Stephen Lewis is fighting for his life

This country’s greatest political orator is battling abdominal cancer as he continues to fight for causes near and dear to his heart
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 20, 2021
Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton on April 9, 2016. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

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It was August, during the federal-election campaign of 2015, and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was giving a stump speech near the west end of Queen Street in downtown Toronto. At this moment in the campaign, the New Democrats were extremely competitive in the polls, and Mulcair’s speech was almost giddy, pondering the possibility of victory.

It was a really good speech. But then Mulcair invited a guest to the microphone, and the electricity in the room just shot up to the stratosphere. The speaker was 77 years old, had been out of politics for almost four decades, was not using a teleprompter, and had the crowd in a frenzy. Moreover, he was having a blast himself.

It was by far the best speech I heard during the entire 2015 election campaign.  

The speaker was Stephen Lewis.

His sister Janet Solberg was at the event. “Janet,” I asked her, “why can’t anyone else in the country give a speech like that?”

“Well, come on,” she responded. “That’s Stephen.” As in, don’t try to compare mere mortal politicians to what my brother is capable of. And I never did again.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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I wasn’t alive to hear William Lyon Mackenzie or John A. Macdonald or Agnes Macphail speak. But I can definitively say that, in my lifetime, I’ve never seen anyone move an audience like Stephen Lewis. He is simply the greatest political orator of his time.

That time started in 1963 when he was the newly elected 25-year-old MPP representing Scarborough West for the Ontario NDP. Seven years later, he was the party’s leader — coincidentally, at the same time his father, David, was the federal NDP leader. The Ontario Liberal leader of the day, Robert Nixon (now 92 and living in Paris, Ontario), once told me: “Competing with Stephen Lewis back then was impossible. The guy could read the phone book and make it sound like Shakespeare.”

Today, I’m concerned that others will not have the opportunity to hear Lewis’s mastery of passion, vocabulary, moral outrage, and hopes for a better tomorrow, because the now 83-year-old Lewis is fighting a particularly dastardly form of inoperable abdominal cancer.

To see and talk to Lewis is completely confusing. Despite his illness, he still looks and sounds 15 to 20 years younger than he is.

“Yes, I look in the mirror, and it’s curious,” Lewis told me in an hour-long phone call last weekend. “It’s abnormal to look fine but deal with the unpleasantness of this pain.”

Three years ago, Lewis had surgery for this same thing when radiation and chemotherapy had proved not to be viable options. He got through that agony and hoped that was it. But it wasn’t. A couple of months ago, the cancer returned, and now Lewis has once again put his fate in the hands of trusted doctors and nurses at the Princess Margaret and Mount Sinai Hospitals, who have him on an experimental drug regimen.

“The recurrence of the cancer is obviously deeply unsettling,” he says. “When you come to a point in your life where you’re battling a disease like cancer, you reflect philosophically on life and what you’ve done and what the future might or might not hold. Fortunately, I lived an interesting life, surrounded by bright and principled people and a loving and supportive family.”

If that sounds as if Lewis sees the finish line in the not-too-distant future, disabuse yourself of that notion.

“I’m not depressed or moping about the house,” he assured me with vigour. “I’m feeling I want to beat this thing again!”

Interestingly, Lewis doesn’t just want to get through this so he can watch how his three adult children and four grandchildren pursue their passions, although that would be reason enough for most of us. The fact is, he’s still working full-time on issues that have animated him all his life.

His relationship with the United Nations began in 1984 when a Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, shocked the country by appointing this avowed, doctrinaire socialist to be this country’s ambassador to the UN.

“It’s an example of how you can form relationships with people that you may have

black and white photo of two suited, seated men talking
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, left, and Stephen Lewis, then the
Canadian ambassador to the UN, in Ottawa on November 1,
​​​​​​​1984. (John Major/CP)

visceral differences with, but also a shared understanding,” is how Lewis describes his surprise appointment today. The post gave Lewis a prime perch from which to fight one of the great evils of the previous century, namely South Africa’s apartheid system.

“Apartheid came to an end to some significant degree because of Canada’s role,” Lewis now says. “It was a joy to be engaged with a prime minister who was so active on the case. Brian Mulroney was really the heart and soul of that.”

Lewis also notes the role of Ontario’s former high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Roy McMurtry, whom he also knew from his days at Queen’s Park when McMurtry was attorney general.

“He was in London fighting with Margaret Thatcher,” he says. “That’s kind of a nightmare if you think about it. But he did it with dexterity and intelligence.”

Even after helping consign apartheid to the dustbin of history, Lewis’s lifelong commitment to that continent wasn’t over. In 2001, he became the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Then, two years later, with his daughter Ilana, he created the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which has raised and directed nearly $200 million to 150 community-based projects all over Africa to fight HIV/AIDS. He still co-chairs the organization’s board.

“HIV is still taking a million people a year,” he says. “There are still 1.5 million infections a year. There’s terrible carnage with these infectious diseases.” Having said that, Lewis allows that “fighting apartheid and HIV are the two moments in life I will forever value. We did humanitarianism with a human face. We saved real lives.”

As odd as it sounds, for a man with such an international pedigree, Lewis now looks back and says his 15 years as an MPP at Queen’s Park “had the single greatest influence on what I did.” As NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, he learned how to give a human face to an issue, to do the research required to make a case, and to do the press conferences necessary to put the spotlight on an issue.

“My political experience proved to be invaluable,” he says. “I learned more than in any other work, even if other work was more important in the grand pageant of life.”

In 1975, Lewis led the NDP to what at that time was its best-ever showing. He became the leader of the official Opposition in a minority parliament and thus had a significant influence over the provincial agenda. He also found in the premier of the day, Bill Davis, “an exceptional politician with whom I had profoundly different political views, but he was such a decent human being.”

Lewis burned to make progress on mental health, rent controls, and occupational health and safety, “and I know I was deeply appreciative about [Davis’s] flexibility and generosity on those issues. They were tough issues for him. The political circumstances of the day often forced him into it, but Davis ultimately accommodated it.”

Lewis recalls an incident where an irresponsible employer in northern Ontario was causing asbestosis in the local population. “One day before question period, he passed me a note saying, ‘I’m closing down the plant.’ This is classic Davis. He will do things that are unusual.”

In their post-political lives, Davis helped Lewis raise money for his foundation, and McMurtry served on the foundation’s board.

“Political behaviour was civilized back then,” Lewis recalls. “It did not raise malice to an art form.”

To be sure, Lewis himself could be a rhetorical nightmare back in the day. He could skewer with the best of them. Not anymore, he says.

“I’ve mellowed into non-descript mush,” he jokes. “I just don’t feel the animus anymore that people feel is required. I have a more subdued view of the world. There’s no point in being brutal with those with whom you disagree.”

I ask Lewis, if not him, who did he think was the best orator in Canadian political history? He mentions the first-ever federal NDP leader, Tommy Douglas, “who was a magnificent stump speaker and raconteur.” He says, “David Lewis was a particularly fine speaker. At his rhetorical heights, he was particularly fine.” (Interesting that twice in our conversation, he referred to “David Lewis” rather than “my father.” I should have asked him why he did that but neglected to.)

On the international stage, Lewis admired the speaking abilities of former president Bill Clinton and the former first lady of South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel.

Did David Lewis ever tell Stephen Lewis what a great speaker he thought his son was? “Yes,” Lewis says, “but he would have said it to mollify me. I’m not sure how much he meant it!”

Does Lewis know why oratorical flourish seems to run in the family? “I guess it’s part of our molecular structure,” he says. “It’s the environment I was brought up in — a family inheritance. Speaking was assumed to be part of your genetic disposition.”

Given that both David and Stephen Lewis became NDP leaders, the speculation about whether Stephen’s son, Avi, will enter elective politics has persisted for decades. You get the sense the father is ready for that to happen.

“He may, in his fifties, emerge,” Lewis says of his author, activist, and documentary-filmmaker son. “But Ilana and Jenny [his daughters] are also very gifted. Just as David vacated his tenure, I’m now vacating mine — the door is open to all of them.”

Then Lewis confesses: “I’m hoping Avi is on the cusp and hoping I can stay around long enough to watch him take down Justin Trudeau’s engaging smile.”

Given his skills and pedigree, it would be reasonable for Lewis to look back on his life with a quite enhanced ego. But he stressed throughout our conversation that “you realize you can’t appropriate unto yourself life’s successes as if they were independent of others. I’ve always relied on others who were so crucial.”

Two things in particular still drive Lewis. First, he is preoccupied with diseases that have perhaps understandably, at the moment, taken a backseat to COVID-19 (tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, and Ebola). Once the current plague is under control, he’s desperate not to have the world suffer fatigue from fighting deadly viruses.

“To the extent that I have any influence, I want to be in that fray,” he says. “We can’t have societies so devastated to another series of plagues.”

He must still have some influence, because Lewis has been asked to testify before a parliamentary committee on the issue of how best to get life-saving pharmaceuticals to those suffering from these diseases.

And then second, there’s the desire to “fight the good fight on the emergence of authoritarianism and the willingness to subjugate and diminish civil society,” he says. “I’m enamoured of democracy. The world has been lurching into an abyss that’s terrifying. I want to be engaged on those issues.”

After a wide-ranging and free-flowing conversation, I ask Lewis a blunt and final question: Is he afraid of dying?

“No, I don’t worry about death,” he says carefully. “I just don’t like the dying part of it: the pain, the discomfort, the sadness that accompanies it.”

I don’t know whether Lewis will have occasion to return to the campaign trail and dazzle yet another audience with a bravura performance. But I hope so — partially for the audience, but mostly for him.

’Cuz nobody does it better.

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