COVER

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

Copps's challenge now is to put her 15-year political career back on track

MARCI MCDONALD May 13 1996
COVER

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

Copps's challenge now is to put her 15-year political career back on track

MARCI MCDONALD May 13 1996

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

COVER

Copps's challenge now is to put her 15-year political career back on track

MARCI MCDONALD

In the cavernous Hamilton Convention Centre, the irony was as thick as the roast top sirloin being served up on banquet plates. A day after finally making good on her campaign promise to resign if the government failed to scrap the hated Goods and Services Tax,

Sheila Copps was being honored by the 20th anniversary gala of the city’s Status of Women chapter—at a time when her own political status had never seemed more uncertain. At 43, after 15 years in politics, the rebel Rat Packer who rose to become deputy prime minister was battling to win back her job in a June 17 byelection where the stakes had become much greater than her Hamilton East seat. Overnight, Copps found the very qualities that once fuelled her fame—her candor and credibility— called into question. In editorials and on radio call-in shows, even many of her former admirers charged that the feisty parliamentary fighter once known as The Mouth that Roared may have finally quipped her way right out of her own political future.

Publicly, Copps was a study in rueful bravado, wearing her resignation as a badge of honor but refusing to admit the need to retailor her trademark shoot-from-the-lip style. “I certainly don’t think putting my seat on the line was a very smart statement,” she said. “But I’m not looking for a personality transplant. If I only wanted to survive in politics, I could have just brazened it out.” But privately, Copps was far less cocky. Indeed, some of those close to her fumed that she was, in part, the target of a spin control campaign orchestrated by her former—and perhaps future—leadership rival, Finance Minister Paul Martin. Copps herself refused to directly discuss the subject, arguing that she had no desire “to cause a wedge in the party. All I will say,” she told Maclean’s, “is that there’s been a campaign by some people with their own agendas to undercut whatever I do.”

Certainly, many Liberals now agree that Copps’s hopes for succeeding Jean Chrétien have suffered a severe setback. But party whip Don Boudria—the last of the rambunctious four-member Rat

Pack remaining on the Liberal benches—took a contrary view. “Assuming she wins her seat back again, I think she will have come out of this strong,” Boudria argued. ‘Then she can stare at those people who are giving her a hard time and say, ‘I stood by my principles. How about you?’ ”

Days earlier, during the Ontario Liberal convention in Windsor, Boudria had worried as he watched his former office mate fend off reporters’ demands for her to step down. “I went home and said to my wife, There’s something wrong,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘Sheila’s lost her drive.’ ” As he knew, Copps was torn between apparent party solidarity and her shrewd political instincts. But many supporters were troubled by how long it took for her to choose. For nearly a week, the MP who once castigated the Conservatives for their lack of political accountability—brandishing the Rat Pack’s Book of 338 Broken Promises—seemed reluctant to live up to her own much-publicized vow. “So I took four days to make a decision about a 15-year political career,” Copps bridled. “I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

In fact, she had found herself caught in a punishing schedule. But as she escorted Prince Charles to the opening of a Hamilton air museum, she was stunned to hear herself booed. Then, as heritage minister, she found the news conference she called to promote a new copyright bill turn instead on her fitness to remain in office. It was not until nearly midnight Sunday when she landed back in Ottawa that she finally got a chance to talk over her « predicament with her husband, labor consultant Austin 1 Thorne, who urged her to hang tough.

I But the next day, she knew that if she did not live up to

her promise to quit, “my credibility would be toast.” At a downtown automated teller machine, she found herself unable to meet a stranger’s gaze. “It was just me feeling ashamed,” she said. “I felt like my integrity was shredded.” Back at her office, she gathered her longtime political advisers, and, with her husband hooked up by speaker phone from St. John’s, Nfld., she talked over her decision to resign. For Thorne, it was a frustrating moment—out of all proportion to her apparent verbal sin. “If you look at the magnitude of the offence,” he said, “bluntly put, it’s chickens—.”

That evening, as Copps broke the news to her nineyear-old daughter, Danelle, she found herself humming with relief. “It was like lancing a boil,” she said. But the next morning, flying home to the steel town where she had cut her political teeth at age 8 in her father’s first campaign for city council, she was aware of the risk she was about to take. Over the phone, her mother, Geraldine Copps, still a Hamilton alderman, had urged her to quit politics, reminding her of the toll that it had exacted from her father. For 14 years, Vic Copps had reigned as the city’s most beloved mayor. But in 1976, at 57, the man known as Mr. Hamilton had collapsed in a local marathon with a heart attack that temporarily cut off the oxygen to his brain. He lived for 12 years, paralyzed and incontinent, abandoned by those who had once curried his favor. Said Copps: “My mother said, ‘He gave his life and in the end there wasn’t a lot left.’ ”

At 24, freshly divorced, she, the second of four children, moved back home to help support her parents with a reporter’s job at The Hamilton Spectator. But when local Liberal officials begged her to run in a provincial election, she paid no more heed to her mother’s warning than she did last week. She lost that first bid, but Copps persevered, finally winning a provincial seat in 1981. After a stormy three years as the only woman on the opposition benches at Queen’s Park, including an abortive bid to challenge David Peterson for the Liberal leadership, she moved on to a federal berth—and the Rat Pack. In Ottawa, she blossomed as an artful headline-grabber, helping to keep the depleted party in the public eye. Indeed, to many critics like her estranged Rat Pack colleague John Nunziata, Copps is a born opposition politician who has never felt entirely comfortable in government. “I don’t think she ever quite fit,” he said last week.

But Boudria points out that, during last fall’s referendum campaign, Copps’s street-smart French made her one of the few effective federal voices in Quebec. In fact, watching her news conference last week, he became so emotional that he had to leave the caucus room. And before Question Period, he placed three pink roses on her empty desk with a card: “Sheila, come back soon.”

Still, the reviews for Copps’s two-year performance in the environmental portfolio remain mixed. And now, after three months at the helm of the heritage ministry, Copps has provoked the same ambivalence from many in the country’s cultural community. While welcoming her appetite for a fight, critics note that some of her promises have already outstripped her ability to deliver. But as she sets out on the political fight of her life, Copps seems undaunted by the challenge of defending her credibility. After all, as she observed in the 10th rule she offered prospective candidates in her 1986 autobiography, Nobody’s Baby: “In the long run, the truth never hurts.” □