One of the true nice guys of Ontario politics turns 80

Gerry Phillips may not be the most famous former cabinet minister in Ontario history — but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about him
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 11, 2020
Then-premier Dalton McGuinty, Minister of Health David Caplan (right), Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman, and minister without a portfolio Gerry Phillips (left) at the provincial legislature on June 20, 2008. Adrian Wyld (CP)

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I’ve been covering politics for a living for about 38 years, and I can tell you this: the number of politicians about whom people have nothing bad to say would probably fit on the fingers of one hand. Maybe less than that.

You remember that TV show Everybody Loves Raymond?

Well, everybody loves Gerry. Gerry Phillips, that is.

Phillips turns 80 today. That’s as good a reason as any to remind people that there are still some good folks in public life, and Phillips is surely one of them.  

We spoke a few days ago. He’d just finished a round of golf and done his typical 15 to 20 kilometres of daily cycling in Ajax, where he now lives.

“They’ve got a great waterfront trail here,” he tells me. “You can see deer all the time.”

It’s a cute coincidence that the former veteran MPP for Scarborough–Agincourt now lives in a riding also represented by a guy named Phillips — Rod Phillips, that is — the current finance minister.

“Saw him the other day!” says Gerry, who still keeps his feet wet in politics as an informal, unpaid adviser to Scarborough–Guildwood MPP Mitzie Hunter, the Liberals’ current finance critic. “I’ve known Rod a long time. He’s a good guy.”

So is Gerry Phillips, who somehow managed to spend nearly a quarter-century at Queen’s Park without accumulating any enemies.

“I always found it took a lot of work to stay angry at someone,” he says. “If I carry a grudge, it negatively affects me.”

And, so, Phillips simply doesn’t carry grudges or impugn the motives of his political opponents. He just doesn’t.

“In a caution against excessive partisanship, he once told me, ‘You should never say anything publicly about another MPP that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying to them privately,’” recalls Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s premier from 2003 to 2013, in an email.

Like so many successful politicians, Phillips lost his first time out of the gate, in 1975. He was chair of the Scarborough Board of Education and ran against one of Bill Davis’s most popular cabinet members, the education minister Thomas Wells.

“My campaign people were saying, ‘You gotta take him on more!’” Phillips recalls. “But Tom was a very decent human being. It was never about any dislike of him.”

Phillips narrowly lost that election and decided to immerse himself in his community. While being a father to four kids and running three businesses, he coached hockey and went on to chair the Metro Toronto School Board and the board of the Scarborough General Hospital. Yes, he was busy. He wasn’t actively looking for another shot at politics. But he hadn’t ruled it out, either.

It took another 12 years before political opportunity knocked again, but, when it did, Phillips never looked back. He rode a wave of massive popularity for Premier David Peterson’s government, which was returned to power in the 1987 election with the biggest seat count in Ontario history — 95 out of 130 seats. Phillips’s seat in Scarborough–Agincourt was one of those 95, and he would hold it for the next 24 straight years, winning six consecutive elections, almost all of them with well more than half the votes.

Peterson knew Phillips well and immediately put him into cabinet. How well did the two know each other? It went beyond Phillips’s chairing Peterson’s successful bid for the Ontario Liberal leadership in 1982.

“He was in Grade 13 at London Central [Secondary School] when I was in Grade 9,” Peterson says. “He was a great athlete back in the day. A great football player, especially. He was just one of the loveliest guys I ever knew in politics.”

People liked Gerry Phillips. He was solid. He was respected. Not a ton of charisma, but a great guy.

So no one was surprised when he announced in 1996 that he wanted to run for the vacant leadership of the provincial Liberals. However, shortly thereafter, chest pains took him out of the race, which was eventually won by McGuinty. Any regrets at not getting to finish that quest?

“The fact that I was going to run shows I’d have found that experience rewarding,” he says. “But I don’t look back at things I can’t change.”

The Liberals would spend a long time in the political wilderness — from 1990 to 2003 — and, for almost all of that time, Phillips was the soft-spoken, sober-minded Liberal finance critic. You got the sense that, when he said something, he wasn’t just spitballing to score cheap points.

“You had to respect the fact he always did his homework,” emailed Janet Ecker, one of the finance ministers Phillips shadowed as critic. “When he stood in the Legislature to ask you a question, you knew you had to be on your toes. And when he wasn’t in his opposition role, he was always the consummate gentleman.”

When McGuinty made his breakthrough in 2003 and returned the Liberals to power, one might have expected Phillips to move seamlessly into the finance minister’s job, given that he’d been the respected finance critic for so long.

It didn’t happen.

“I called Dalton after that election,” Phillips tells me. “I told him that if he did make the decision not to appoint me finance minister, I wouldn’t be unhappy.  I didn’t mind the lower profile. And I don’t mind playing a team game.”

How many politicians do you know who would make that phone call?

McGuinty named Greg Sorbara his finance minister. Phillips became chair of the Management Board of Cabinet, which oversaw all provincial expenditures. “I was happy,” he says. “I had lots of influence” (if not quite as much face-time on camera).  

Phillips’s stint at Management Board was one of eight different cabinet positions McGuinty gave him. 

“I took advantage of Gerry's huge appetite for work and his steady demeanour by giving him a variety of cabinet postings,” the former premier emailed. Phillips had responsibility for energy, infrastructure, immigration, citizenship, seniors, and government services. And add chair of caucus that list, as well. “He never disappointed,” McGuinty added. “He knew where the political landmines were and always provided sure-footed leadership and good counsel.”

In fact, being at Management Board (now called Treasury Board) afforded Phillips an opportunity to have perhaps his greatest and most lasting impact in politics. He inherited oversight of a project that would have seen a small veterans memorial constructed near the subway entrance at Queen’s Park Crescent and College Street, in downtown Toronto. Something about it just didn’t sit right with Phillips. He wanted something bigger that would pay a more meaningful tribute to our veterans.

He first convinced all the parties at the legislature to allow the memorial to be moved right onto the grounds at Queen’s Park. Then he talked Canada’s most decorated veteran, Lieutenant-General Richard Rohmer, into co-chairing (with him) the committee responsible for bringing the project to completion.

It all got done rather splendidly, and, since 2006, thousands of Ontarians have gathered for Remembrance Day ceremonies beside the black marble monument. Rohmer, now 96, is always the star of the show, speaking “for the vets.”

“I’m quite proud of that,” Phillips allows. “There are precious few occasions in politics where you can look at something and say, ‘I think that wouldn’t have happened without me.’ But I think that’s one of them.”

During the McGuinty years, Phillips sat during cabinet meetings beside a future premier: Kathleen Wynne.

“He’d be sitting there in cabinet eating his lunch,” Wynne says, “and I’d hear him sotto voce saying, ‘Electricity prices. They’re gonna get us.’ He was like a Greek chorus.”

Of course, electricity prices did become a huge, debilitating issue for both McGuinty and Wynne. Many others in politics would have said, “I told you so” — not Phillips.

“I think that’s why people love him,” says Wynne, who was premier from 2013 to 2018.

In fact, after Wynne lost power and became an everyday MPP again, Phillips made it a habit to drop by her office, hang out, and just act as a sounding board for a former leader who was hurting.

“We joke that he’s our oldest intern,” Wynne laughs. “But he’s as close to a truly good person as exists in politics.” 

Phillips actually points to something he did while in opposition as perhaps his greatest achievement in politics. Twenty-five years ago this week, Indigenous protesters in Ipperwash Provincial Park were locked in a dispute with the newly elected Mike Harris government. A confrontation with the Ontario Province Police became violent, and an officer killed demonstrator Dudley George. The acting sergeant was eventually found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

“For almost eight straight years, I worked on that issue,” says Phillips. “A day didn’t go by that I didn’t do something on that.” Phillips gave interviews, comforted the George family, dived into research, and essentially did everything he could to keep the issue alive. He demanded a public inquiry that would set the record straight on what had happened and offer recommendations on how to handle future confrontations.

The morning after the Liberals won the 2003 election, the first question premier-elect McGuinty got at his news conference was about whether he’d now call the public inquiry Phillips had been demanding. Everyone was looking for the slightest bit of wiggle room in McGuinty’s answer. To Phillips’s relief, there was none. The inquiry was soon struck under Justice Sidney Linden, whose two years of listening to witnesses resulted in a 1,500-page report replete with 100 recommendations, almost all of which were implemented. It was considered a textbook example of a successful public inquiry. And it might not have happened had Phillips not been so dogged and determined to get justice for the George family.

“That was crucial for me,” Phillips now says. “It would have been an awful blow had we not proceeded.”

“Gerry may have had a pro-business bent,” recalls Wynne. “But it was always secondary to his passion for social-justice issues. Ipperwash proved that.”

In 2011, Phillips did something precious few politicians get to do — he orchestrated the timing of his own departure from politics.

“I knew it was time,” he says. “I miss it every day. But I don’t regret the decision. It was time to move on.” He opted not to run in the 2011 election and retired from elective politics. But he’s still “around” and on call if Liberals need him for advice.

Today, having turned 80, Phillips is preparing himself for a “surprise party” he suspects will happen tomorrow in his big backyard. Everyone around Queen’s Park has always known how important Phillips’s family has been in his life. Every year, the extended clan would dress in ever more imaginative garb for the MPP’s annual Christmas card. Three of his four kids live less than two blocks away. He’s got five grandchildren. And, in December, he’ll celebrate 58 years of matrimony with his wife, Kay, despite being in a business renowned for torpedoing marriages.

“I’ve had a blessed life,” Phillips says, concluding our call. “A fairly carefree, blessed life.”

Hard to think of anyone in politics who deserves that more than the former member for Scarborough­–Agincourt.

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