Looking back on five decades in politics

By Steve Paikin - Published on January 31, 2019
retired politician David Smith
David Smith got his start in politics in 1964 working for Canada’s 14th prime minister, Lester B. Pearson. (Steve Paikin)

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For the first time in more than half a century, David Smith will be approaching a federal election without a formal role. Anyone who knows the 77-year-old former senator and lover of all things political will appreciate that that’s an odd situation for him to be in. But he’s fine with it.

“Been there, done that,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Smitty,” as he’s known to his legion of friends, got his start in politics in 1964 working for Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th prime minister.

Smith says Pearson would invite him over to the PM’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive for private dinners to find out the state of election readiness of the Liberal post-secondary campus clubs. It was Smith’s responsibility to travel the country and ensure that the university-based Liberal Party clubs were active and good to go.

The 1965 election — Smith’s first as an official campaign operative — saw the Pearson-led Liberals win their second consecutive minority government.

Smith worked on Parliament Hill, becoming chief of staff to finance minister Walter Gordon in the mid-1960s. He was elected to Toronto city council in 1972, besting future PC cabinet minister Larry Grossman in what was then Ward 11 (Forest Hill and North Toronto). He ran for mayor in 1978 and lost to John Sewell, but he rebounded a little more than a year later, capturing Don Valley East for Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in the 1980 federal election. Three years after that, he made Trudeau’s cabinet, becoming minister of state for small business and tourism, but the ride was short. In 1984, Smith went down to defeat along with 94 other Liberal MPs after the Progressive Conservatives landslide victory.

However, he remained a loyal Liberal operative. His greatest success came in 1993, when Jean Chrétien was first elected party leader. Smith was responsible for chairing the Ontario campaign. On election night, the Liberals won 98 out of 99 Ontario seats.

“Chrétien always used to tease me,” Smith recalls. “How could you let the Reform Party win that one seat?” (It belonged to Ed Harper in Simcoe Centre, who won by only 123 votes.)

Smith continued to be actively involved in election campaigns following his 2002 appointment to the Senate. The mandatory retirement age — 75 — caught up with him about a year and a half ago. He’s now officially retired from politics and from his position as chairman of the law firm Dentons LLP.

Smith delights in regaling people with numerous stories about his life in politics. Back in the 1960s, he found himself part of the Canadian delegation attending annual NATO meetings in Brussels and Paris. It was at that time that he met Mary-Anne Martin, the daughter of Canada’s then foreign minister Paul Martin Sr., and sister of future prime minister Paul Martin Jr. The two went to dinner a few times, and years later, Martin Jr. apparently asked Smith what had transpired.

“Our relationship was very proper and above-board,” Smith told him, “and even if it wasn’t, you’d be the last person I’d tell.” Smith laughs as he tells me that if Martin were to join us during our lunch, he’d say the same thing all over again. (The dinners, Smith hastens to add, took place during his single-man days. He’s been married for 48 years to Heather Forster Smith, the current chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court.)

When foreign dignitaries came to Canada, Smith often found himself as the Liberal government’s point man, responsible for accompanying them to events in Ottawa. That’s how he found himself in the back seat of a limousine with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who told him, “At G-8 meetings, the United States is, of course, the most important country in attendance. But when it comes to an intellectual plane, your Pierre Trudeau is in a league of his own.” Smith goes on to say that while Trudeau had a tremendous intellect, he did not have the warmth of his son, the country’s current PM.

Eventually, our conversation brought us to the events of the past week, which has seen Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, forced to resign for making ill-advised comments about the extradition of a Chinese executive with Huawei to the U.S.

“I recruited him into politics,” Smith says wistfully. (In 2000, McCallum left the banking sector and became the MP for Markham–Unionville.)

“Have you been in touch with him yet?” I asked Smith.

“No, not yet,” he replied. “Got to let the dust settle first. But I will.”

No one will ever accuse Smith of not being partisan. He loved and still loves the Liberal Party. But he never engaged in the politics of personal destruction on his party’s behalf.

“I always wanted to see good people get into politics,” he says. “I almost didn’t care what party they were in.”

In fact, when Conservative Peter Van Loan recently stepped down as MP for York–Simcoe after 14 years on the job, supporters held a tribute dinner for him at Toronto’s downtown Tory hangout, the Albany Club. There were three guest speakers — Smith was one of them. He seems both surprised and proud that he was asked to do that.

When he was still in the Senate, he treated the current Conservative Party leader (then Speaker of the House), Andrew Scheer, and Scheer’s wife and five children to a Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre, then brought them all back to his home for dinner after the game. Gestures like that account for the fact that Smith seems to have friends on both sides of the aisle in politics.

As our lunch comes to an end, I ask Smith one more time whether he can really imagine not participating in any way in the federal election later this year. He reminds me that he lives in the downtown Toronto riding of University–Rosedale — Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is his MP. Freeland won the seat with almost 50 per cent of the votes in 2015, and she was only a rookie candidate then, not a star of the Trudeau cabinet.

“So she probably doesn’t need me,” Smith confessed. “I’ll knock on some doors if they want — but that’s it!”

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