Originally appeared in The Toronto Star (published: 2018-10-03)
by: Bruce Campion
OTTAWA-The walls are bare, the artwork and political cartoons that once hung there are now packed in boxes. Greeting cards dot the desk, offering well wishes. Aides are clearing out their work spaces.
It’s late afternoon and Sen. Art Eggleton has left the Senate chamber for the last time, capping a political career that spans almost half a century, from Toronto city hall to Parliament Hill.
He’s turned 75, the mandatory retirement age for the Senate. Just don’t call it retirement.
“It’s been a long career. I’m very happy about it and very happy to move on to something else as well,” Eggleton says, his hair greyer but his lanky frame otherwise unchanged by the years.
Relaxing in an armchair in his Senate office, he reflects on a working life devoted almost entirely to politics and one that – unexpectedly, some say – championed issues of social justice and inequality.
His political career began in Toronto, first as an alderman and then mayor – he remains the city’s longest-serving mayor – and continued in Ottawa, where he was an MP for 11 years, nine of them as a cabinet minister in Jean Chrétien’s government, and then just over 13 years in the Senate.
The buildings on Parliament Hill fill the views from his office windows. But here in Ottawa, Eggleton never lost sight of Toronto or the urban issues that defined the first half of his political career. And as he spends the last few hours here, those are the topics he seizes on.
He talks at length about poverty and economic inequality. He gives the federalLiberals credit for moving on a poverty reduction plan and a national housing strategy but cautions that there is a “long way to go.”
He hails the Liberal-enacted child benefit as a “great move” for lifting some children out of poverty – 315,000 according to the Liberals – but wonders about the others in low-income households, some 1.2 million as counted by the 2015 census.
“This is one of the difficulties. You get a government that comes out with a program like this and then they go on to other things. When do they come back and deal with the fact that there is still more children left in poverty?” Eggleton said.
He voices frustration at the decision by the Ontario Progressive Conservative government to scrap a basic income pilot project in three communities. He said that move underscores the challenge in trying to enact long-term solutions to poverty.
“Frequently we go from a government that is investing in poverty reduction to a government whose primary focus is austerity. You go a step forward, you go a step back,” he said.
That’s why Eggleton is adamant that “incrementalism” doesn’t work when it comes to helping vulnerable people. At a time when society is struggling with poverty, income inequality and changes in the job market that threaten middle-income work, Eggleton says it’s time for a “major shift.”
“I think it’s time for a new safety net. That’s why I support basic income,” said Eggleton, who just co-authored an e-book on the topic.
He worries too that the high cost of living in Canada’s biggest city threatens its “social and economic fabric.” Soaring rents and home prices force many workers to live far outside its borders.
“There are some many people – even middle-income people – who have to come such a long distance. That’s a very unhealthy situation. We’ve got to have more affordable housing,” he said.
He’s also been a pointed critic of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut the size of Toronto council, which he condemns as “interference.
“I think it’s a misuse of his position to try to impose his will on the City of Toronto, especially by interrupting the election process,” Eggleton said.
It would have been better to wait until after the Oct. 22 municipal election and have a discussion about municipal governance, not just in Toronto but province-wide, he said.
A lengthy political career didn’t seem to be in the cards in 1969 when Eggleton – then a 26-year-old accountant at Volvo Canada Ltd. – decided to try his hand at city politics, motivated by an interest in public policy. He ran for election as an alderman and won.
“My first thought was I would stay three years and go out into the private sector. But it got a hold of me,” he said.
For the 1980 municipal election, a coalition of backroom movers and shakers keen to oust incumbent mayor John Sewell convinced Eggleton to run for the job. Eggleton was presented as the establishment candidate against Sewell who was regarded more as a “firebrand, radical, innovator,” said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University.
“There’s Art Eggleton, the kind of staid accountant, small-c conservative in his demeanour, in his politics at that time,” Siemiatycki said.
“I think what stands out is maybe unexpectedly, he kind of became a surprisingly innovative and progressive political force and figure,” he said.
During Eggleton’s time as mayor, major developments reshaped the city skyline – Scotia Plaza, BCE Place, Bay Adelaide and SkyDome, as it was known at the time.
But Eggleton says his legacy in Toronto was more than tall new buildings. “I always believe in a balance. City building includes bricks and mortar but it also includes the social and economic development,” he said.
“My passion has always been social justice and I put a lot of time and attention into supporting social reforms,” said Eggleton, who says he grew up in a “working poor” household in Cabbagetown. His parents were renters and never owed property.
Eggleton expanded the city’s stock of non-profit housing. He also established Toronto’s first committee on community and race relations. “Earlier than most municipalities, he was trying to create linkages and connections and avenues of inclusion for diverse communities,” Siemiatycki said.
Eggleton was especially effective at bridging political lines, recalled Peter Donolo, who worked with Eggleton in his final years as mayor.
“His own support was from a broad swath of Liberals and Conservatives. But on council in Toronto he would work effectively, assiduously, quietly to build support among councillors across the right-left divide,” said Donolo, who would later work as Chrétien’s director of communications..
“If there was a thorny issue, he would just convene a dozen people or 20 in his office… and we’d pull chairs in from the other rooms and we’d try to hash it out,” said Donolo, who would later work as Chrétien’s director of communications.
According to one Star profile, Eggleton “cultivated blandness as a career asset.” But Donolo says that “soft approach” belied a “steeliness and toughness.”
In 1991, he ended his run at city hall that included 10 years as alderman and 11 as mayor. Eggleton had made his first unsuccessful stab at federal politics in 1978, when he ran in a byelection in Parkdale and lost. He had better luck 15 years later, thanks to the intervention of Chrétien who designated Eggleton as the chosen candidate in York Centre.
The Liberals swept to power in the 1993 election and Eggleton was elevated to the front benches as a senior cabinet minister, first as president of the Treasury Board, then as minister of international trade. In 1997 he became defence minister, inheriting a portfolio that seemed to court controversy and bad headlines, from botched procurements to underfunding and the fallout of the torture of a Somali teen by Canadian soldiers.
Yet Eggleton’s seemingly charmed political life got tripped up by his own actions with revelations in 2002 that he had given a contract worth $36,500 to an ex-girlfriend. Eggleton insisted the contract was above board but he was out of cabinet.
In 2005, he was appointed to the Senate by then-Prime minister Paul Martin. It was in the red chamber that Eggleton returned to the issues that had defined his days in Toronto.
“Art’s buttoned-down, establishment persona belies a very deep social conscience,” Donolo said. “Not only did he return to those themes in the senate, he returned to them with a vengeance. They became his raison d’être.”
As a senator, he chaired the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, responsible for studying legislation on these topics, such as the law to decriminalize cannabis.
In 2009, the committee released a seminal report titled, “In from the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness.” The report noted that cities are “integral” to the country’s prosperity yet warned that too many urban residents were living below the poverty line, struggling to find affordable housing and an increasing number were homeless. The eradication of poverty and homelessness was essential, declared the report, that made 72 recommendations.
Former Sen. Hugh Segal, who was deputy chair of that committee, said Eggleton was a “builder – stepping out of partisan constraint to build positive coalitions on important challenges facing Canadians.”
“Always honest, clearly passionate on poverty, always keen to reach out to (bring) practical expertise and lived experience to our work on poverty. He was a true, if modest in demeanour, policy leader,” Segal, now the principal at Massey College, told the Star in an email.
Sen. Ratna Omidvar worked with Eggleton, first during her time as head of a number of Toronto organizations helping refugees and then in the Senate. She praised his “consistent” dedication to “looking at issues at the point of view of people who are marginalized because they are poor.
“His commitment to issues of poverty is unmatched, I think,” she said. “Even as he left, he handed me some files and said ‘you carry on’.”
Eggleton, who has been married three times and has a daughter, said he intends to remain involved in the issues he championed as a politician but admits he’s looking forward to a break. “I certainly won’t retire … I’m looking forward to doing something different.”
With files from Alex Ballingall
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier
Photo: Sen. Art Eggleton talks politics, policies and retirement in his Ottawa office on Sept. 27, 2018. At 75, he has hit the mandatory retirement age in the Senate, drawing to a close a political career than began on Toronto council and continued on Parliament Hill. As defence minister Art Eggleton visited Canadian soldiers at the Kandahar Airbase in Afghanistan on April 4, 2002.Art Eggleton, then Toronto’s mayor, follows as Prince Charles waves to the crowd in Nathan Phillips Square on Oct. 25, 1991.The Dalai Lama tours the Peace Garden with then-Toronto mayor Art Eggleton as Buddhist followers offer roses at Nathan Phillips Square on Sept. 28, 1990.Then-Toronto mayor Art Eggleton enjoys a noon visit from Gong Gong, a performing panda in the Great Circus of China, on Oct. 27, 1988.Toronto mayor-elect Art Eggleton, centre, is mobbed by supporters as he enters his campaign headquarters after winning a close fight with mayor John Sewell for the city’s top job on Nov. 11, 1980