| [Photo: Glenn Lowson,
"I think there are some people who are surprised that I'm not leading a slugfest," says Sheila Copps, Liberal leadership candidate.
Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, is, so far, the only woman in the running for the top job when Jean Chrétien steps down in the not-too-distant future. She tells me the country is "absolutely" ready for a female prime minister when I corner her at the Women Entrepreneurs of Canada Fourth Annual Conference at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto. The two-day joint business venture welcomed women from across North America, including Antoinette Marwitz, U.S. Consul General.
Reminding her that Canada's last, and only female prime minister, Conservative Kim Campbell, didn't last long, Copps says, "She inherited her party's debt. It wasn't hers, but it became her cross to bear." I note that Copps seems sympathetic toward Campbell, but remember we're at a women's conference, the closest female equivalent to an old boys' club.
I ask Copps, who has one daughter, Danelle, 16, and three stepchildren by her husband, Newfoundland-born Austin Thorne, if she'd agree with the "Behind every successful woman is a man" theory. Yes, in her case, she says. "Because my husband was a union organizer, he understands the challenges of running a national campaign."
I can't help but wonder why she would even want the job. "Because I spent my whole life in public life," she says. "I spent my whole life being told that I'd hit the glass ceiling, and yet I keep breaking through." Copps credits her stamina to dance lessons in childhood. "I was forced to take ballet for five years. It gave me the discipline to succeed in life. Thank goodness I gave it up. Do you want me to explain visually why I left ballet?" she says, laughing. I assure her that won't be necessary.
As far as the campaign is concerned, she says, "we're at the phase where we're reaching people directly. Copps tells me that following two debates against contenders Paul Martin and John Manley in Whitehorse and Edmonton, she received a huge number of congratulatory letters. (The next debate is this weekend in P.E.I.)
"I think that there are some people who are surprised that I'm not leading a slugfest," she says. "I think there's a bit of a notion that's frozen in time, from my days in the Rat Pack when my job was to take out ministers. But ... I want to talk about the energy of a new Canada rather than political infighting."
I ask gingerly if she thinks that Paul Martin has it all wrapped up, as some people think. "It's one system, one vote -- even the Prime Minister has only one vote, equal to the worker I just met in Guelph. It's the people who are going to be making the decision. You can't win if you don't play," she concludes.
And what does someone who plays as hard as she does do for rest and relaxation? "I don't want to get on a plane. I want to curl up with my husband and watch bad movies on TV." Lately, she admits, she hasn't been able to watch much TV. She also watches the occasional movie. She loved Rare Birds, filmed in Newfoundland. Her favourite movie, she quips, "is the one I saw on the last plane, The Red Violin. M. Chrétien loved that film too." The most inspiring movie she's seen? "The Lucille Teasdale Story. She had to move to Africa to be a surgeon because at that time, a woman couldn't be a practising surgeon in Canada." (Teasdale ultimately set up a clinic in Uganda.)
Admitting that a national campaign is tough on everyone, Copps manages to point out one of the upsides for her. "There are some perks to being the only female running for national leader," she tells me. "Some doctors came up to me in a restaurant. They told me they really liked me, and then said, 'If you want a campaign donation, we'll give you Botox.'" (Copps says she turned down the offer.)
And if she hadn't chosen to be a politician, I ask her, what occupation would she have picked? "Lawyer, journalist, actress," she muses. "And look what happened. I ended up being all three."