Last week, on a day when the entire political class was watching Ottawa, Ontario MPP Gerry Phillips announced his retirement.
Occasionally in life, you get to work with someone you completely and unreservedly respect. Maybe it's an inspiring teacher who instills you with self-confidence. Or a dynamic leader in your organization who makes change happen. Or wise mentor who always seems to know how things are going to unfold.
For anyone who had the pleasure of working with him, Gerry Phillips is this person.
For 24 years, Gerry has been the MPP for Scarborough-Agincourt, a rapidly changing community home to one of Canada's most multi-cultural populations. Before entering the Legislature in 1987, he started three companies and employed 300 people. He was chair of the Metro school board, and chair of the Scarborough General Hospital board.
He served as citizenship and labour minister in the Peterson government, then finance critic for a dozen years in opposition, and chair of management board, minister of government services, acting minister of citizenship, minister of energy, and chair of cabinet in the McGuinty government.
Ontario has a beautiful Veterans' Memorial on the lawn of the Assembly because of Gerry.
Gift cards in Ontario no longer expire. New transmission lines were built. The Rouge Park got bigger. Gerry Phillips had a hand in all those.
Many has been the ticking political time bomb handed off to Gerry Phillips to defuse. Few have ever gone off. He has a magical power - akin to Herb Gray's "Gray Fog" - to make any subject so calm and sunny and dull that it can only be compared to a Jedi mind trick: "These are not the droids you are looking for."
But Gerry would be the first person to eschew individual accomplishment. As he said while announcing his retirement today, politics is a team sport.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment then is spending 40 years in public service without bitterness or cynicism. His hilarious tribute speech at the farewell event for long-time political jousting partner Ernie Eves remains legendary. The press gallery at Queen's Park lament losing a valuable member of the football pool.
But Gerry Phillips could be deadly serious and effective when needed.
Perhaps the best distillation of his character comes from this story on Gerry's dogged pursuit of the truth about the shooting death of native protester Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995. It's by Alison Blackduck, a reporter for Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, Nunavut. The story was printed in the Toronto Star on May 15, 2001. I reprint it here in full, because I only wish I could write like this.
In a brief telephone interview, Gerry Phillips renewed my faith in politicians and the mainstream political process.
In the short, yet telling, time during which we spoke, the Liberal MPP not only renewed my faith in politicians, but he also gave me hope that Dudley George will ultimately be remembered as an unfortunate victim of government incompetence and a man who received the justice and dignity that, ideally, should be everybody's due.
I interviewed Phillips about his years of dedication and his most recent political manoeuvre via telephone last Thursday. Over the thousands of kilometres separating us - I was in my Iqaluit office, Phillips was in his Queen's Park office - and through the noisy telephone line whose satellite delay echo and noise sometimes cut into our conversation, an indelible image of Phillips, whom I've never met in person, formed in my mind's eye.
I envisioned somebody who knows intuitively how to bend strategically, and as Ani DiFranco sings, "What doesn't bend, breaks."
Yesterday, Phillips, the MPP for Scarborough-Agincourt, was to make a motion at Queen's Park demanding that Premier Mike Harris call a public inquiry into the suspicious death of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995.
It's the second such action that Phillips has taken in the Legislature since early 1996, when he promised the George family he would do whatever he could to honour Dudley George's memory with the truth.
And there's nothing Phillips wants for his years of dedication except the truth.
He's not in it for the money - there is none - and he's not in it to enhance his reputation - he earned that long before the tragic events of Sept. 6, 1995.
"When I heard about the situation at Ipperwash, something didn't ring true to me; this was not a dangerous situation," he explained in his trademark laconic drawl (a distinguishing feature noted by George's older brother, Sam: "The tone of his voice can make you relax, it's unaggressive . . . it has a gentle sound to it.")
"Then as I started getting into it," Phillips continued, "I found an enormous amount of contradiction in what the government said happened and what other evidence said happened."
During our conversation, Phillips tried to downplay his instrumental role in "keeping it alive" (as Sam George puts it), but he couldn't explain precisely why he's worked so hard on pressing for a public inquiry.
"I kind of walked slowly into it rather than it suddenly dawning on me. It was more like a Polaroid picture developing than an instant snapshot," he tried to explain. "I know Ipperwash, I spent two weeks every summer as a child there. I have a relationship with it, I knew the reserve there, Kettle Point.
"You say, 'There's something funny here, there's something that doesn't seem right,' and as you examine it in more and more detail, you realize that something isn't right. In fact, there's something terribly wrong," he said.
By his modest and conservative estimates, Phillips admits - reluctantly - that he spends, on average, four hours per week working solely on tracking down evidence and thinking of new strategies. Some weeks, he says, it's more like 20 hours. In total, he's put more than 1,000 hours of work into the case. So far.
"I do believe I know more about this than anybody; I've got paper, you know, different pieces of evidence that stands more than five feet high," Phillips said.
His interest, Phillips said, is not purely professional nor based on a rigid personal moral code.
He believes he owes his time to the remaining George family, especially Sam.
"It is personal. I know Sam and I do think he's a very warm, generous guy who, having been through all of this, still maintains a warm, positive feel about him," Phillips said. "That's partly why I'd feel badly if I gave up on it . . . Sam's a decent person who deserves an answer."
But what if Phillips' latest manoeuvre isn't successful?
"I always hope that we're going to be successful, but I never assume we are. I'm always thinking ahead to the next move. If this one doesn't work, what's the next move?
"Almost always in my life if I'm working on something where clearly I'm on the right side, dealing with the right answer, if I work hard enough at it, I'll eventually be able to sell it," he said.
"I've never come close to thinking this is the end of the road. Even (if it doesn't work), there are more roads to drive."
All power to him.
In 2003, the Ontario government called an Inquiry into the death of Dudley George.
Thank you, Gerry.
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