ONO firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-08-30 published
A man of uncommon passion and drive
Despite hints of scandal, the scrappy former Liberal member of parliament, who spent a lifetime fighting for social safety nets, earned a reputation as a tireless crusader for the working people
By Ron CSILLAG Special to the Globe and Mail; With a report from staff Saturday, August 30, 2003 - Page F8
He died with his boots on.
John MUNRO, a Trudeau era Liberal warhorse once described as a rumpled fighter who had gone too many rounds, had just put the finishing touches to a barn-burning speech, to be delivered to a Rotary Club, on the evils of concentration of media ownership when he suffered at heart attack at his desk in his Hamilton home on August 19. He was 72.
It was almost just as well that he went suddenly, his daughter, Anne, said in a eulogy, for her father could not stand suffering. Rather, he would not abide it. Suffering had no place in Canada, he reasoned, which is why his name is so closely associated with such social safety nets as medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and improvements to Old Age Security.
More than 500 well-wishers, including old political pals, steel-workers, artists, business people and labourers, packed the James Street Baptist Church last Saturday to laud Hamilton's favourite son, a scrappy lawyer who earned a reputation as a tireless crusader for working people, despite the recurring taint of scandal.
As the Member of Parliament for Hamilton East from 1962 to 1984 and through five cabinet posts, he was proudly on the left of the Liberal Party, alongside people such as Allan MacEACHEN, Judy LAMARSH, Lloyd AXWORTHY, Eugene WHELAN -- and probably Pierre TRUDEAU himself -- fighting for medicare, against capital punishment and in favour of a guaranteed annual income. As minister of national health and welfare, he didn't win the battle for a guaranteed annual income, but he did get the Guaranteed Income Supplement that has made life easier for many seniors. He was also known and often ridiculed -- for being a chain-smoking health minister.
Prime Minister Jean CHRÉTIEN, who entered Parliament a year after Mr. MUNRO, mourned the death of his former cabinet colleague. "We were very good Friends, and I'm terribly sorry that he passed away. He was a very good member of Parliament, and he was a very good minister and a guy who worked very, very hard in all the files that were given to him."
The political bug bit early. At 18, Mr. MUNRO ran for president of the Tribune Society at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton. Mark NEMIGAN, a lifelong friend, remembers his resourcefulness: "He went to a local bus stop and festooned all the park benches with banners reading, 'Vote for John.' It worked too. He had uncommon drive and passion, even then."
Born in Hamilton on March 26, 1931, to lawyer John Anderson MUNRO and Katherine CARR, a housewife, John Carr MUNRO became a municipal alderman at the age of 23 while attending law school at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.
"I have no idea how he did that," Mr. NEMIGAN says. "The guy didn't sleep."
Mr. MUNRO took his first run at federal politics in the seat of Hamilton West in 1957, but was beaten by Ellen FAIRCLOUGH, who went on to become Canada's first female cabinet minister. In 1962, he switched ridings, and won the seat he would hold for the next 22 years.
With the election of Mr. TRUDEAU in 1968, a string of cabinet positions followed for Mr. MUNRO: minister without portfolio, amateur sport, health and welfare, labour and Indian affairs and northern development, the last earning him the hard-won respect of aboriginal groups.
In the 1968 general election, an aggressive young poll captain named Sheila COPPS worked on Mr. MUNRO's re-election bid. She would go on to replace him in the seat in 1984.
Tom AXWORTHY, who was Mr. TRUDEAU's principal secretary, recalled that the prime minister often turned to Mr. MUNRO for support on progressive positions at the cabinet table: "When we had those kind of debates, he would kind of look over to MUNRO when he wanted to hear the liberal perspective on the issue."
Mr. MUNRO's support for the decriminalization of marijuana led to a perk in December, 1969: A 90-minute chat about drugs with John LENNON and Yoko ONO, fresh from the duo's "bed-in" at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Documents unearthed this spring by a researcher for an Ottawa Beatles Web site revealed that Mr. LENNON joked that while Mr. TRUDEAU and Mr. MUNRO, then health minister, were members of the "establishment," they were both "hip."
"Mr. MUNRO's speech [on the decriminalization of marijuana] was the only political speech I ever heard about that had anything to do with reality that came through to me," Mr. LENNON is quoted as saying in the 12,000-word document.
Contacted by a reporter in May, Mr. MUNRO recalled that the incident, and his stand on cannabis, didn't go over well. "Yeah, I was in a little hot water at the time," he laughed. "Everybody thought I wanted to give the country to the junkies."
Mr. LENNON and Ms. ONO made a distinct impression, he said. "The more I think about it, the more I remember he and his wife were very polite and committed people."
In 1974, the water became considerably hotter when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided Mr. MUNRO's campaign headquarters during a probe into kickbacks and bid rigging on Hamilton Harbour dredging contracts.
Around the same time, Mr. MUNRO was criticized for accepting a $500 campaign donation from a union whose leaders were under investigation.
In 1978, he was forced to resign from the cabinet when it was revealed that he had talked to a judge by telephone to give a character reference for a constituent on the day of the person's sentencing for assault. But he bounced back with a tenacity that Mr. TRUDEAU was said to have admired and in 1980 won reappointment to the cabinet.
Mr. MUNRO's stamp on Hamilton was legendary, from the reclamation of land that gave the city Confederation Park, to the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, to the fundraising of more than $50-million for the local airport, renamed in his honour in 1998. "Without a doubt, he was the feistiest, most stubborn person I knew in public life," former mayor Bob MORROW remarked. "I don't think we will ever meet his equal of scaring up funds for Hamilton."
When Mr. TRUDEAU retired in 1984, Mr. MUNRO ran for the Liberal leadership and prime minister. He finished a poor fifth in a field of six. There began what his daughter called the "decade from hell," starting with a four-year Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation so vigorous, the Mounties even considered using a helicopter to track Mr. MUNRO because the officers assigned to tail him couldn't keep up with his car.
That investigation killed a re-election bid in 1988 and scuttled his marriage to Lilly Oddie MUNRO, a minister in the former Ontario Liberal government. It eventually produced 37 flimsy charges of breach of trust, conspiracy, corruption, fraud and theft stemming from his years as Indian affairs minister. After a trial that dragged on for most of 1991, the judge threw out nearly all the charges without even calling for defence evidence. The Crown later withdrew the rest.
Mr. MUNRO welcomed the verdict as "complete exoneration" but was left with legal bills estimated at nearly $1-million and a reputation in ruins. Swimming in debt (he had to rely on Ontario Legal Aid), he filed a civil suit in 1992, claiming malicious prosecution and maintaining he had been targeted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to embarrass him. He attempted a political comeback in 1993, only to have Mr. CHRÉTIEN refuse to sign his nomination papers. Mr. MUNRO responded by filing an unsuccessful court challenge seeking to strip Mr. CHRÉTIEN of his power to appoint candidates.
Mr. MUNRO, who had returned to an immigration law practice in Hamilton, felt betrayed by the government's refusal to pay his legal bills, and it took an emotional toll.
"I'm not mad at the world," he said in 1996. "I realized this could totally destroy me if I didn't live a day at a time. You have to impose discipline, or you're finished. The motivation to carry on is voided. There's nothing to look forward to except endless grief."
He finally won nearly $1.4-million in compensation from Ottawa in 1999, but most of the money went to pay taxes, legal bills and other expenses. He could have avoided problems by declaring bankruptcy, but insisted on clearing his debts.
"He was no saint, but he was dedicated and hardworking," said his daughter Susan. "He was deeply hurt."
Mr. MUNRO had no interest in the personal trappings of wealth, she said, adding that he had a weakness only for Chevy Chevettes and homemade muffins. Good thing too, for a proposal for bankruptcy he filed in 1995 showed a monthly living balance of $476.
His last political gasp came in 2000 when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Hamilton. Asked in 1996 about writing his memoirs, he said: "I'm not ready. There's no last chapter yet."
Mr. MUNRO leaves his third wife, Barbara, and four children.
O... Names ON... Names ONO... Names Welcome Home
ONO - All Categories in OGSPI