsequent job.
For myself, my time at Sauvé house saw Jim and I’s relationship evolve from that of charge, to adviser, to mentor and then friend. I return annually to the house, both to connect with the new scholars and seek advice from Jim on my next steps. And I am not unique in this. There are now over 60 Sauvé Scholars spanning the globe. For some Jim continued to be a good friend, for others, especially those who remained in Montreal, he also continued to serve as a source of community and advice. One such scholar, Meriem Maza, was visiting the Wright’s at their cottage and was also tragically killed in the accident.
Saturday was a dark day for me personally, I remain full of disbelief, frustration and sadness, trying to feel glad that I at least knew Jim, and that I have him as a model to aspire to.
Saturday was also a dark day for the Sauvé Community and for Montreal more broadly. We lost a founding spoke in our network – the man whose compassion and work helped bind us together as a community. Equally tragic, we lost one of our peers, a bright and established talent who was our fellow scholar. In the emails that have floated through the Sauvé community so many have referred to Jim as their father in Montreal, others, who studied with Meriem, refer to her as a sister. These are voids no one will be able fill.
Jim with the 2004-05 Sauve Scholars