For most of his 32 years as a member of the Ontario Legislature, it’s been good being Monte Kwinter.
He was there in 1985 as a rookie candidate for the Liberals, watching the end of the 42-year-long Tory dynasty and becoming a significant player in Premier David Peterson’s cabinet. By 1987 he was on his second cabinet post, serving as Minister of Industry, Trade, and Technology (MITT) — he first did a stint as Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations — but some joked that the acronym really stood for “Monte, I Travel and Travel,” given how often Kwinter boarded planes to sell the province of Ontario to the rest of the world.
After the Peterson government’s fall in the 1990, he hung in there for 13 years in opposition, waiting for his chance to get back on to the government side of the House, and eventually did, when Dalton McGuinty won the 2003 election. Back into cabinet he went, this time as Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Even when McGuinty dropped him from cabinet in 2007, the premier cushioned the blow by giving Kwinter extra responsibilities more consistent with his original mission: Chair of the Ontario Investment and Trade Advisory Council, as well as parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Economic Development and Trade.
Strangely enough, four years ago, Kwinter didn’t know he was on the verge of making history until I told him so. A couple of months before his 82nd birthday, the MPP for York Centre became the oldest member of the Ontario Legislature in its history. And even though the 2014 election was still a year and a half away, Kwinter was telling everyone that he planned to run and win again — which he did, for the ninth straight time.
Although Wilma, his wife of many decades, had died in 2010, Kwinter had a new girlfriend (they're still together) and was still enjoying being in politics. And it wasn't long after winning in 2014 before was telling everyone he intended to run again in 2018.
That’s when the story ceased being so much fun. Last fall, Kwinter stopped showing up at the legislature and eventually, we learned, his health had taken a marked turn for the worse. Rumours abounded, and no one seemed to know quite what was wrong.
But this past weekend — and the week after he turned 86 years old — Monte Kwinter made his first public appearances in half a year, and clarified why he hasn’t been that familiar presence in the front row, closest to the doors on the government side of the legislature.
“I’ve had a terrible case of shingles,” he told me yesterday at his annual public skating party in northwest Toronto. “I spent three months on my back in hospital, then more time recovering at a rehab centre.”
Shingles can be incredibly painful and debilitating. In 2003, the host of The Late Show on CBS, David Letterman, contracted a case so severe, it knocked him off the air for a month, and he was only 55 years old at the time. Caused by the same virus that brings on chickenpox, it can show up as a rash anywhere on the body, but it most often appears on the torso.
Seeing Kwinter now, it’s apparent his case has taken a significant toll on him. He needs a wheelchair to get around and has a caregiver constantly at his side. He has pretty good dexterity in his left hand, but his right hand and arm have much less mobility — a real problem for a politician who loves to shake hands and enjoy people’s company. His mind and memory seem intact, but he took more time to respond to questions and engage in conversation than I remembered him needing before.
Yesterday’s return to public appearances was clearly a big deal for both the MPP himself and the Liberals in general. Premier Kathleen Wynne even stopped by to give Kwinter a hug, calling him “a mentor and an inspiration to all of us.”
While Kwinter may have lost a good chunk of his previous vigour, he clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humour. His brief speech to the crowd began: “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Monte Kwinter.” It’s hard to imagine there was anyone at the hockey arena that didn't know the man who’s represented them for the past 32 years.
Not everyone, however, was entirely welcoming. When I tweeted pictures of Kwinter’s first public appearance in months, PC MPP Michael Harris (Kitchener–Conestoga) chimed in with this reply:
It prompted a couple of replies from one man, who thought Harris’s tweet was mean-spirited:
Every day Kwinter spends on the job, he adds to his record as the oldest MPP ever. And if you had any doubts at all, Kwinter would like to dispel them: yes, it is still his intention, health permitting, to seek the Liberal nomination in York Centre and be the party’s standard bearer in the June 2018 election.
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