Remembering politician Bob Callahan — better known as ‘Bob from Brampton’

Politicians at Queen’s Park are called “honourable members” even though some of them aren’t. Here’s the story of one who was
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 04, 2021
Bob Callahan died on December 26, 2020, at the age of 83. (Twitter/Steve Paikin)

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A little over a decade ago, Brampton city councillor Bob Callahan and some friends went down to what was then called the Air Canada Centre to catch a Maple Leaf hockey game. On the way into the arena, a homeless man approached Callahan and asked if he had any change.

Callahan didn’t. All he had with him was a $50 bill. So he gave the man the entire amount. He then spent a few minutes talking to him, finding out about him, and urging him to spend his windfall wisely. He concluded the conversation with a line he always used when he met someone new:

“Just remember — I’m Bob from Brampton!”

A year later, Callahan was down at the ACC again for another game when he heard someone shout at him: “Hey, you’re Bob from Brampton!” It was that same guy. He remembered.

That story tells you a lot about Callahan, who died on Boxing Day 2020 at age 83. “Bob from Brampton” ultimately served in public life for an astonishing 43 years — as an alderman on Brampton town council from 1969 to 1985; as a member of the Ontario legislature from 1985 to 1995; and then on municipal council again from 1997 to 2014 — surely making him one of the longest-serving politicians in Canadian history.

I wanted to write about Callahan today because most of you reading this have probably never heard of him. He never led a political party; he never made cabinet; he was never the mayor; he didn’t grab a lot of headlines.

But Callahan exemplified some of the best that public life can showcase. He was a Liberal MPP who got along well with and was respected by Tories and did his job without a lot of showboating or fanfare.

“I never ever worked with someone who was so honourable and true to his word,” recalls John Sanderson, who sat on council with Callahan during his second go-round in the 21st century. “He cared so much about people, especially those that he felt were getting short-changed by government.”

On January 3, Bob Rae, Ontario’s 21st premier and now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted, “I had the pleasure of serving with Bob Callahan for many years  — a politician who enjoyed life and public service and had many friends on all sides of the aisle.”

Callahan’s “Bob from Brampton” slogan was a takeoff on “Brampton Bill,” the moniker used by former Ontario premier Bill Davis, whose seat in Brampton Callahan won after Davis retired in 1985. It was considered a huge upset, given that the area had voted exclusively for the Tories since 1937. But 1985 was the year David Peterson’s Liberals captured the most votes, because Brampton was changing from the sleepy, white Anglo-Saxon town of fewer than 20,000 people it had been when Davis had first won election in 1959, to the much more diverse city of more than 600,000 it is today.

Oftentimes, Callahan, who was a lawyer (Osgoode Hall, Class of ’63), would hang out at the local courthouse in his spare time, looking for people who either couldn’t afford legal representation or couldn’t wait for legal aid to arrive. He’d help those folks get the representation they needed.

After 10 years at Queen’s Park, Callahan got swept up in Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution and lost his seat in 1995 to Tony Clement.

“He would visit me in my constituency office with various ideas he had, and projects he was pursuing,” Clement emailed me today. “I never got the sense that he was vengeful for my beating him in 1995. He taught me to show grace to former competitors.”

In fact, Clement relates a story that shows politics among competitors at its best. One day, when he was an MPP, Clement got a call from a constituent whose son was trying to become a teacher in Ontario. That son had been told by Ontario’s Ministry of Education that if he took “these courses” and did “that field work,” he’d get his teaching certificate. He fulfilled those requirements, but for some reason the bureaucracy held up his accreditation for two years. Clement got involved, unstuck the process, got the credentials recognized, then went to the constituent’s home to present the teaching certificate to the family.

That teacher was Tim Callahan, whose father, “Bob from Brampton,” Clement had defeated during the previous election. Despite being Liberals, the Callahans voted for Clement next time around.

“Brampton Bob was a worthy successor to Brampton Bill,” Clement concludes.

Callahan is a great example of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” He first ran for provincial office in 1977 against Davis but came third, losing by 11,700 votes. Four years later, he tried again and, despite coming second, actually lost by a greater margin: 15,500 votes. However, the third time was the charm in 1985, when he shocked Bramptonians, winning by almost 4,500 votes against Tory candidate Jeff Rice.

Over the years, Callahan championed the building of the Peel Heritage Complex, the new city hall, the Rose Theatre, the Gage Park skating trail, the Powerade Centre, the Cassie Campbell Community Centre, the new Brampton Civic Hospital, the Gore Meadows Community Centre and Library, and the courthouse that bears the names of the man who beat him twice and of that man’s father: the A. Grenville and William Davis Courthouse. He also volunteered to coach young lacrosse players and was a board member of the St. Leonard’s House, the Peel Memorial Hospital, and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority.

Callahan’s faith sustained a lot of his work. It was typical for him, on his walk to city hall, to stop in at St. Mary’s Church on Main Street in Brampton (right near Davis’s home).

“He was bound and determined to convert me,” jokes Sanderson, a city councillor from 2006 to 2014. “He’d invite me to join him at church and would say, ‘Johnny, I’m gonna pray for you.’ Then he’d tell the priest, ‘One day, I’ll have Johnny converted here!’”

A mere few days before his death, Brampton officially renamed one of its institutions the Bob Callahan Flower City Seniors Centre, in recognition of all his public service over the years.

All in all, not a bad legacy for “Bob from Brampton.”

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