A bash in honour of Sheila Copps might heal old wounds, or open up new ones
Sheila Copps, who
is rarely at a loss for words, is struggling with what she’ll say next week at a Liberal party shindig being thrown in her honour. Not that long ago, Copps was in the fight of her life, pitted against fellow Liberal Tony Valeri, not to mention Paul Martin and other party brass, in a fierce battle over the nomination for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek prior to the 2004 election. The one-time deputy prime minister lost and was, in her words, “shunned” by the party she’d thought of as family for almost 30 years. She was left feeling betrayed and devastated. Now, Copps finds herself invited as the guest of honour at an event being promoted as a way for the bickering, still-divided Liberals to come together. Former and current party bigwigs, as well as future leadership contenders, are expected to turn out. Once the party pariah, Copps has been cast
in the role of peacemaker, even though she isn’t actually a party member any more. She says the personal battle wounds have more or less healed, but she’s still got problems with the Liberal Party of Canada. “There is a need in the party for self-evaluation and reflection,” she says, in an effort to be diplomatic. “But when somebody’s throwing a party for you, you don’t want to be the messenger of doom.”
It puts her in a quandary: “The thing I’m a bit worried about is what I’m going to say.”
As a woman notorious for speaking her mind, Copps has reason to worry. She’s under pressure to play nice, not just from a feeling that she should be polite, but from organizers of the event. Recalls Dennis Mills, the man behind what’s being referred to as the King Edward Accord, after the swank hotel where it will be held: “I said to her, ‘Sheila, this isn’t a night of jousting. This is a night of positive energy and positive renewal. And everyone is coming under that belief and view.’ ”
Mills came up with the idea over lunch with Liberal MP Paul Zed at the Trattoria Vaticano restaurant in Toronto’s trendy Yorkville district. Celebrating Zed’s election win, they
got onto the subject of the deep rift among Liberals. Mills felt that unless the party began a process of “reaching out and healing,” it would not be able to renew itself. Copps was a long-time Liberal who he felt had been badly
‘WHEN SOMEBODY’S THROWING A PARTY FOR YOU, YOU DON’T WANT TO BE THE MESSENGER OF DOOM’
treated. “Those types of actions shouldn’t happen,” says Mills, who is a master organizer. (He pulled off the Rolling Stones concert in 2003 to help SARS-stricken Toronto; he also was a master coordinator of the 2002 visit of Pope Jean Paul II.) “No one in public life is perfect. We’ve all made mistakes; we’ve all thrown grenades from time to time,” says Mills, who lost Toronto-Danforth to NDP Leader Jack Layton in 2004. “But we in the Liberal party have to turn the page and get on with a brand new start.”
As much as Mills is intending to build bridges with the group-hug/cocktail party, he risks aggravating the rifts. Already, holding the party in Copps’s honour has raised the ire of some Liberals, who complain she openly supported the Tory candidate who ran against Valeri and gave advice to the NDP in the last election. And there seems to be a slight disagreement over where the money raised will go. Attendees are required to pay $50 to cover costs. In addition, they are invited to make a donation in Copps’s honour. Copps wants it to be used to support women and leadership. “I’m really interested in trying to figure out how to break the glass ceiling,” she says. Mills says it should go to women candidates in the Liberal party. “I intend to talk to her about that. In all fairness the people who are coming are Liberals. They tend to think of it for women in the Liberal party, not other parties.” Says Copps: “They want to put at least some of the money to women in the party. I’m not adverse to that, but I do think it’s a bigger picture than simply women’s nominations. I said I would like to see it go more broadly.”
That’s just the beginning of Copps’s squabbles with the Liberals. Copps, who looks rested and healthy, apart from a broken ankle suffered when a dinghy flipped over onto her leg while she was on holiday in Mexico, makes her living now as a journalist, writing columns in English for the Toronto Sun and in French for Le Journal de Montréal, as well as regular radio and TV spots. She’s acted in a play (Steel Magnolias) and performed in Le Match des étoiles, a Quebec version of Dancing with the Stars. She has no intention of returning to public life. “I’m rediscovering my life. I doubt very much that I’ll ever be back in politics.” That doesn’t stop her from thinking about it, or even dishing up advice. The Liberals might benefit, she thinks, from a stay in opposition. And they shouldn’t rush into a leadership
convention. And she’s not sure a wingding party is
going to solve a whole lot.
“The core of the problem is the internal divisions in the party,” she says, blaming former prime minister Paul Martin. “We ended up in a party that was divided unto itself. He has to accept responsibility for that.” It won’t be so easy to repair the damage, she suggests. “The road map out of it is not one evening, but a lot broader and deeper.”
Copps’s words of advice come from a lifetime in politics. Well-known as a left-leaning Chrétienite, she was Jean Chrétien’s deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1997. Her political heft and close association with him served her well—she held five different cabinet posts—at least until Martin took over the party’s reins. As much as she was accustomed to barbs—the one-time Rat Packer was famously called Tequila Sheila by Tory John Crosbie—she was finished off after first losing her challenge to Martin’s leadership bid and then losing the nomination battle to Valeri. “I didn’t get beaten up,” she said at the time, “I got done in.”
Copps has advice for her friends and former colleagues. “It’s not bad to spend time in opposition, but the time has to be spent wisely.” The party needs to listen to its grassroots members and find out what went wrong, she adds. As an example of the party being out of touch, she points to a meeting scheduled for the end of March meant to determine, among other things, the price of entry to the leadership contest. Amounts of $300,000 to $500,000 are being tossed around, she says, complaining that at that price, “You’ll end up with a very elite group that will not be able to spark the imagination.” She suggests that money is the main attraction of leadership hopeful Belinda Stronach, daughter of billionaire Frank Stronach, founder of Magna International Inc. “Part of her appeal is that she’s extremely wealthy and from a successful business family,” Copps opines. “The hesitation I would have about her candidacy for the leader’s job is that her political experience is very minimal. In order to rediscover our roots, it shouldn’t just be about money and business.”
Copps also questions the Liberals’ plans to head quickly into a leadership race, recommending instead they first hold a policy convention. “Maybe this is unwelcome advice,” she says, “but the party needs some time to discover its heart before it discovers its head.” Criticisms aside, Copps looks chuffed about the upcoming bash. The snowballing number of attendees has meant switching the party to the hotel’s largest hall, to accommodate the more than 500 now expected. Copps even hopes Paul Martin will make an appearance. “It’d be great to see him,” she says. As long as she can find something nice to say. M
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