Rebel with a cause
After nine years on the attack, Sheila Copps is learning the lessons of power
A sober navy Buick LeSabre limousine waits outside the arrival lounge of the Ottawa airport, its engine purring, a handsome civil service chauffeur holding the door. Sheila Copps, fresh off the plane from Hamilton and an early-morning speech, climbs into the back seat where an aide waits to brief her on the way to Parliament Hill before Question Period. Once she reigned over that raucous daily televised serial as queen of the party’s Rat Pack, the liberals’ most feared lip, who terrorized Brian Mulroney and his government for nine years with her high-decibel denunciations, her Patronage of the Week awards and queries that cut straight to the heart of hypocrisy. But these days, she finds herself on the other side of power—and the questions. As minister of the environment, she must brace herself for others to do unto her what she built her reputation doing unto the former regime. And all the more so on this day when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has stayed in Shawinigan, Que., leaving her to sub for him in her new role as deputy prime minister.
For Copps, the title ought to provide sweet revenge. After all, wasn’t it Mulroney who branded her “shrill Sheila” and refused to take her questions? Now she races up to a spacious fifthfloor corner office in the Centre Block, where he spent the waning days of his political life after being replaced by Kim Campbell. During the election campaign, Reform party Leader Preston Manning listed five reasons not to vote Liberal—one being the prospect of Sheila Copps as deputy prime minister. Now Manning’s office is next door to hers and she delights in sweeping past it on her way to do battle in the Commons two floors below. Mischief skitters through her eyes as she recounts one fantasy left unfulfilled: “I wanted to jump up in the House the first day, and say: ‘See, Preston, your worst nightmares have been realized!’ ”
But these days, Sheila Copps holds her tongue. Well, at least for the most part. It is a lesson she learned the hard way. In early December, when Chrétien disappeared for a golfing holiday to Florida and his office initially refused to divulge his whereabouts, the press pounced on her. Finally, one reporter threw out the bait: Does that mean nobody’s in charge? Copps walked straight into the trap. “I’m running the government,” she said. “I’m here as deputy prime minister. I chaired the cabinet today and in terms of issues that are going to be raised, I’m in full control.”
She woke up to headlines the next day portraying her as
crazed with power, one columnist dubbing her “the Al Haig oi Canada.” That reference was to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981, when his first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, rushed in front of the TV cameras with unseemly haste to declare that he was in command—an assertion to which vice-president George Bush did not take kindly. But Copps had been unaware of Haig’s gaffe. At the mention of his name, she found herself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. “People joked about it for weeks,” says one key Ottawa liberal. “She didn’t walk in and say, ‘I’m in charge.’ But because it became such a joke, it was clear people weren’t that comfortable with that notion.”
In fact, what seems clearest about the incident is that, in the current charged climate of sexual politics, the feisty 41-year-old
‘See, Preston, your worst i
MP from Hamilton East has become the latest national lightning rod for the prevailing ambivalence about women in power. From speculation on the real motives behind Kim Campbell’s disaster at the polls to the current attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton as the evil genius behind her husband’s Whitewater scandal, the jokes and insinuations have been flowing fast and misogynous.
Ever since the Liberals swept into power last October, scarcely a week has gone by without some cartoon lampooning the uppityness of the politician whose title, at least, has made her the most powerful woman in Ottawa. In one week alone, unprompted by any event or utterance, The Globe and Mail ran a caricature proposing a new Olympic event—“the Sheila Copps biathlon: run 10 miles and shoot your mouth off”—while Toronto Star cartoonist Peter Pickersgill featured an apocryphal news bulletin announcing that Great Lakes pollution was causing reduced penis size. “Here at the ministry of the environment,” exults the Copps look-alike, “we call it the Bobbitt effect.”
Ironically, those barbs come at a time when there have never been more women in the Commons—53 out of its 295 seats, nearly a third more than in the last Parliament. Copps—who fills in for Chrétien this week while he vacations—points out that the Liberal women’s caucus of 36 MPs and four senators now boasts as many members as the entire party did when she arrived in Ottawa after the Mulroney landslide in 1984. In those days, her fearless antics and unfettered tongue made her the chief headline-catcher of the rambunctious handful of young MPs who kept the party on the media map. It was a calculated strategy and she shouldered her rebel role with gusto, even posing for a 1985 Saturday Night magazine cover in black leather on the back of a Harley-Davidson. But that public image that once served her—and the party—so well now threatens to hold her its prisoner. “She’s never really been in power,” says former Ontario premier David Peterson, whom she challenged for the 1982 provincial Liberal leadership. “You can be an absolutely brilliant member of the Opposition that just destabilizes the government all the time. But the flip side of that is: will the actual exercise of power change her?”
Monique Bégin, who was appointed minister of revenue under Pierre Trudeau in 1976, warns that it must. “It’s one thing to be powerful in Opposition; it’s another to be powerful in power,” she says. “In Opposition you can be individualistic in a way that is totally forbidden in power.”
Nobody is more aware of that leap than Copps. Typically, she sticks to one of the rules she set out for prospective women candidates in her 1986 book, Nobody’s Baby: Never look back. She waves off the incident as “frankly, a tempest in a teapot.” But she notes with a knowing smile: “I don’t think it’s the kind of question that would have been asked of a man.”
In Copps’s three-room office suite, where her own quirky clawfooted sofa sits uneasily amid the government-issue oak, the minister of the environment shuttles between desks in the final minutes before Question Period. A Michigan radio station has reported that, with approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Detroit Edison is ready to dump 1.9-million litres of radioactive waste water into Lake Erie from its disaster-prone Fermi2 nuclear plant. She scrambles to call the U.S. Embassy and her staffers across the river at department headquarters in Hull, Que., marshalling the facts. Briefly, the old bloodlust seems to be rising, the sense of moral outrage that was her Opposition signature—and her connection to voters. Back in her Rat Pack heyday, she would have leaped on the case. Sparks would have flown across the House floor. But suddenly there is a sense of anticlimax as she reins herself in. Copps marches down to Question Period braced to play defence—to keep a lid on the issue until the Opposition pounces on it.
That psychological turnabout is still an awkward fit for a born scrapper. “You know what I find difficult?” she says. “In Opposition, you know when your question is coming. You build up the adrenaline, get your two-minute hit and then it’s over. But now the pressures are on for the whole hour.”
On a deputy prime ministerial day such as this, she rises from the seat beside Chrétien’s and whacks back her brisk rebuttals to Reform and Bloc Québécois slapshots with effortless zeal, staunchly defending the government’s game plan. For Copps, it seems like so much child’s play—and a lot less fun. Outside, in the corridor, reporters know that she is still good for a quote. But her sound bites have become standard nightly newscast fare: the de rigueur defence of the new status quo. “It’s fascinating,” says one adviser to Finance Minister Paul Martin, who would be Copps’s chief rival to succeed Chrétien. “I’ve never seen her so quiet.” And some longtime supporters worry whether power will muzzle her—a concern she shares. “I hope I don’t get buried in gobbledegook,” she says.
Later that day, at her first appearance before the standing committee on the environment, she invites Opposition critics to take her on. But not a single hostile question surfaces. Unveiling a plan for the “greening” of Environment Canada—including a switch to ethanol for the departmental fleet, beginning with her own ministerial Buick—she proposes extending the process to every government branch under a new environmental auditor general. “I guess I’ll be doing a good job if I have everybody mad at me,” she says. And by last week’s Globe ’94 Conference, she seemed well on her way. She had worried business groups with warnings of upcoming curbs on
ihtmares have been realized!’
coal, oil and gas to reduce the greenhouse effect, and angered both Europeans and environmentalists by declaring that “a lot of people in the European community are using the green argument of Greenpeace to make green bucks.” In fact, all winter she seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet to animal rights activists by unabashedly wearing a black leather coat trimmed with fur. “I’m profur,” she shrugs. “It’s a renewable resource. I’ve always said, if people are vegetarians I appreciate their views. Otherwise, if you wear leather shoes or a leather belt, it’s a farce.”
But by the end of her committee testimony, Reform critic Myron Thompson has invited her to drop by his rural Alberta riding and wished her luck in “this horrendous task.” Even Copps herself seems stunned by the warmth. Still, that warmth has not been accidental. Earlier, she had met with Opposition critics, inviting them to contribute to the shaping of her agenda—a standard tactic of consen-
sus-building that they had never expected from the media star known as “the mouth that roars.” In fact, after her first day in the new Parliament, a Reform MP approached her from across the aisle, astounded. “He said, You’re so different than what I thought!’ ” she laughs. “I said, ‘I’d have to say ditto.’ ” As she notes: “If you’ve been in politics as long as I have, you do develop some skills as a team player. You can’t be a lone ranger.” Agrees David Peterson: “Sheila knows how to fight like a man.”
In fact if the Rat Pack rebel seems suddenly to have vanished from Parliament Hill, friends point out that her leave-taking began four years ago when she threw her hat into the leadership ring against Martin and Chrétien. Not only did Copps work at retailoring her public persona—getting her colors done and donning a chic new wardrobe from Alfred Sung—but as her best friend, fellow Ontario MP Bob Speller, points out “When she thought she might become prime minister, she started to look at all sides of the picture.” Now, Copps talks of the difficulty of building a Liberal team—“and keeping it together when the crunch comes”—an enigmatic remark until she makes clear that her fighting days are not over; they have merely moved into the inner sanctums of the cabinet and caucus. “Now, the biggest battles are internal ones,” she says. “People envisage their teammates as opponents—and that’s hard for me.”
On the day after the throne speech in January, Globe and Mail columnist Giles Gherson reported that “insiders are making much of the fact that during Mr. Chrétien’s European trip last week, cabinet wasn’t presided over by Deputy PM Copps; it was cancelled.” In fact, Copps insists the cabinet decided to scrub its weekly meeting while Chrétien attended a NATO summit in Brussels so ministers could extend their Christmas recess. “It was never scheduled,” she says, “so it was never cancelled.”
But the column served notice: insiders’ knives were out. Ever since Chrétien named her his deputy, the reactions from fellow politicians and much of the press corps have veered between two extremes. On the one hand, some hint darkly that Copps could turn out not unlike the ambitious harpy caricatured in the capital’s satirical magazine, Frank, where a running gag features her briskly trying to bow aside the hapless Prime Minister. On the other, they dismiss her appointment as mere tokenism—all title and no clout.
Last December, the Toronto Sun summed up the confusion. “Is she qualified to be second-in-command of the country?” puzzled Sun columnist Joe O’Donnell. “Can someone with a career in Opposition and a legacy of controversy do the job? Is she another Dan Quayle?” By the end, O’Donnell had reassured his readers that if Chrétien had taken a risk with her appointment, he had also played it safe: “Copps,” he wrote, “will have neither the authority, the staff, nor the office space given Mulroney’s deputies.” In fact, Chrétien’s entire government is a fraction of the old Conservative machine. And as for losing out on former deputy PM Donald Mazankowski’s digs across from the Commons, Copps insists she gladly ceded it to House leader Herb Gray. “Actually,” she says, “my office is bigger.”
But even one of Mazankowski’s own former aides points out that neither floor space nor perks is the real measure of power in a job that exists under no order-incouncil. Ever since Pierre Trudeau created the post for Allan MacEachen in 1977, a deputy prime minister has enjoyed as much muscle as his or her boss allowed. “What you have to look at is the cabinet committees and how they’re managed,” says a former top Tory aide. “Maz chaired the operations committee, the day-to-day management of the government.”
In the reorganized Liberal cosmos, the Operations
Committee has disappeared. And Chrétien’s brain trust—led by chief of staff Jean Pelletier and senior advisers Eddie Goldenberg and Chaviva Hosek—have kept the reins of governance firmly tied to the Prime Minister’s Office. But Copps alone sits with Chrétien as an ex officio member of three of the government’s new policy committees. And he named her to chair the fourth, the key social policy committee, which must make hard choices on welfare and unemployment insurance reform, not to mention other skeins of the strained Canadian social safety net. “Believe me, if the Prime Minister did not want her to have a significant influence in the cabinet, he wouldn’t have chosen her to chair that committee,” says Pelletier. “She’s got very good instincts and she’s absolutely brilliant in defining the target.”
But amid the debate over Copps’s power, few know that she came within a weekend of not getting it. On the Saturday after the election, Chrétien had summoned her to his old Parliament Hill office to tell her he was thinking of abolishing the deputy prime ministership. “I was disappointed, of course,” she says. “But I said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ ”
Copps had learned early in life never to show her wounds. Growing up as the daughter of Hamilton mayor Vic Copps, she had been taught to swallow the snide aside that punctured her first public speaking contest triumph: Oh, you got that because of your Dad. And last fall, only her mother and another close friend knew how crestfallen she was. That weekend, she unplugged the phone in her suburban Ottawa condominium, calculating that she had five days to resuscitate her trademark spunk before Chrétien publicly unveiled his cabinet. “I had a big job to do to get myself on a high,” she says. Two days later, Chrétien phoned to inform her that he would, after all, be announcing her as his second-in-command. “I gather,” she says, “that some people had to be scraped off the ceiling.”
What changed Chrétien’s mind? Copps’s mother, Geraldine, a devout Catholic and now a Hamilton alderman, insists that it was the novenas she said all weekend. Another high-ranking Liberal speculates that, having trounced Campbell and New Democratic Party
‘Now, the biggest battles are internal ones’
Leader Audrey McLaughlin, Chrétien could not afford to be seen demoting the top female in his own ranks. “Sure, the gender thing entered into it,” agrees Ontario campaign chairman David Smith. Nor does Copps deny it. “Obviously being a woman was a factor,” she says. “But the nature of cabinet has always been dictated by geographic conditions. Where we’ve been cut out is demographics. Nobody’s ever balked at having a westerner in caucus.”
But one Ottawa observer with insider knowledge suggests another reason for her appointment. “Because they’re afraid of her,” she says. Last summer, when Liberal organizers notified Copps that Chrétien was slated for a swing through Hamilton on Oct. 12, she promptly booked the city’s Convention Centre and mobilized her seasoned party machine. Smith went ballistic. The Liberals had decreed that all their rally sites be kept small to avoid embarrassment. “It is fair to say some of us were a little nervous,” he admits.
To Copps, it felt more like trench warfare. A week before the rally, with 100,000 flyers plastered across the city and 15 buses chartered to ferry crowds in from six ridings, she found out that Smith had tried to get national campaign director John Rae to cancel the event. His advance team had even rented another, smaller hall. “We had a real knock-’em-down on that,” she says. Hamilton was, after all, her fiefdom—the city where she’d started campaigning with her two sisters at age 7 for her father’s first race as controller. For 14 years, she had carried its colors, first in the Ontario legislature, now in Ottawa.
When Chrétien arrived at the convention centre that night, he found 2,000 cheering supporters of every ethnic stripe spilling out the door, the stage ablaze with a driving rock band and a pop star’s
strobe-light welcome. One reporter who covered the event recalls, “You could see it on Chrétien’s face. He was blown away. It became the event of the campaign.”
Copps had talked Enrico Mancinelli, head of the 85,000-member Laborers’ International Union in Canada, into endorsing Chrétien. And when Mancinelli presented him with a gold-plated shovel as a symbol of the job hopes of the union’s 40,000 unemployed, Aline Chrétien was so moved that she jumped up and thanked him in both French and fluent Italian. It was the only public address that the notoriously shy wife of the future prime minister would make during the campaign.
Ottawa insiders may be preoccupied now with trying to calibrate Copps’s influence. But that night in his hotel suite, Chrétien made clear he understood that he had just witnessed the only kind of power that ultimately matters in politics: the Factor X of electability that can inspire workers to fill a hall or a ballot box—and, most important of all now, sell a government’s bite-the-bullet policies. “Some of the Prime Minister’s people might be a little afraid of me,” Copps admits, “but Mr. Chrétien and his wife have been very supportive.”
At a time when Chrétien’s own seat was in doubt, the party was regularly parachuting Copps into Quebec where her ratings outstripped his. There, where TV personality Denise Bombardier once dubbed her “La Pasionara,” she could launch an outsider’s emotional appeal for federalism in her flawlessly colloquial French. “A lot of her power comes from her popularity in Quebec,” says fellow MP Speller, who first met Copps in 1981 when he was sent to work for her as an intern in the Ontario legislature. “Her style, the flamboyancy—Sheila appeals to Quebecers.” Burlington MP Paddy Torsney agrees: “If
they thought she was their token, they got a lot more than they bargained for. Sheila’s one of the few people in cabinet that everybody in Canada knows—and has an opinion about.”
In many ways, Copps is the same breed of political animal as the self-confessed “little guy from Shawinigan” who is her boss. Both came out of the same gritty working-class towns. “Politically, we’re very close,” she says, “in the sense that we always seem to be on the same wavelength.” Copps meets alone with Chrétien every Wednesday after Question Period in his office to plot strategy over coffee. But she makes no pretence of being part of his inner circle. “I’m not a confidante in that sense,” she says. “But I think he has respect for my political antennae, to tell him how the situation is unfolding.” One highly placed Liberal concurs: “She’s not seen as a deep thinker. But if Sheila expresses a view about how an issue will play politically, a majority of the cabinet would defer to her. They’d say, ‘If Sheila says she smells a rat, there’s probably a rat there.’ ”
David Smith now speaks glowingly of her as a team player who doesn’t nurse a grudge. “You could have a lively debate with her and two days later it would be as if nothing had ever happened,” he says. One of their liveliest debates centred on the task Chrétien gave her to recruit more women candidates as chair of the Judy Campaign, named after the late health minister Judy LaMarsh. Among those Copps backed was Karen Kraft Sloan, a business consultant in the north Toronto riding of York/Simcoe. But the party establishment had staked out that safe seat for one of its own, former Trudeau cabinet minister John Roberts. The nomination turned into a bitter backroom fight. As new MP Kraft Sloan acknowledges outside the Commons: “Let’s just say that if it weren’t for Sheila Copps, you’d be walking down this hall with a man.”
Now, Smith is planning an all-is-forgiven roast in Copps’s honor
with some of the old boys, tentatively entitled “Sheila meets the suits.” And she is quietly working to build a new girls’ club on the Hill. On the day the new crop of Liberal women arrived in Ottawa, she threw a wine and cheese party to welcome them, only to find her male colleagues “really kind of nervous. They kept saying, “What do you talk about, anyway?’ ”
In January, former Liberal cabinet veterans Monique Bégin and Judy Eróla held another networking dinner. That day, Copps had weathered a caucus debate over equal representation on the justice panel that had left her furious. “I’d been hearing arguments I thought had been put to bed 20 years ago,” she recalls. “And then I heard Judy and Monique’s stories, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ve come a long way after all.’ ” Ironically, Bégin reached the opposite conclusion. “The backlash is against any woman with real power,” she says. “And the more power you have, the worse it is. It’s very, very subtle these days, but it’s still there.”
One reason for Copps’s elation at the expanded women’s caucus is that others can now shoulder some of the gender battles. “I’m not there just to be the watchdog for women,” she says, “because you get pigeonholed—and again, marginalized.”
Few doubt that she has a larger agenda in her sights. But for now, she will not brook talk of future ambitions. As David Peterson points out: “I beat her but she was loyal to an absolute fault. She was loyal as hell to John Turner and she’ll be loyal as hell to Jean Chrétien.”
Not that anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office is taking her for granted—least of all chief of staff Pelletier. Last fall when Copps campaigned for him, he was aghast to learn that she had plans for a little post-news conference recreation: bungee jumping. Despite his protests, she went ahead and hurled herself off the cliff anyway. “Sheila Copps is a very independent woman,” he chuckles. “She’ll decide on her own what to do—no matter where the advice comes from.”
In the Michelangelo Banquet Centre on Hamilton Mountain where the bleak sprawl of subdivisions meets ancient farmland in a ragged truce, 850 people have gathered in their cocktail finery for The Honorable Sheila Copps Second Annual Dinner Dance. These are her people, the steelworkers and contractors who supply her unwavering sense of roots—and the keen political sonar by which she must now help the Liberals navigate their course. Many like Stan Prowse, the grizzled police dispatcher who volunteers as her local driver, have known her “since she was knee-high—Vic’s kid.” Last year, the fund-raiser sold 450 tickets. But now nearly double that number have paid $50 a head for eight courses and the proximity to her newfound power. Among the crowd, there is a giddy sense of celebration. But when Copps takes to the microphone, she issues a startling invitation. “If I get off track,” she shouts earnestly over the din, “don’t be afraid to kick me in the ass.”
More than once that weekend, she will return to the same theme, thanks in part to the woman who shares a place of honor at her table. On election night, as she watched the returns on TV, ecstatic, Geraldine Copps brought her down to earth with a thud: “My mother, ever the realist, said, ‘Look at those Tories. Just remember: the same thing could happen to you.’ ”
It is a reminder she came by bitterly in the weathered brick bungalow that she returns to each weekend—a house that Vic Copps once mortgaged for a month when the bridge financing fell through on his beloved Football Hall of Fame. In 1976, at 57, determined to prove his mayoral mettle by running the Hamilton marathon, he keeled over in the middle of the track with a heart attack that left him with brain damage. “For 12 years, until he died, my dad was basically disabled and incontinent,” she says, “and unable to call his own kids by their names.” At 24, fresh from a brief journalistic career at The Ottawa Citizen and the disintegration of her short-lived marriage to a fellow reporter, Bill Miller, Copps moved back home to help out. And she watched as all the political glad-handers drifted away. On Copps’s first day on her new job at The Hamilton Spectator, a local Liberal asked her to run in a hopeless seat in the provincial elections slated in three weeks. And although she lost by only 14 votes, she launched her political career. But she never forgot, as she says, “Politics is a fickle partner.”
All through her three years in noisy opposition at the Ontario leg-
islature and her rebellious Rat Pack days, Copps made sure she lived her personal life with equal brashness and zest. In 1984, she was on holiday in Florida when she locked eyes in a Tampa bar with a dashing sometime TV editor named Ric Marrero. Despite later reports that he had a drug conviction, she married him the next summer. In March, 1987, when their daughter Danelle was born, the first delivery to a sitting MP, John Turner announced it in the House. And the day after, the happy couple held a news conference in the hospital. Danelle’s infancy was spent in a carry-cot beside her mother’s parliamentary desk.
To many, Copps’s life seemed like an open book, one where Canadians could keep abreast of the plot whether they wanted to or not. But gradually that plot soured. And in 1990, shortly before she launched her leadership bid—and after Marrero had been arrested for impaired driving—Copps announced their separation. “It wasn’t related to politics at all,” she says. “I think he had difficulty being married.”
Now, Marrero works for the Kidney Foundation in Montreal and sees their daughter every few weeks. Copps, who has sole custody, struggles to cram in the nation’s business before rushing home to pick up Danelle from a neighborhood babysitter at 6:30 p.m. Still extremely close to her family, including her brother Kevin, a Montreal economist, and her longtime executive assistant Danielle MayCuconato, who lives down the street, Copps has crafted her own version of the post-modern family. By now Danelle, who turned seven last week, has become so blasé about trundling along on her mother’s political rounds that she could not fathom why a girl in a Hamilton
restaurant recently wanted her mother’s autograph.
“Are you famous or something?” she puzzled.
Copps dreads the day when her daughter may have to pay for her mother’s notoriety with a schoolyard taunt. And these days she puts her private life off limits to the press. Since her divorce, Copps has dated a succession of men, including Lawrence Cannon, a former communications minister in Robert Bourassa’s government who managed the Quebec blitz of her leadership campaign. He remains a fan of “the gutsy part of her personality—going for the things that bothered the ordinary Canadian.” But he watched as “the people who ran campaigns against her tried to exploit that and give the impression Sheila was a kind of loose cannon.”
For the past year, the man in her life has been Austin Thome, a burly, affable labor consultant who is a former secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Federation of Labor. “He understands politics, so he understands what the life is about,” she says. “If you’re a strong woman, you have to find a fit with someone who has a strong self-image of themselves.” Thome would also seem to have brought a sense of humor to his escort duties. At the diplomatic ball on the night after the cabinet swearing-in, when asked his name for the receiving line, he replied: “Mr. Sheila Copps.”
For the past year, they have tried to keep their relationship out of the media, but that high-profile date blew their cover. Which made it all the more remarkable weeks later when Frank magazine featured Copps’s head superimposed over a curvaceous body in black
lace underwear with the cover headline “Sheila Copps dial-adate.” Inside, the editors confessed to having placed an ad with a Copps-like description, seeking male companionship in The Ottawa Citizen’s telepersonals column. “Sheila Copps, be lonely no more,” their story began, printing up the voice-mail replies—another chapter in their fortnightly portrayal of the deputy prime minister as desperate to find a man. Copps tries to laugh it off. But she seethes over “the message—to put it rather directly—that successful women are de facto ball busters, and obviously can’t be happy as women.”
Last year, pondering the media’s similar mixed messages over Kim Campbell, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin concluded that society prefers only those women in politics who seem safely maternal or beyond the realm of romance. “There’s a rule here,” he wrote. “Women who want to get ahead in politics must give no sign of also being active in sex.” But Copps seemed to provoke a special brand of hysteria among male politicians and the
press, he pointed out. “Might the problem be not just power in a woman, but in a woman who turns them on?” he asked. “Who refuses to choose between politics and sex—just like a man!?” Paradoxically, the sexual sideswipes against Copps seem to come from fellow Liberals at a time when the party most needs her credibility and her charisma. When Copps took to the podium at the Michelangelo banquet hall, the budget had not yet come down. But she already knew that it was a budget the Conservatives might have drafted—one that promised few new jobs for Hamilton or anywhere else. In advance, she was preparing her faithful for the bad news, while exhorting them to stay the course with her. And as the attacks on Chrétien by the unemployed have since shown, it was a shrewdly prophetic piece of cheerleading. ‘There’s an awful lot of hope invested in us,” she would say later, “that we don’t want to let down.”
With that speech, Copps was doing her new job—a job not unlike her old one—and, once again, one on the party’s front lines. Over the coming years, she may be one of the few Liberals with the popularity and political street sense who can sell the government’s economic and social policies to some of the very people they risk hurting the most.
But that new job will require a new public image, one which she is already working to craft. Earlier that day, during a photo session, when a bystander jokes that she ought to pose on another motorcycle, she bristles: “No, no, that’s my past incarnation. Now that I’m sane and solid, I can’t do anything like that any more.” Then, she brightens at another prospect. “Maybe when I leave politics, I should rent one and do like Mr. Trudeau did,” she says. “Say goodbye, and then jump on the back and ride off.” Those watching Sheila Copps’s progress might note that she chose as her inspiration another iconoclast—one who also happened to be the Liberals’ most-celebrated prime minister. □