During his career on Bay Street, Charles Sousa made a name for himself as a conciliator, helping Canada's biggest bank navigate the corridors of government in Ottawa, and deftly smoothing over disagreements whenever they arose.
Later, as an MPP, he proved a consensus-builder when he negotiated a major deal between Queen’s Park and his home city of Mississauga to turn a prime piece of provincial land into a waterfront development.
Through it all, his laid-back likeability served him well as he steadily climbed the ranks of the party and government, culminating with a promotion to Finance Minister in Kathleen Wynne’s administration Monday.
The reward for his politicking prowess, however, is being handed the province’s biggest problem: rein in an $11.9-billion deficit without hurting the economy by cutting too deeply or interfering with Ms. Wynne’s ambitious social agenda. He has no illusion about what awaits.
“We’ve got to think long term, and that’s going to require us to be a bit more bold. But we need to do it carefully,” Mr. Sousa told The Globe and Mail. “We can make some transformational changes without being extreme, so that we protect that recovery, because we need economic recovery and renewal.”
Born in Toronto’s Kensington Market, where his father ran a wholesale food business after emigrating from Portugal, Mr. Sousa’s family relocated to Mississauga when he was a child. After university, he started his own company providing financial services to small business. Later, he went to work for RBC, first as a commercial account manager, then as a senior marketing manger at the firm’s investment bank. In his last role, he oversaw relations with policy makers in Ottawa.
Charles Coffey, who headed RBC’s government relations department at the time, said he could tell Mr. Sousa already had political ambitions.
“As long as I’ve known him, he has been a political junkie, in the context of following politics very closely,” said Mr. Coffey, who describes Mr. Sousa as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. He also possessed a unique ability to move between Bay Street and “Main Street,” able to arrange loans for small businesses while also grasping the principles of high finance.
Mr. Sousa became involved in politics through his membership with various business associations. In 2003, he met John Tory after hearing him speak at a luncheon organized by the Portuguese business community, and became one of a number of Liberals who worked on Mr. Tory’s mayoral bid against David Miller. Mr. Sousa held the post of campaign co-chair.
Mr. Tory remembers being impressed with Mr. Sousa’s energy and enthusiasm, tempered by his low-key, professional demeanour. “What you see is what you get with him. He’s a decent, well-spoken, businesslike person and I think he’s made-to-order for the finance department,” Mr. Tory said.
In 2007, Mr. Sousa secured the Liberal nomination in Mississauga-South and was elected to the legislature. He was promoted into cabinet in 2010, becoming labour minister, and jumped to citizenship and immigration a year later.
During this time, he distinguished himself through his constituency work, particularly when citizens’ groups in his riding opposed provincial plans to build a new power plant on the site of the old Lakeview generating station. Those involved credit Mr. Sousa with helping bring the city and province together to hammer out a memorandum of understanding that will see the site turned into a dense, mixed-use waterfront neighbourhood instead.
“He really shared our vision for creating a great waterfront … And he’s worked tirelessly towards that end ever since he’s been elected, he’s been absolutely outstanding,” said Mississauga city Councillor Jim Tovey. “Charles and I were on the phone, literally daily, getting the memorandum of understanding done.”
And Mr. Coffey says these skills may yet serve him well balancing the demands placed on a finance minister.
“He is a consensus builder. He’s a realist. There’s not an ounce of ego with him, and he’s not a brash ‘look at me’ guy,” Mr. Coffeey said.
RBC chief executive officer Gord Nixon said Mr. Sousa faces a tough job taking the financial reins of the province at a time when financial growth is slim and the deficit is high.
“It’s going to be a challenge, this province has got a structural deficit and the only way to deal with [it] is to make a lot of the tough decisions and ensure that revenues are growing and expenses are declining,” Mr. Nixon said. “The priorities are the economy and the budget. It’s too easy just to talk about the budget and expense control without recognizing that the economy and growth is an equally important part of the equation, and obviously it’s a challenge because it’s hard to cut expenditures and grow revenues at the same time, but they both have to be an area of focus.”
Mr. Sousa acknowledged this problem in his leadership campaign, pledging to boost the economy through long-term infrastructure spending on transit while simultaneously beating back the deficit.
“I recognize that it’s not going to be easy,” he said Monday. “If it was easy, it would have been done already.”