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Larry Zolf, CBC Viewpoint « Douglas Fisher



Saints and Sinners, April 15, 2002

All my life I’ve been pushed by the Great Depression, my father and the universities I attended to respect and worship saints in politics, be they J.S. Woodsworth or Pierre Trudeau. No one ever asked me or pushed me into a worship of sinners in politics. Yet it’s to the sinners of the political world to whom I am incurably drawn.

I respect socialist icons like J.S. Woodsworth and David Lewis immensely. My father took me as a child to Woodsworth rallies; my ties to David and Stephen Lewis date back to the 1950s. But my favourite socialists are both sinners.

My socialist MP as a child was the sinner and Scottish chartered accountant, Alistair Stewart. Alistair ran off with a North Winnipeg rabbi’s daughter. The favourite socialist sinner of my adulthood is Doug Fisher. In 1957, Fisher defeated C.D. Howe in one of the greatest political upsets ever. But sometimes Doug the Giant Slayer put his big foot in his big mouth and that endeared him to me.

Fisher, the rising star of Canadian socialism, told a 1961 conference organized by young Brian Mulroney that French Canadian culture was really only hockey player Rocket Richard and famed stripper Lilli St. Cyr.

My love of sinners led me inexorably to a thesis on the hard drinking and womanizing Liberal premier of Ontario from 1934 to 1942, Mitch Hepburn. Mitch used to stash his mistresses in various government departments. In the 1960s, all these mistresses had wonderful retirement parties to which I was often invited.

All this is by way of formally introducing today’s greatest Liberal sinner of them all, Tammany Hall’s gift horse to Liberalism, the Happy Warrior of Toronto-Danforth, one Dennis Mills, MP. At a huge Toronto waterfront film studio, over 1,000 Liberals recently crowded into what was ostensibly a Liberal fundraiser and night of awards for ingenuity, but was really a giant tribute to Dennis Mills. It was also a not-so-subtle launch of Dennis Mills’ future run for the federal Liberal leadership.

Canadian history has been cruel to Liberal backbenchers and lone wolves who run for the brass ring. In 1958, the good Reverend Lloyd Henderson of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, got enough signatures to run against Lester Pearson and Paul Martin Sr. for the Liberal leadership. Henderson was also a delegate to the convention. He was the only one to vote for Lloyd Henderson.

In 1968, Henderson got enough signatures to run against 10 cabinet ministers for the Liberal leadership, but failed to be chosen a delegate. That time, Henderson got zero votes.

Dennis Mills is no Lloyd Henderson. The guest speaker for Mills was Brian Tobin, making his first political speech since his abrupt withdrawal from politics. From the podium, Tobin credited Mills for the very first time with the successful Canada Loves Quebec stunt in Montreal during the 1995 referendum.

David Collenette, the minister responsible for Toronto and a fierce Jean Chr├ętien loyalist, noted that Mills’ views on ingenuity and the economy were not quite Chr├ętien Liberalism. Still Collenette went on to praise Mills as the Happy Warrior, the great street smart master of Toronto’s political sidewalks.

Sheila Copps was talking Mills up with anyone who came her way. Richard Mahoney, Paul Martin’s campaign chairman, was present and shrewdly assessing Mills’ future impact on the Liberal leadership race.

At times, the Mills’ ingenuity event looked like a replay of Frank Capra’s State of the Union. In that movie, Spencer Tracy plays an honest businessman seeking the party nomination who has to hold his nose and cater to awful special interests like labour, farmers and ethnic groups.

Dennis Mills is also a businessman. Mills ran the legendary Toronto special events business, Chairman Mills, for years. He was also a corporate vice-president at Magna, Canada’s largest auto parts empire.

But unlike Spencer Tracy, Dennis Mills just loves to cater to special interests. Greeks for Mills chanted their tribute on camera. Italian Liberal MPs Tony Ianno and Joe Volpe were effusive in their praise of Mills. Bob Friesen, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture paid Mills back for his many Save the Family Farm concerts.

A real sight for these sore eyes was Buzz Hargrove, head of the Canadian Auto Workers in a close tete-a-tete with Belinda Stronach, Magna CEO. Papa Stronach, who had just digested a “$54.7-million payday,” was also on hand to urge Mills on in his pursuit of wedding capital and labour support. Representing small business was Catherine Swift, CEO, Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

High society was out for Dennis Mills as well. Carol Grafstein and Cathy Bratty, two of Toronto’s most glamorous glitterati socialites, were present with husbands, Senator Jerry Grafstein and Rudy Bratty, Toronto’s largest and most influential developer.

With such a wide and varied support, you might be tempted to think of Mills as some sort of new Liberal saint. But relax, there’s plenty of the sinner in Mills to attract the curious and playful.

Mills likes to style himself as the most left Liberal in the land. His amateur sport and hockey policies have made him the darling of the sporting set. But Mills clings to his own version of the single tax, a concept the media have already shot to smithereens. Mills is a Catholic with more than a passing acquaintance with His Holiness the Pope. Mills’ Catholic-based, socially conservative views could get him in trouble with both liberals and the media. Mills can be excessive and stubborn.

Still, Mills can laugh at himself and has done so often. He doesn’t seem to mind being tagged with the sinner label. He’s a happy warrior who wants to spread Liberal manna to the masses. Last week with one major event, the acknowledged master of special events Dennis Mills turned himself into a walking special event – and a potential contender for the Liberal leadership.