Conservative politician Michael Chong takes nothing in life for granted.
His 43 years of successes, setbacks, joy and heartbreak taught him that — a lesson both priceless and horrible.
The backbench MP for Wellington-Halton Hills applies it to something as basic as whether his bill to change the balance of power in Parliament will become law before this year’s federal election and as monumental as the safety of his loved ones.
One can hardly blame him.
On an April Thursday in 1978, when he was 7, his mother, Cornelia, left their home just outside Fergus, Ont., to drive to the store for paper napkins and died in a car accident.
A little more than 20 years later on a Friday in May 1999, his father, Paul, died in a car crash at the same rural intersection, in an accident investigated by the same OPP officer.
The second time, Michael Chong was canoeing in northern Ontario and couldn’t be reached for two days. He remembers the call from OPP officer Stuart Hayhurst.
“You’re not going to believe this, son,” Hayhurst told him, “but I investigated your mother’s accident too.”
He describes such loss as a defining part of who he is. Losing his mother so young made him grow up quickly. “It has to. It takes away the innocence of childhood and makes you more serious.
“You know you can’t make any assumptions about security because at any moment you could be killed. You think about it. Death is something that is always at the back of my mind . . . even when my wife gets in the car to get groceries.”
On a winter’s afternoon, we’re settled in for coffee at a downtown Toronto hotel for an interview scheduled to last an hour and stretching to well over two. The setting could hardly be more mundane to talk about the events of a quite remarkable life.
He’s not morose. He understands that as much as tragedy robbed him, it made him appreciate every moment. That’s a gift, and he knows it.
Moreover, such loss, as well as the immigrant experience of parents from two continents who came to Canada with childhood memories of war, shaped him into an out-of-the-box thinker and risk-taker. If it’s not too much of an oxymoron, one might say he’s a maverick Conservative, a throwback to an era when his federal party was called Progressive Conservative.
Acts of rebellion define his career, a trait arguably rare in modern Canadian politics, other than the manoeuvring of impatient leadership hopefuls. Before he took his southern Ontario riding from the Liberals in 2004, he went against party policy and publicly supported the Kyoto Accord.
Once ensconced comfortably in cabinet, he surprised the House by resigning in November 2006 because he couldn’t support Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motion recognizing “Quebec as a nation within a united Canada.” Chong had been in cabinet — intergovernmental affairs, sport and president of the Queen’s Privy Council — for only nine months before he stepped down.
Chong says he had no choice. “It creates a system of two-tiered citizenship, and that’s unacceptable to me.”
Then came his controversial private member’s bill to shake up Parliament by putting power back in the hands of elected members, the group Pierre Trudeau once scornfully dismissed as being “nobodies” when they’re away from the Hill. More on that later.
Dr. Gordon Chong, a retired Toronto dentist and no relation, knows the politician through Conservative circles and likes his controversial positions. “Maybe some people view them as harmful in the short and medium term, but in the long run they show he’s willing to stand up and be counted regardless of the consequences.”
He continues: “I think he has a great future. We do need thoughtful, articulate Chinese Canadian politicians.”
Michael Chong lives on a 100-acre farm he purchased in Fergus, located on the Grand River about 85 kilometres from Toronto, with his wife, Carrie, and three soccer-mad boys, William, 10, Alistair, 7 and Cameron, 5, plus a black lab named Tessa. His wife has joked that the boys had Chong as a surname so their Christian names would be Scottish to match her heritage.
His family hasn’t experienced the early economic hardships of his parents.
His father, Paul, emigrated from Hong Kong in 1952 with nothing, worked at various jobs (including as a lumberjack in British Columbia) and became a doctor, specializing in internal medicine and moving to Guelph, not far from Fergus.
Chong has a photograph of a very traditional Chinese family in Hong Kong, circa 1929, posed around a small table and staring solemnly into an unimaginable future before World War II and the Japanese occupation. In the photo there are six children. His grandmother is pregnant with his father; an eighth and last child would be born later.
His mother, Cornelia de Haan, left Friesland in the Netherlands in 1960, found work in Canada as a nurse and met and married his father. A black-and-white wedding photo shows a couple with so much hope, Paul Chong smiling in his white tie with top hat and beautiful Joanna in a simple, high-necked gown, her blond hair loose, and carrying a bouquet with lily of the valley.
They had four children, with Michael (the image of his father, slight and fine-featured) the oldest. He was born in Windsor and followed by two brothers, Andrew, now a surgeon in B.C., and Peter a geneticist researching cystic fibrosis at Sick Kids. His third sibling, Joanna, is raising three children in Burlington.
“People would always remember my family,” Chong says of the distinctive-looking couple and their children. From Guelph, they made trips to buy specialty foods in Toronto’s Chinatown, sent their oldest son briefly to weekend Chinese language school and ensured their children understood and respected both cultures.
At school in Guelph, his kindergarten teacher thought he had a speech impediment. A noticeable accent — he pronounced Chong as “Shong” — came from speaking mostly Dutch with his mother. The school assessment was later amended with a note: “Called father, mother is Dutch,” it said. Hence, no problem.
He took “schoolyard discriminations” in stride. Nothing he couldn’t handle, he says. He speaks of his parents with pride: “They came here from war-torn countries and sacrificed everything for their children, and they didn’t complain.
“I have a great deal of gratitude to this country (for what Canada offered his parents) and (it’s why) I believe in politics,” he says. “I’m not one of those people who are cynical about politics and politicians.”
He listened to family stories and visited his extended family in Hong Kong as a child. Maybe that’s why he’s an independent thinker. “There are ways to learn from other places,” he says.
After his mother died, his father remarried another Dutch-born woman, Adrianna, who’d known his mother and still lives in the family home. “She undertook a Herculean task with so much responsibility,” says Chong.
Many aspects of his life seem charmed. He studied philosophy, history and politics at the University of Toronto, and graduated with an affinity for 17th-century Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and René Descartes. He admires Locke for his contribution to the foundations of modern liberal democracy and Descartes for challenging the old orthodoxy of Catholic Church control.
In the burgeoning computer age of the early 1990s, Chong worked in information technology for Barclay’s Bank and Research Capital Corp., later moving to the National Hockey League Players’ Association. As well, he became senior technology consultant to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority for the redevelopment of Pearson International Airport.
He’s been a political junkie since his teens, when he listened to Perrin Beatty, his local MP and a former Conservative cabinet minister. Later, he joined the party campus club at U of T. He ran unsuccessfully for the Conservatives in 2000 and, after redistribution, took the riding from the Liberals in 2004.
That’s when constituency assistant Jim Smith began a long list of posts he’s held for Chong, including campaign manager.
“It struck me from the beginning how he could go door to door and have intelligent, thoughtful conversations with so many different people about what matters to them,” says Smith over the phone. “He really listens and he engages people so quickly.”
Smith describes his boss as a “serious guy, an avid reader who’s in a book club with friends from university and a big family man.”
For four years, Chong worked quietly on a bill to curb the growing clout of the Prime Minister’s Office and empower MPs. He researched and consulted with, among others, academics and current and former politicians before tabling his bill in December 2013. At first, it essentially landed with a thud, with the PMO reportedly lobbying quietly against it.
“Parliament is society’s most important innovation,” says Chong, adding that party caucuses are “no longer decision-making bodies.” The clear message from his constituents is that “MPs don’t represent the views of their ridings to Ottawa but rather what Ottawa wants to their ridings.”
Chong’s aim was to end the leader’s ability to veto candidates from running and making it the prerogative of riding associations, as well as giving caucus the right to overthrow a leader, elect an interim one and decide about expelling members.
“I should be able to stand up and disagree with my party without facing execution,” says Chong. When it’s pointed out that he’s been able to do so, he says he’s been fortunate and that it should be guaranteed.
“It wasn’t very popular at the beginning but people have come on board,” says Smith. “Since some of the amendments were passed, (Harper) advised his caucus to seriously consider it.”
There have been setbacks, the bill has been watered down and Chong has faced criticism over the weakened version, essentially the only real attacks of his career.
The Commons is expected to give the bill third and final reading sometime after the House resumes next week. Then it goes to the Senate. Chong agreed to changes that include designating a party representative (who could be the leader) to sign off on candidates and mandating caucuses to vote on a set of rules for themselves after every election — as weak or tough as they choose.
“It’s a good bill, not perfect,” says Chong. “I’m cautiously optimistic.
“At least MPs will have to make a deliberate decision to disempower themselves” when they vote on rules. He thinks MPs will grow into the idea of assuming more power. Baby steps. After all, the whole concentration of power in the PMO is relatively recent in Canadian history.
He doesn’t think the Senate will be a problem due to the optics of unelected senators thwarting the will of the House.
Whatever happens, Chong can always find solace in his family and his farm. For the time being, it’s a non-working farm.
He met Caroline Davidson at U of T and they married in 2002. He describes her as coming from a “WASP family” with roots in both Quebec and Newfoundland who studied politics and economics at university.
Her great-great grandfather William Whiteway was a pro-Confederation politician (both Liberal and Conservative) and three-time premier of the colony of Newfoundland in the late 19th century. Her other great-great grandfather, Charles Peers Davidson, was chief justice of the Superior Court of Quebec in the early 1910s.
Listening to Chong, it sounds as if she could be as passionate about politics as her husband.
He does have one private passion, though.
His green John Deere tractor.
“He loves his tractor,” says Smith. “Loves it. When he bought the farm, the tractor came with it and he took the whole thing apart and restored it.”
So far, Chong has only used his baby to level their long driveway. Maybe someday that will change.