OTTAWA — While cameras showed the House of Commons engaged in a 30-hour voting marathon in March, behind the scenes Liberal MP Bill Casey was locked in negotiations with his colleague Rodger Cuzner to buy a boat.
“At the beginning of the vote he owned the Jolly Rodger — and at the end of the vote, I owned the Jolly Rodger,” Casey told HuffPost Canada in an interview about his upcoming retirement.
Outside of the Ottawa bubble, the Cumberland—Colchester MP restores old cars and boats and flips them for profit. He cracks a big smile thinking about the boat he got from Cuzner, the MP for Cape Breton—Canso.
“I was cleaning it out and I found a bra and five bottles of hand sanitizer. So I took a picture of them and I said, ‘Rodger, what do you want me to do with these?’ And he said, ‘What happens on the Jolly Rodger stays on the Jolly Rodger.’”
It’s a fun memory the veteran MP holds on to as he prepares to leave Parliament Hill for the third and last time. There have been some remarkable hairpin turns in Casey’s life and career. He was first elected in 1988 as Progressive Conservative. Then defeated in 1993, only to be re-elected after giving it another try.
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A decade later, he was kicked out of the Conservative caucus, then re-emerged as an elected independent MP. A year later, he resigned his seat to work for the province, swore off electoral politics, only to come back — as a Liberal — in 2015.
Casey is one of at least 40 MPs who won’t be returning to the House this fall. He, like the other two retiring members interviewed for this story, said it was never his intention to become a parliamentarian.
The former Ford car salesman calls himself an “accidental politician” who, on a whim, announced he’d run for office the day before a nomination contest. He won.
“I went home that night and put my head in my hands and said, ‘What have I done?’”
In 2006, Casey was diagnosed with cancer and stepped aside from his functions three years later when his doctor said the stressful lifestyle in Ottawa wasn’t helping his recovery.
In 2007, he was thrown out of the Tory caucus by Stephen Harper after voting against the federal budget. Sitting as an Independent in the back bench, he developed a friendship with Papineau MP Justin Trudeau, who later asked him to run as a Grit.
He sat on the idea for a while until he ran into Maureen McTeer, Joe Clark’s wife, at an airport. She encouraged him to run. And it turned out to be the “most fun” he’s had running for office, he said.
“I think I’m the only one who thinks the campaign was too short,” Casey joked of the 78-day election.
Sitting in his office, hours after the House adjourned for the summer and shortly before his flight home, Casey said he was experiencing every small moment that day through a sentimental lens.
He points to a framed picture at the corner of his office of him leaning over the desk of prime minister Jean Chrétien. Casey was then a PC MP, frustrated because he wasn’t getting anywhere with a project in his riding.
“Projects have to have a champion here.”
A former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot had come forward with an old, infrared image of a buried Acadian village less than two kilometres outside the town where Casey lived his whole life. Parks Canada ignored his calls, he explained. Nobody wanted to help.
He touched on this anecdote in his June 4th farewell speech in the House. He praised the access Canada’s parliamentary system gives backbench MPs because there are ministers in the House every day for question period. So one day, after question period, he walked across the aisle and asked Chrétien for help. Casey ended up in the Prime Minister’s Office in Centre Block, and convinced Chrétien to get involved.
“[Chrétien] called and said there’s a man over at Parks Canada, he’s a friend of mine. I think he likes me. I can’t remember his name, but he’s got an Anglo first name and a French last name and I’ll think about it and call you,” Casey said. He got a call the next morning from the prime minister.
“The man’s name is Alan Latourelle. Anglo first name, French last name. And he hung up.” Latourelle turned out to be the CEO of Parks Canada.
The Acadian village of Beaubassin has since been partially dug up and named a national historic site. A visitors’ pavilion opened last year. Casey pointed to a photo taped to the bottom of the framed Chrétien picture. It’s a print-out of him leaning over the desk of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“It’s me again in the same office at the same desk. The same old member of Parliament, me. Four prime ministers later, with the same piece of paper,” he said, laughing, adding the project took 16 years.
Casey brings out his phone and shows pictures of one his current projects: restoring a 1953 Lincoln. He’s looking forward to catching his suppertime flight home.
“It’s a great job. The lifestyle is awful, but the job is terrific,” he said.
Conservative MP Larry Miller agrees that the lifestyle leaves much to be desired.
“If I don’t eat out of another restaurant, it wouldn’t bother me,” the Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound MP told HuffPost. “I’m sick and tired of it.”
Miller was first elected to the House in 2004. The former beef farmer spent 13 years in municipal politics before going federal. He regards himself as an introvert, even after 15 years of schmoozing on the Hill.
“I still have that very, very private side of me where I just want to be at home, you know, with my family, my friends, sometimes just myself.”
Shortly after the last election, he said he knew he wouldn’t run again. The fire was gone from his belly. Miller likened the gut feeling to Wayne Gretzky. “He knew when it was time to go. And it’s the same with me.”
He hasn’t strayed far from his where he grew up in Ontario’s Bruce County. He lives within five kilometres of where he was born.
Two years ago, he and his wife bought a large waterfront property in Hepworth, Ont. “And that’s where they’ll take me out in a pine box,” he said.
Miller avoids referring to specific examples to not seem like he’s had a case of “sour grapes,” but he said he’s become “very disappointed” with the Liberal government and considered resigning his seat earlier. He said he didn’t because his friends told him he wasn’t a quitter.
In 2015, Bruce—Grey—Owen was one of 29 Conservative ridings targeted by the left-leaning Vancouver-based advocacy group LeadNow. Miller was one of four Tories who managed to keep their seats.
If somebody doesn’t agree with something you say, all they do is resort to name calling. Like, 'You’re a racist.'Conservative MP Larry Miller
The experience crystallized his opinion that the two “real” threats to democracy right now are social media and political correctness. He has a problem with people online who are allowed to “trash anyone they want on it with no accountability… if it happened outside social media, their arses would be up in court.”
People are free to say whatever they want, he explained, but he draws the line at slander. He said people on the far-left and the far-right too easily resort to name calling when their opinions are challenged. “If somebody doesn’t agree with something you say, all they do is resort to name calling. Like, ‘You’re a racist.’”
Miller isn’t a city slicker. He doesn’t enjoy wearing a suit and tie, but deals with his Ottawa uniform because he respects the House and its rules, he said.
Also on HuffPost: Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner bids farewell to House
It’s a respect mutually shared by NDP MP David Christopherson who, like Miller, also arrived in the House in 2004. With 18 years of municipal and provincial experience under his belt before his 15 years in Ottawa, the former Ontario cabinet minister said it “felt like the right time” to say goodbye.
“I have a riding that’s one of the poorest in Canada, there are a lot of challenges and they can’t afford to have anyone give less than 100 per cent all the time,” the Hamilton Centre MP told HuffPost.
“And the truth is, I was finding it more and more difficult just physically to match the performance that I set for myself when I was younger.”
Christopherson developed a reputation over the years for his committee work where he became known for his acerbic comments and institutional knowledge. The latter, he attributed to a series of snap elections that would “weed out members” to which he would turn around and realize, “Hey! I’m now one of the more senior ones again.”
Last year, Christopherson broke rank with his party and voted in favour of a Consevative motion that condemned the Liberals’ rule requiring groups applying for Canada Summer Jobs to sign an attestation to confirm their mandate supports charter rights and freedoms and abortion rights. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh moved to punish him by pulling him out of the vice-chair position of a powerful House committee.
“I thought my leader had made a mistake,” he said, “In my conversations prior to that, I even advised him to give some thought to whatever punishments he was going to follow because there could be a backlash.”
The backlash was swift and loud, forcing Singh to backpedal on his decision. But the experience didn’t ruin Chrisoptherson’s relationship with Singh, he said.
“I have nothing but the highest regard for my leader,” he said, “And I think they’re going to do a lot better than people think in the election.”
As a guy with a Grade 9 education, Christopherson said the odds were against him having the career path he ended up on. He regards himself as a “working stiff that got really lucky.”
He credits his success as a parliamentarian to his parents. His mother was a toastmaster and his first speech coach at the age of 10.
“I was in a school-wide contest that I ended up winning — which I didn’t expect. But I won. And my mum was my coach,” he said, noting his family didn’t have much money. “The notes for my speech were on cardboard that came from the package in pantyhose. So it was five cards and that’s where it came from.”
His dad was a salesman who taught him to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Chrisoptherson said his dad noticed his gift of gab when he picked up the phone one day when he was a kid. Dad happened to be listening in the doorway and told him he did a good job.
“And he tossed me a quarter. Now, getting a quarter out of him was really something,” he said. “Dad gave me the retail ability to get myself elected and mom gave me the ethical framework to carry out that job when I got there.”
Since he’s been on the Hill, Christopherson said little has changed in politics despite concerns that polarization is on the rise. The theatre and history buff made a comparison to ancient Rome: “They had the same problems: fake news, creating scandals about opponents, bribery, diverting people so they were somewhere else on voting day… playing to the crowds. Populists. Elitists.”
Political attacks more personal now, NDP MP says
But similar to Miller’s observations, Christopherson said political attacks are more personal now with people quick to reduce others to being “unintelligible” or “immoral” over differing opinions.
He’s said he’s noticed some of the newer MPs resort to that style of argument. “I find that distasteful. I find it intellectually dishonest. And it’s disappointing.”
The only regret Christopherson has in leaving the world of politics is that he thinks he failed to rouse enough attention over the government’s inadequate funding for the auditor general. “It still breaks my heart that during my watch for the first time ever an auditor general has said I don’t have sufficient money.”
Overall, he’s leaving politics on a high note after ascending to become an MP against improbable odds. Sitting in a boardroom in a government office building near Parliament Hill, he says his advice for future MPs stems from what he tells colleagues who become a minister: give yourself a moment to enjoy it.
Christopherson recalls being a stressed Ontario cabinet minister flying on a government plane. “It was ever so cool,” he said.
“I remember thinking when I was finished that I wish I even had taken just a couple more moments along the way to soak it up, and just enjoy the moment. I do now in memory. But I wish I had taken just a little time with whoever I was with me to say, how cool is this? Like how lucky are we?”