If you scan the official résumé of mayoral candidate David Miller, you will find little to suggest that he has ever known anything but comfort and privilege: high school at an elite private institution, Lakefield College, near Peterborough, Ont.; undergraduate training at Ivy League Harvard University (four-year degree in economics, magna cum laude); followed by University of Toronto Law School and 10 years in the well-appointed aerie of a major Toronto law firm, Aird & Berlis, where he specialized in employment, immigration and shareholder-rights litigation.
The reality is distinctly otherwise -- and it says something about the man who would be mayor.
Mr. Miller's life, particularly the critical formative years, has been anything but cushy. Born in San Francisco 45 years ago, Mr. Miller was only 18 months old when he lost his American father -- Joe, a teacher -- to cancer. His widowed mother, Joan, returned with her only child to her native Britain, to the ancient village of Thriplow, 13 kilometres south of Cambridge, where she taught elementary school. One year, she even taught her son, who soon started calling her at home what he called her in class -- Mrs. Miller. Instructed by his grandfather that this formality was unnecessary, he took to calling her Joan.
Mr. Miller says memories of his early life begin with a soccer ball, the start of an enduring love of sport. He also remembers that when he came home from playing with neighbourhood friends, the children of farmers, his mother carefully corrected his accent. It was a gesture that both acknowledged the importance of class in postwar Britain and indicated the sense of ambition that Joan Miller nursed for her only child.
Shortly after his grandfather died, Mrs. Miller emigrated to Canada with her eight-year-old son. Mr. Miller remembers the voyage vividly, because he was nauseated for most of it, at least until a steward introduced him to Canada Dry ginger ale; he still drinks it.
They settled in an apartment in Ottawa. By virtue of his early British education, the young Miller was academically ahead of his Canadian peers and found schoolwork easy. His performance, coupled with his plummy British accent, earned him the immediate enmity of his classmates; on several occasions, they communicated their displeasure with their fists.
Mr. Miller quickly shed the accent, as well as the superior attitude that had gone with it.
It was in his Ottawa schools, he says, that the light of class differences and their social consequences first dawned on him. He noticed that when kids from blue-collar homes made trouble, the police were usually summoned; when students from middle-class neighbourhoods got into difficulty, the school called the parents.
However traumatic his entry into Canadian school-yard life, by the time Mr. Miller reached the all-boys Lakefield -- his mother sent him there to expose him to positive male role models -- he already seemed to have developed leadership skills, says Toronto investment banker Nick Lewis, a long-time friend. Some of this was the result of sheer athletic prowess of the sort young men cannot help but admire; nicknamed Boom-Boom (after one of his kicks shattered the crossbar on the goalposts), the fiercely competitive Mr. Miller captained the soccer team and was a star centre on the rugby squad.
But his indoor performance was no less impressive, Mr. Lewis recalls. Mr. Miller stood at the top of the class academically, competed in the debating club, was active in dramatics and, in his final year, was head boy, an elected position. Mr. Lewis says his friend never articulated political aspirations, but classmates would often joke about Mr. Miller one day running for prime minister.
How did a single mother on a public-teacher's salary afford private school tuition for her son? "I won a scholarship and my mother held down three jobs."
During his high-school years, Mr. Miller spent time as an exchange student in Philadelphia, where he ran for the track team. His main event was the 400-metre, a race that demands speed and endurance.
Metaphorically, it's exactly the kind of race he finds himself running now, at the end of his 11-month quest to become mayor. Give it everything you have -- and then more. Despite the polls, which show him with a narrow lead over right-wing challenger John Tory and centrist Barbara Hall, the former 400-metre man is running flat out, convinced that "the poll you love today can kill you tomorrow."
For many veteran observers of civic politics, Mr. Miller's emergence as front-runner is a stunning surprise. Although he brands himself a fiscal conservative, his political orientation is social progressive, which essentially means NDP, a party increasingly relegated to the margins of the Canadian discourse. Indeed, he once ran for the party in a provincial by-election, losing to Liberal Gerard Kennedy.
Moreover, until very recently, Mr. Miller's recognition factor was low -- based largely on his robust challenge to outgoing Mayor Mel Lastman to call an inquiry into the MFP computer-leasing contracts. Mr. Miller won that spirited confrontation on the floor of council, and it went some way toward establishing him as a voice of urban reform and political transparency.
It hasn't hurt that influential civic activists such as Jane Jacobs and June Callwood have endorsed his candidacy. Nor that he assembled an advisory team that crosses ideological divides, including veteran Conservative strategist John Laschinger and union leader Alex Dagg. Another Tory, Bay Street insider Tom Kierans, heads the campaign's fundraising arm, while Liberals Peter Donolo, former press secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and Art Eggleton (a former mayor) are also on board. As Mr. Laschinger says, "Everybody checks their ideology at the door."
Again, this may reflect something of Mr. Miller's talent -- he wins support from mainstream voices, but he has not surrendered his core convictions or dispensed with his working-class legacy. This duality was clear at Harvard -- to which he also won a scholarship. Here he was mixing with the American elite, more than holding his own academically and playing on the varsity rugby team -- but cleaning toilets in the dorms for pocket money.
He spent his summers in Alberta, working on road-paving crews. The regimen, he says, filled him out physically. Now, after almost a decade on the ugly chicken diet that accompanies public life, he has started to fill out in other ways -- he's a hulking, broad-shouldered 6-foot-3 -- though he still runs in High Park and, at least three times a year, carries a 40-pound base drum for nearly 10 kilometres with a Ukrainian marching band.
Returning to Canada from Harvard, Mr. Miller rented a house with Mr. Lewis and enrolled at U of T. After law school, he joined Aird & Berlis, rising to junior partner. "There's a lot of brain power," says Steven Zaken, a former A&B colleague. "David is both thoughtful and intelligent -- the two of those don't always go together."
It was while attending an otherwise "boring legal conference" that Mr. Miller met his future wife, Jill Arthur; they married in 1991. The daughter of a Canadian banker and artist who spent most of their careers in Latin America, she is considered a significant asset to the Miller campaign; also a lawyer and fluent in Spanish, she has spent the past several years working as counsel to Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry. The couple live in a comfortable four-bedroom home near High Park with their two children, Julia, 8, and Simon, 6. They bought it in 1992 for $355,000. Two years ago, Mr. Miller lost his mother to cancer; he still has difficulty talking about it.
In 1994, just before his 36th birthday, Mr. Miller left law to run for city council, beating a future Ontario cabinet minister, Tony Clement, in Parkdale-High Park. He was attracted to municipal politics because he felt it was the arena in which he could contribute most -- and have a positive impact on people's lives. His experience on council has validated that intuition, he says, citing the city's funding of a citizens' group that successfully fought development of the Oak Ridges Moraine and a new swimming pool he helped win approval for in High Park.
Alone among the major candidates, Mr. Miller has managed to take a single hot-button issue -- the proposed bridge to the Toronto Islands airport, and the future of the city's long-neglected waterfront -- and make it a symbol of what a Miller administration might look like -- the end of rapacious development.
One night last week, he dropped into a coffee klatch on the fringe of Rosedale. Speaking for about 10 minutes to a group of lawyers, professors and physicians, Mr. Miller referenced Jane Jacobs, long-reigning guru of what makes cities work. "You build a great city neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and you can't build a great city if you enrich one community at the expense of another," he said.
Indeed, that may be precisely why a seemingly marginal issue like the island airport has had such resonance. "People understand that if the mayor or council can sell out the waterfront to private interests, they will sell out their communities in a heartbeat."
Last of a three-part series