Former MPP Chris Stockwell remembered in the Ontario Legislature
(Queen’s Park) – On April 17th, the Ontario Legislature paid tribute to the memory of Chris Stockwell, who represented Etobicoke as a Member of Provincial Parliament from 1990 to 2003. He served as Speaker of the Legislature, and was later a Cabinet Minister responsible for several important portfolios. Mr. Stockwell passed away on February 10th, 2018. He was just 60 years old.
Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky, St. Catherines MPP Jim Bradley and Wellington-Halton Hills MPP Ted Arnott participated in the tribute, speaking on behalf of their respective Caucuses.
The following is the text of the remarks that day taken from Hansard, The Official Report of Debates in the Ontario Legislature:
Mrs. Lisa Gretzky: It is my privilege to rise on behalf of Andrea Horwath and Ontario’s New Democrats to pay our respects to Chris Stockwell.
On paper, Chris’s political career is notable, even when viewed in short strokes—independent, ambitious young man wins a seat on municipal council, then goes on to a career as MPP, Speaker of the House and cabinet minister. Even amidst the controversy that accompanied the end of his career, Stockwell was a valued member of the PC caucus and drew the begrudging respect of his colleagues across the aisle, as a capable and worthy adversary who gave as good as he got. But as impressive as those accomplishments are, they only tell a very small part of the story.
While only a small number of Ontarians have had the privilege of sitting in these benches, Chris is among a handful of MPPs whose service stretched beyond the boundaries of riding and party.
I never had the chance of serving with Chris, but it’s clear from the research that he was a defining presence of life at Queen’s Park for his generation in a way that few others ever have been, which is no small feat when you consider that he never held the office of Premier or party leader during the course of his career.
Chris’s acerbic wit was a hallmark of his tenure as an MPP. Often, even the targets of his barbs couldn’t help but laugh at his well-timed heckles as he established himself in the early stages of his time at the assembly.
As one of the few rookie PC MPPs to win a seat in the NDP sweep in 1990, it was obvious that Chris knew how to handle a challenge; but his decision to run for Speaker in 1996 after being left out of Mike Harris’s cabinet is perhaps the defining moment of his political career. It was no secret that Stockwell did not have the support of the Premier in his bid for Speaker, but his relationships with both his PC seatmates and other MPPs helped him win the position, and he would go on to leave his mark on the world in more ways than one. In the chair, Stockwell’s notable rulings against his own party further earned him the respect of his colleagues across the aisle, largely on the basis of his ability to partner his fierce partisanship with an authentic appreciation for the values and traditions of the assembly.
Speaker, it’s clear that Chris very much enjoyed the pageantry of the Speaker’s job, as I have heard stories of how he made dramatic motions with his robe and sat regally perched in the Speaker’s chair like a king on the throne.
Chris’s impact on Queen’s Park wasn’t limited to his fellow MPPs. Undoubtedly, the Clerks-at-the-Table have a few of their own Stockwell stories—in fact, probably too many to count and maybe some that they shouldn’t share. And because of his way with words, he fostered a special relationship with the press gallery of his day. However, it was his inclusion of his family into this role that would leave a unique imprint on the office. Actually, the member from Windsor–Tecumseh just told me a story about how Chris’s kids used to play ball hockey in the hallways. As a Gretzky, I can certainly appreciate them wanting to play hockey anywhere.
During his time as Speaker, Stockwell’s children were a fixture at Queen’s Park and continue to be so in perpetuity, as Chris made the point of including their presence in his official portrait, which commemorates his service. While we remember Chris for his contributions to public life, it was his commitment to his family that resonated most.
Today we are joined by members of Chris’s family in the Speaker’s gallery. Chris may have been the name on the ballot and the face in the public eye, but it’s clear that you, his family, were very much a part of his journey and essential to his success. I want to thank you for sharing Chris with the people of Ontario.
Mrs. Lisa Gretzky: I wasn’t done yet.
Although Chris left Queen’s Park in 2003, he never left politics. In the words of his obituary, he “was never far away from the pulse of politics, working as a political adviser, radio commentator and consultant on all things political.” As always, he carried the distinctive charisma and presence that made him stand out as an MPP.
In closing, I look forward to the tributes by the members—I believe the member from St. Catharines is going to speak and the member from Wellington–Halton Hills, as we pay our respects to a great parliamentarian.
Thank you, Chris, for your passion for both this great city and our great province. May you rest in peace.
The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Further tribute?
Mr. James J. Bradley: This is a very difficult tribute to deal with in the House, because most of what I would like to say cannot be repeated in the kind of company that we have here today.
Chris was very colourful, if I may say, in much of what he had to say and in the choice of words that he would always make. So I wrote down a few words a few minutes ago that I thought would describe him very well: unorthodox, outrageous, irreverent, bombastic, ostentatious, loud, dramatic, incredibly funny, sometimes profane, excitable, intelligent, compassionate, likable—he had an infectious grin, of course—wide-eyed, quick-witted and politically incorrect. There used to be a show on television called Politically Incorrect. Stockwell would have been the person who could host that easily, because he was politically incorrect, but in a very nice way.
Yvan Baker, who is the member for Etobicoke, would love to give this tribute because he had the opportunity to attend a wake which some of us would like to have attended and didn’t get a chance to. It was held in west-end Toronto just before a holiday weekend. There was a gathering of Chris’s friends and admirers on that occasion, and one of them was Yvan Baker. It was very kind of him to permit me to eulogize Chris on this occasion.
There are many stories that you could tell about him, and some that you can’t tell. Gloria Richards, who is in the gallery today, could tell many of those stories, because from time to time there might be a gathering in the Speaker’s office—this doesn’t happen now—that would go well into the morning where matters of mutual interest were discussed, with refreshments provided by the then Speaker, Chris Stockwell. That’s the way he was. He could transcend political boundaries and political parties even though he was a strong Conservative.
I read a couple of things about him being a red Tory. I never saw Chris as being a red Tory. I remember one day he said to me—he was talking about the PC youth. He used another word instead of “PC” that I would never use in a chamber of this kind, but he said, “Bradley, you think I’m right-wing; you should see what the PC youth are like.” He did not, as I say, use the word “PC.”
He was prepared to, I think, be flexible on occasion, but always stuck to his principles. He may have been seen as a bit of a red Tory, because he certainly had a streak of compassion and something for the little person in our society. Again, you had to like him even when he was insulting you in a very nice way, always. You had to like Chris because of that.
There are many stories you could tell about him all the time. Some of you know that I am a hockey fan and a sports fan. One day, as we used to do, I called up two of our Speakers—Gary Carr and Chris Stockwell—and said, “Why don’t we go to a playoff hockey game in Buffalo?” So we had to pick up Chris in Etobicoke because he had insisted on being picked up there.
We arrived in Buffalo, and there’s a place called the auditorium club. You couldn’t get in unless you were properly dressed. In other words, blue jeans were not acceptable. You know Stockwell was wearing blue jeans. Only he would have the audacity to say to the maître d’ that it might be nice if one of the waiters’ pants could be provided to Chris so he could enter—not ones they were wearing; don’t worry. In fact, that happened. He was able to get in and enjoy it at that time. We had great conversations on the way.
We did support him, many of us, for Speaker, not just to stick our fingers in Mike Harris’s eyes—although that may have been, back in those days, one of the motivations one might think of—but because we thought he would be truly independent, and he was truly independent. It was an independent streak you don’t often see in politics. Even though he was a partisan, a PC partisan, he certainly showed that degree of independence.
When we had the all-nighter going on here at one time over a major piece of legislation and the House was brought to a standstill, I was sitting on that side of the House—yes, that side of the House on that occasion, as the opposition House leader. I said to him I was worried because we had been up all night. I wanted to go back to the apartment and perhaps get an hour’s sleep or so, but I was worried that Ernie Eves, who was the government House leader at the time, would come back and something would happen and I wouldn’t be there. Stockwell’s answer—and I know Ernie won’t be offended by this—was, “Oh,” he said, “don’t worry about Ernie. He doesn’t get up until 10:30 and his hair won’t be ready until 11:15.” That was vintage Stockwell.
We also knew—and, particularly, I think members of the PC party would know—of the McCoys and the Hatfields, who had their battles. Well, the Fords and the Stockwells had their battles as well. On one particular occasion, Chris emerged victorious to take the nomination over Mr. Ford, who was at that time the sitting member. It was really a pitched battle. Chris said it was no-holds-barred and he emerged victorious.
Again, you often hear today how things are hyper-partisan and that they aren’t always as nice as we’d like them to be. But Stockwell, he had that smile. I’m going to use a couple of props that you see in the newspaper. That was Stockwell. He always had that infectious smile on his face, that mischievous grin, when he was really up to something. That made him extremely popular with all of us.
He was not afraid to confront the highest people in the province. When it was announced that he was not going to be a part of the executive council—or the cabinet, as we know it—he did, in a very expressive way, inform Mike Harris what he thought. They said something about F-bombs, and I don’t know what that means, but several were used on that occasion. I think Ted Arnott has a more benign way of saying it, but he did use colourful language to describe why he was annoyed with Mike Harris not making the logical choice of putting Chris Stockwell in cabinet. He was not afraid to insult even the most powerful people.
A reference was made to the 1990 election. This is where you really see something about a person—1990 was not a good year for the Progressive Conservative Party. They finished third. They got about 23% of the vote, yet Stockwell won a seat in that particular election, which was something you didn’t expect. You would have expected that maybe the NDP would have won it, because there was an NDP wave coming on that occasion, but Stockwell turned out to win that particular one.
When I think of him, I’ll always think of him with fondness, as all of us will, whether he was a municipal councillor, an MPP, a Speaker, a cabinet minister or a media darling.
The last thing I want to say, because reference was again made to this: You remember kids when they were kids. I remember the kids when they were kids, and down the hallway, if you looked down the Speaker’s hallway, there always seemed to be a ball hockey game going on at that particular time. You try to envision in your mind these kids, and of course they’re now grown up. He was very, very affectionate towards the family. He wanted to ensure the kids could come down and enjoy the Legislature but not be a nuisance—except when they were playing ball hockey in the hallway; they were a bit of a nuisance then.
There are people who are unforgettable in our lives and certainly in politics. One of the people in this House and another person I thought of was Peter Kormos, whom most of us knew as well. When you think of people like that, they are truly unforgettable. We are very grateful to the family for sharing Chris with us for the period of time they did, and I know the municipal people would say the same thing. He will be remembered forever in our hearts and in our minds and in our memories.
The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Further tribute.
Mr. Ted Arnott: The greatest of parliamentarians, Winston Churchill, speaking about his fellow political colleagues, once said: “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”
I remembered that quote when I first heard that our friend Chris Stockwell had passed away on February 10, just over two months ago, far too young and too soon. Chris had that same glow, just like Churchill. It lit up every room he entered, every speech he delivered in this House and every interview that he gave. Like Churchill, Chris was a politician, yes, but he was also one of the most remarkable and able parliamentarians who has ever paraded through these halls.
But enough things Churchillian; we’re here to focus on things Stockwellian.
Chris Stockwell was the embodiment of Etobicoke—its neighbourhoods and its politics. Steve Paikin recently wrote that Chris Stockwell was maybe “the funniest MPP ever.” It’s true; Chris was very, very funny. While serving with him, it once struck me that Chris had the talent to make his living as a stand-up comedian. Later, it struck me: During his time as an MPP, he did make his living as a stand-up comedian.
From 1990 to 1995, during his first term in the Ontario Legislature, he quickly clued in to the potential TV audience tuning in to the then relatively new legislative channel. Our primetime slot soon became around 4:30 or so to 6 p.m., because that was when Chris would take the floor, virtually every day. We could have called it the Chris Stockwell Show: Live and Unplugged, but some days it would have been better called the Chris Stockwell Show: Live and Unglued. It got to the point that the legislative channel’s ratings started to soar because people came to know that Chris would be speaking in the House and they began to plan their afternoons around it. It was an incredible time for this House.
Some of us in the PC caucus, who were modestly used to thinking of ourselves as the natural governing party of Ontario, found it a bit difficult to accept the humbling epithet of third-party status. We were at times frustrated and discouraged, but Chris single-handedly gave us the morale boost when we needed it the most. Energetic, exceedingly quick with a quip, sharp-tongued, sarcastic, dogmatic and a self-styled scrapper with no patience for hypocrisy or anything dull, his contribution in those years made him the class of the class of 1990.
Even though his criticism of Bob Rae’s NDP government made him the darling of the press gallery, I don’t recall his comments in this House as being overly personal. As a matter of fact, even though he deftly, and with precision, skewered them, there was always that grin on his face and that glint in his eye. In my memory, he was never mean-spirited towards our political adversaries—never mean-spirited. It’s something to think about today and remember in the coming weeks.
Of course he also took the time to learn the standing orders assiduously, so that one by one he could break each standing order systematically, which of course he did. That was why he was one of the most unlikely Speakers this place has ever had. He said that he’d have an easier time as Speaker than most MPPs would because if he was in the chair, he wouldn’t have Chris Stockwell to deal with. Unlikely, yes, but he shone as Speaker—again, that glow.
He came to be recognized as one of the greatest Speakers in the history of the Ontario Legislature. Many of his rulings were precedent-setting, based on his own sense of humour and what was right and what was true as he saw it.
He never lost his impish sense of humour, and I’m convinced sometimes he said bizarre things just to see if anybody was paying attention. One time, shutting down the House at the end of a long legislative day, he said, “This House stands adjourned until 1 p.m. tomorrow, according to the clam chowder act.” His office would later get a call from Hansard staff asking if the Speaker had actually said that. His assistant Maxine McGuigan would dutifully confirm that, in fact, yes, Mr. Speaker had said that.
He presided over one of the longest and most protracted legislative impasses, not just in Canadian history but possibly in the history of the Commonwealth. Bill 103, the City of Toronto Act, was intended to amalgamate Toronto and create the megacity, as the media called it, to drive greater efficiency and accountability and save money for taxpayers. The bill was very controversial at the time and apparently even inspired an activist or two to become involved in politics, one of whom became the Premier.
When the NDP tabled 13,000 amendments to the bill, we were here, stuck in the Committee of the Whole, voting on the amendments one by one. It went on and on, 24 hours a day, for nine days—one sessional day, April 2, 1997, that actually lasted nine calendar days.
Chris had to deal with many angry points of order from his former caucus colleagues. I remember one particularly heated exchange, and Chris pulled me aside and said, “Tell them they decided to go into the Committee of the Whole, and I can’t get them out.” Of course, he was right.
During that time, Speaker Stockwell, the Clerk and the table staff delivered 22 separate rulings, each one researched and written while everyone battled the exhaustion that accompanied the filibuster. He would tell Deputy Clerk Deb Deller, “Don’t worry. We’re on the side of the angels on this one.” Deb told me that his words had a calming effect on the table staff. I have to say that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that Chris Stockwell had a calming effect on anybody.
As his tenure as Speaker came to a close, he faced an uphill battle to be nominated by our party to run again in the 1999 election. This was caused by the fact that we’d adopted the Fewer Politicians Act and were dramatically downsizing the Legislature from 130 seats to 103 seats—a net reduction of 27 MPPs—to take effect for the 1999 election.
While it was popular to reduce the number of provincial politicians, of course it also meant that a large number of our caucus members would have to run against each other in nomination battles, some of which were epic. And what a battle we had in the new riding of Etobicoke Centre. In the end, Chris prevailed and was nominated to run again for our party.
Our government was re-elected a few months later with a second, albeit reduced majority, and Chris was invited to serve in the cabinet as labour minister. This time, they dared not keep him out.
When the opportunity arose to seek the leadership of our party in 2002, Chris seized it and added colour and flair to the race. While he was not elected party leader the next year, he was appointed government House leader and Minister of the Environment and Energy, three onerous and significant responsibilities. He served in these roles with the same heart and determination to succeed which had been his hallmark going back to his first election to the Etobicoke board of control in 1982 at the age of 25, the youngest member they had ever had, and his term on metro Toronto council in the late 1980s.
We all know that in every political career, there are ups and downs. It’s the same for all of us who are privileged to serve in elected public office. We all have qualities which cause us to seek the opportunity to serve, and all of us who are elected have the backing of our constituents. This is what makes our service possible. We all seek to make a contribution, make our communities better, and the province a better place for our efforts. But we’re all human and fallible, and we all make mistakes. Nevertheless, we are sustained in the knowledge that every life is measured in its whole. We all seek to ensure that the good we have done outweighs the regrets. We live and we learn; we give and we grow.
Chris Stockwell lived and learned, gave and grew. He was a great man who achieved great things. I considered him a friend and I am honoured to pay tribute to him today on behalf of the Ontario PC caucus.
We are joined today by the Stockwell family, whom Chris loved so much and who loved him as a son, husband, brother or dad. We thank them, just as we thank our own families, who sustain us with their love and support, but who also know the sacrifice that must be made in terms of time away from home as we do this job to represent our people.
Our former leader John Tory once said that if you looked up the word “maverick” in Webster’s dictionary, you would see a picture of Bill Murdoch beside the definition. I would add that if you look up the word “maverick” in the Oxford dictionary, you will see a picture of Stockwell.
I cannot speak for Chris Stockwell, but I know that just like Winston Churchill, Chris would expect us to stand up and fight for our constituents, stand up and fight for what we believe in, stand up and fight—and fight on principle—whatever the consequences and, if need be, remind those who believe it is only the party leaders that people vote for and who forget that Parliament matters as the collective voice and will of the people—to tell them to think again.
God bless Chris Stockwell.
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Ted Arnott, MPP