The eight MPs of Ottawa Centre


Surely every parliamentary candidate secretly hopes he or she could be the MP for Ottawa Centre. Think of all the advantages. Bike to work, and home cooking instead of cafeteria food. No tedious cross-Canada flights at weekends. Children around to read Hansard to after supper. A boast of great museums, fine historic buildings and a claim to embrace three rivers (well, the Gatineau does flow into the Ottawa).

Skiing and childhood friends on your doorstep (avoid those who became developers). Lots of bright graduates, lively dinner parties and no complaining farmers. Fun all year round. And, above all, the prestige of representing the country’s core.

Let’s glance at the riding’s 47-year story and at the eight men who have enjoyed this job. Yes, it was created in 1968, and we voters in our open-spirited way have given all three main parties their chance to shine. Four Liberals have had it for 32 years, three New Democrats for 14 years and one Progressive Conservative squeezed in for part of one year. A full field: the riding has drawn hopefuls carrying 15 different banners, from Rhinoceros to Libertarian, and in one election it hosted up to a dozen candidates.

George McIlraith, the riding’s first MP, was hardly new to politics. He’d started with Mackenzie King in 1940, and he had won nine elections earlier in Ottawa West. His political machine ran on smoothly through Pearson’s leadership when, as Government House Leader, he steered the caucus past the rocks of the Flag Debate and Medicare. He was Pierre Trudeau’s solicitor-general, and somewhere along the way ran Public Works and has a bridge over the Rideau Canal named after him. In 1972 he moved on to the Senate, and died in 1992.

Ottawa-born Hugh Poulin was a quieter Member, a lawyer on the Liberal back benches. He couldn’t match McIlraith’s 57 per cent share of the vote and Hugh Segal twice ran close behind him for the Progressive Conservatives. Not his fault; the Liberal vote was fading nationally by mid-1978 when he was appointed to the Ontario Superior Court and resigned.

In the by-election that followed, the Liberals fell to third place and aha! a Progressive Conservative seized the moment. Robert de Cotret is hardly remembered here, as he was out the door within eight months. But he had a doctorate in business economics and, after he lost in May 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark made him a Senator and Trade Minister. He was resilient and resigned to fight – and win – a Quebec riding in 1984, and under Brian Mulroney, had two Cabinet jobs and the Canadian post at the World Bank. We lost a good man.

Am I muddling you? Twice in de Cotret’s case, Ottawa Centre voters went against the tide, and returned to the Liberal stream with John Leslie Evans (1979-84). He was born in Seattle and grew up in Florida, did some time as a professor at UBC and was a prized economist whom the latter-day Trudeau used as Parliamentary Secretary in the Finance ministry.

Here we go again, voting against the Mulroney tide of 1984. The first New Democrat to win here tripped home with 54 votes more than the Tory Dan Chilcott (and Evans a sad third). But Michael Cassidy (in those years our neighbour) was used to close finishes. He had been an Ottawa alderman and gone to Queen’s Park in 1971. He led the party for nearly four years, unkindly described as “an unhappy interlude” after the brilliance of Stephen Lewis. Unkind, for he was a thoughtful if solemn MP, who cared a lot about the Algonquin people. He passed the leadership on to Bob Rae after a poor election showing and headed back to better things here.

Cassidy had a full four years in opposition to the Mulroney government and was in the fight against the negotiations on the Canada-U.S. trade pact, the big issue of the 1988 election. Cassidy wasn’t finished with the “good fight.” Appointed by Bob Rae to the Board of Ontario Hydro, he resisted the Harris government’s efforts to privatize it, and then moved to Lanark to the struggle to keep multinationals from despoiling the Hay River.

Now comes Mac Harb, a bright 20-year-old student arriving in 1973 from Lebanon, who in 15 years got an engineering degree from the University of Ottawa, worked for Northern Telecom, taught at Algonquin College, was elected to Ottawa city council, became deputy mayor, and then beat Maude Barlow for the Liberal nomination – and edged past Mike Cassidy by 760 votes to become our MP at the age of 35. Wow! Is there any stopping him?

No, there was no stopping Harb. Somehow he managed to win the next three elections, reaching a peak of 52 per cent of the vote in 1993 against two strong opponents, and then sliding by stages to 40 per cent in 2000. Time to move elsewhere, he must have thought, and his loyalty to Jean Chrétien paid off with a Senate seat in September 2003.

He made his mark, though not always positively. He fought against Sunday shopping, and said odd things about homelessness in Centretown. He also wanted to legalize municipal brothels. In the Senate in 2009 he introduced Bill S-210 to end the seal hunt and kept up his campaign.

When the Senate housing scandal broke, Harb was charged for mortgage fraud and breach of trust in February 2014. He had already resigned and repaid $231,000 for living expenses that he had claimed for properties in Cobden and Westmeath as his “primary residence.” His trial, due in 2016, concerns mortgages he obtained on these buildings.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Centre seat was vacant from September 2003 until the following June, and Ed Broadbent came out of political retirement in January to win the NDP nomination over Paul Dewar, and then handily defeat Richard Mahoney, the Liberal candidate, by 6,200 votes. But he announced within a year he would not seek re-election, so as to have more time to care for his ailing wife, Lucille. So Paul Dewar was ready to take on Mahoney and win by a margin of 5,000 votes.

This account now impinges on the present election, and should remain non-partisan. So all I will say about Paul Dewar’s next two election wins is that he won by margins of 8,000 and 18,700 over his nearest rivals. And he has been foreign affairs critic since 2011.

Finally, the September issue of this paper carried the profiles of five of the hopefuls (four men, one woman) contesting Ottawa Centre this time. Go to it, and vote!

The Also-Rans

A better title could be “The Might-Have-Beens.” The best of them were four women. Jean Pigott trailed John Evans in 1980; Maude Barlow lost the Liberal nomination to Mac Harb in 1988; Marion Dewar was second in 1993; and Penny Collenette trailed Paul Dewar in 2008. They each shone elsewhere: chairing the NCC; heading the Council of Canadians; being Ottawa’s much-lauded Mayor; and holding the appointments job under Mulroney (and being married to the defence minister).

There were good men, too. Hugh Segal, now Master of Massey College; Irving Greenberg; Ian Lee, the economist; Bryce Mackasey, David Langille and Robin Mathews; and our present Councillor David Chernushenko.

And, doubtless, good winners and losers to come.

Clyde Sanger, journalist, author and poet, is a long-time Glebe resident who contributes to the Glebe Report on a wide range of topics.

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