His sense of humour showed during a trip to Iguazu Falls, when they piled into a 12-foot Zodiac and got soaking wet near the roaring water. Passing a big boatload of tourists on the way back, Mr. Sousa jumped up and shouted in Spanish: “Oh my God, we barely survived!”
“That almost emptied the larger Zodiac because he looked so bedraggled,” Mr. Oosterbaan laughs. “That was the quality of the guy – he was a lot of fun.”
Mr. Sousa joined the Federation of Portuguese-Canadian Business and Professionals, becoming president. Among other projects, he helped organize a trade mission to Portugal and set up programs to teach children Portuguese. His ethics were also clear: Once, the federation needed a legal opinion, and a lawyer on the board offered to provide one. Mr. Sousa maintained that would be a conflict of interest. “What impressed me was his ability to get everyone working together. He always took the high road,” then-board member Joe Pinto says.
Through his involvement in the community, he began to rub shoulders with politicians, meeting Paul Martin in the early 1990s. Over the years, as Mr. Martin rose to the top of the federal government, Mr. Sousa was one of the business leaders he consulted.
While Mr. Sousa clearly had a grasp of economics, Mr. Martin told The Globe, he was also interested in policy areas ranging from immigration to labour to health care.
“He understood – and it was very much a part of my own make-up, there was a compatibility of views – that you weren’t going to deal with the financial deficit unless you also dealt with the social issues that led to it, like poverty and the inability that some people had to have a real opportunity,” Mr. Martin says. “He was a person of ideas, which is one of the reasons that I would seek him out.”
Around this time, Mr. Sousa was promoted to the bank’s government-relations department.
It was a difficult era. Mr. Martin had recently turned down RBC’s attempt to merge with the Bank of Montreal and the country’s finance industry was trying to repair its relationship with Ottawa. Mr. Sousa’s calm, conciliatory style was an asset in that endeavour.
“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,” says Charles Coffey, his boss at the time.
He made the same impression on then Liberal MP Steve Mahoney.
“He had a sense of stability,” Mr. Mahoney says. “I never saw him as an ‘ambitious-type politician,’ but more of a stable, take-care-of-the-knitting type of guy.”
Mr. Sousa credits his time as a lobbyist with developing his understanding of social policy. It helped that his boss was Mr. Coffey, who co-wrote a provincial report on early-years education. Under Mr. Coffey’s mentorship, Mr. Sousa says, he developed interests in women’s issues, education and aboriginal rights.
As he approached mid-life, Mr. Sousa began to think about jumping into politics. His motivation, he says, was to leave a legacy.
“To feel accomplished, to be able to do something of more value,” he says. “I’m looking at: What are my kids going to think of me? How are they going to benefit from the work I do?”
Mr. Sousa joined the Liberals around 2000, becoming a fixture at party events and making friends in the Mississauga South riding association. One was Darryn McArthur, a business consultant and long-time Liberal volunteer. Another was Tanya Guy, who says people “gravitated” to his modest, personable presence.
“I’m not sure if he had that real passion or that drive or that need to be in politics,” she says. “But he really wanted to do something meaningful with his life.”
Ms. Guy, Mr. McArthur and a few friends became the nucleus of Mr. Sousa’s first campaign team. In 2007, when MPP Tim Peterson defected to the Progressive Conservative Party, Mr. Sousa defeated him in the subsequent election.
The morning after, Mr. McArthur recalls, he and Mr. Sousa went for breakfast at a pub and he caught a glimpse of the new MPP’s unflappable demeanour.