In 2002, Chris Stockwell was one of several candidates vying to replace two-term premier Mike Harris, including Ernie Eves (the eventual winner), Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, and Elizabeth Witmer.
Almost everyone in the PC caucus lined up with one of the other candidates. Eves had the most support by far. Only maverick MPP Bill Murdoch stood with Stockwell. When I put that to Stockwell, he replied: “Well, if the other candidates have more than 50 MPPs supporting them, and I’ve just got Bill Murdoch, that sounds like a pretty fair fight to me.”
Chris Stockwell might have been the funniest MPP ever. He just loved being a politician, loved being in front of the cameras, loved the parry and thrust and theatre of Question Period. And, man, could he perform.
Stockwell died this past weekend at the too-young age of 60.
I had heard rumours of Stockwell’s failing health in recent weeks.
I recently sent him an email asking him if it was true — that he was fighting lung cancer. His email response: “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
It pretty obviously wasn’t a denial. I tried over and over to get him to tell me what was going on with him. After all, we’d known each other for 35 years. But he clearly just wanted to go gently into the night without too much fuss.
Stockwell and I first met when he was a member of Metropolitan Toronto Council and I was a city hall reporter for CHFI-FM Radio in the early 1980s. He confessed to me years later that one of his earliest favourite memories of that time was that one of my reports had included a quote from him. “I heard that clip on the radio and thought to myself, ‘Holy cow, someone actually cares about what I say!’”
In 1990, he decided to take his act to provincial politics, challenging rookie Liberal MPP Linda Lebourdais in Etobicoke West. It was a terrible election for the Tories, who came third in Harris’s first campaign as leader, with just 23.5 per cent of the total vote. But Stockwell’s great name recognition and high profile (his father, Bill, had been a local politician) enabled him to get more than 40 per cent of the votes in his west-end Toronto riding and win. One of just 20 PC MPPs at Queen’s Park, Stockwell’s strong performance skills and love of the job vaulted him to the top of the depth charts in the Tory caucus. He had every reason to expect that if the PCs were ever to win an election, he’d have a senior role in the government.
It wasn’t to be.
When the Harris Tories won the next election, in 1995, Stockwell experienced what must have been the worst moment of his political life. Per tradition, all cabinet ministers were invited to the new premier’s office to learn what new portfolios they’d been awarded. Stockwell was called into Harris’s office, too — but not to be offered a job. Harris wanted to tell Stockwell to his face that he would not be joining the cabinet. The new premier told his backbencher that he was too much of a maverick, not enough of a loyal team player, and therefore didn’t make the cut.
Stockwell exploded and began dropping F-bombs:
“F**k you, f**k this party, f**k this government,” he began, launching an extended tirade at Harris before storming out.
Stockwell was in the deep freeze. But he made lemonade out of lemons. He became an even more devoted father, picking up his son and daughter from school every day and establishing closer relationships with them. In hindsight, given his short lifespan, that was probably a good thing.
His spirit of independence turned out to be just the tonic for his next assignment. In October 1996, he was elected Speaker of the Legislature, having built good relationships with MPPs on both sides of the house. Stockwell even occasionally ruled against his own party, further cementing his reputation for independence.
One of Harris’s 1995 campaign promises was to significantly reduce the number of provincial ridings in time for the next election. That meant that in order to get re-elected in 1999, Stockwell first had to compete against another Tory MPP, Doug Ford Sr. — father of former Toronto mayor Rob and current PC leadership candidate Doug — since their two ridings were being merged. Stockwell won that nomination battle, and then the election. Since Harris had a smaller bench to work with after having cut the total number of MPPs, Stockwell did make cabinet this time, as minister of labour.
Despite coming last in the 2002 leadership race to replace Harris, Stockwell was appointed by the new premier, Ernie Eves, to be minister of environment and energy. He decided not to seek re-election in 2003, and the Eves government was defeated by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.
Last March, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, dozens of Stockwell fans gathered at a west-end Toronto watering hole. He looked much older than his six decades suggested. (In his younger days, he smoked a lot.) Bill Murdoch drove down from Grey County and held court telling funny stories all night. It was a wonderfully nostalgic evening.
Ontario politics has lost one of its most distinctive and engaging voices.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.