By Doug Draper
“A working class hero is something to be.”
– a lyric by John Lennon
“I don’t change my values the way some people change their socks.”
– Peter Kormos
(This profile of Peter Kormos, Niagara regional councillor and former Ontario NDP representative for the riding of Welland who was found dead in his home died this Saturday, March 30 at age 60, was first written by Doug Draper for a magazine published by the Metroland/TorStar media chain more than seven years ago. It was never published because the magazine quickly went the route so many mainstream publications go these days and became the equivalent of a shopper and a feature article of this nature was no longer welcome.
Niagara At Large lifted it from the vaults and posted it in late 2010 and is reprising it once again as another tribute to the dedication and courage of an iconic political figure who has left us all too soon.)
In the dimly lit banquet room of Club Social on Welland’s gritty east side, a raucous chant of “Peter, Peter, Peter” rolls up from the floor. It is the night of the October, 2003 provincial election and, to no one’s surprise, the numbers on a nearby tote board show Peter Kormos leading his nearest challenger by a margin of two to one.
Kormos, in this election, is one of only seven New Democratic Party candidates across Ontario to survive what some political pundits are describing as a “catastrophic night” for the NDP – leaving it one seat short of the number it needs to hold on to official party status. But there is no hint of catastrophe at Club Social on this night.
For a fifth straight election since 1988, when he replaced the retiring NDP stalwart Mel Swart in what was then the old riding of Welland-Thorold, this reputed ‘bad boy of Queen’s Park’, who many in this room regard as a working class hero, will be going back to the provincial legislature to, as many of them are proud to say it, ‘give em heck’ again. Wearing his dress shirt unbuttoned at the neck and his trademark cowboy boots, Kormos finally takes the stage and the chant of “Peter, Peter, Peter” breaks into cheers.
The man who has been called everything from a “maverick” to a “fast-tongued hard head” and juvenile delinquent” could not be more at home delivering a victory speech touching on every theme that has fueled him, first as a young activist, then as a criminal lawyer and a politician. In this room, located a few blocks away from what he describes as the “modest red-brick bungalow” his parents built in the early 1950s and from the Atlas Steels plant where his father and so many others in the neighbourhood put in long, dirty hours to support their families, Kormos reminds his supporters of all the “hard work and sacrifice” responsible for so many of the freedoms and opportunities we take for granted today.
Kormos reminds them of the “so-called good old days that were really not all that good” when parents sat around one of those chrome-legged “formica tables” in the kitchen and, “in hushed tones,” discussed whether or not they could afford to take a sick child to a doctor because there was no publicly funded health insurance. He reminds them of those who, despite the Great Depression of the 1930s and Second World War, managed to summon the will to build – “brick by brick” – many of the hospitals and school and other public institutions that serve us today.
“We are but stewards of these things,” stressed Kormos as he wrapped up his speech. “They are not ours to squander or to sell. We must make sure they are passed on from generation to generation.”
Kormos was born in Welland on Oct. 7, 1952 and spent his formative years in what was then largely a blue-collar area of the city known as Crowland.
“Crowland was a community of immigrant, working-class families and small, modest homes. It was the other side of the tracks, for all intents and purposes,” he says of the character of that area in the middle decades of the last century. “My parents (his father Michael, of Slovak descent, and his mother Simone, of Belgian descent) were immigrant children (and) my grandparents were illiterate in their own language, never mind English. … But they were obviously very intelligent people when you think of how much they achieved.”
His grandparents on his father’s side saw the family through the depression and war years, running a small grocery store in Welland, and Kormos remembers his father coming home from long shifts at Atlas Steels to build the home he and his two sisters lived their earlier years in on Cameron Avenue. He also remembers parents who still had the time to be avid readers. “There were always a lot of books and magazines around the house, and there was always an interest in what was going on in the community and the world. The news was a central part of the day.”A voracious appetite for reading and current events rubbed off on the young Kormos. John Giancarlo, a retired educator now living in Pelham, who was principal of Memorial School and one of Kormos’s teachers when he attended his elementary school years there, remembers a person who has since earned a reputation as flamboyant and outspoken, as “a rather quiet, sensitive boy” who loved to read. He was also a boy who displayed an intelligence and maturity beyond his years. “He liked to converse with people on a more adult level,” Giancarlo recalls.
“He was a very bright and thoughtful student (and) he would ask questions that were a little more incisive and were tougher to answer.” But if someone took the time to provide an answer, “he would responded very well,” says Giancarlo. “If you were autocratic with Peter, he would resist that.”
Giancarlo also remembers taking a class Kormos was in on tour of the local humane society. Kormos wrote an essay about the experience, including what he felt were the poor conditions he felt the animals were being kept in, that “was very detailed and insightful” On another occasion, Kormos took Giancarlo up on a pitch he made to all of his students to read classic literature. He chose ‘War and Peace’, Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of life in Russia in the years leading up to and including Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of that country. The teacher recalls his young student, who had skipped Grade 3 and was now in Grade 7 or 8, coming back with a detailed list of the book’s characters and a convincing grasp of the complex philosophical themes running through its more than 1,000 pages.
“I don’t know too many people of any age who have read all of War and Peace,” says Giancarlo “I could certainly see the potential (in Kormos) when he was a young person.”
By the time Kormos entered Welland’s Eastdale Secondary School in 1964, he was absorbed in the folk music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and the “beat movement” that spawned novelists and poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He was also caught up in civil rights movement in the United States and that country’s escalating military involvement in Vietnam.
“The 1960s seized me as a very young kid,” recalls Kormos, who was already impressed by the fact that the federal wing of the NDP and Tommy Douglas, a champion of publicly funded health care, were among the very first voices in Ottawa to come out against the war in Vietnam. And in the spring of 1968, when Kormos made a successful run for president of Eastdale’s student council, the high school’s principal, the late Glen Francis, refused his request to fly the Canadian flag at half mast when U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, and later confiscated pamphlets the student council tried distributing around the school, protesting the Vietnam War.
By many accounts, Francis was a very conservative, no-nonsense disciplinarian who apparently had no knowledge of Kormos’s capacity to resist such a style. He had rules against the student council doing “any of those things that a democratic body might choose to do, like address the death of Martin Luther King or talking about the War in Vietnam,” Kormos says. “He very much wanted (the student council) to be a 1950s, sock-hop type of thing.”
Wayne Jarowslawski, who was one of Kormos’s Grade 12 classmates when the 1968-69 school year began and is now a teacher at Eastdale, says Francis was “an authoritarian (who was) very, very strict. It was his way or no way.” He remembers Kormos as a student who was “very brilliant, academically” and “was in many ways, so much further ahead of the rest of us” when it came to debating the issues of the day. In Eastdale’s 1968-69 yearbook, Kormos is described as someone who “makes full use of his freedom of speech to air his views. He can keep a discussion going with his ability to argue.” It didn’t wash with the principal.
The final showdown came in October of 1968 when Kormos and his council led a three-day student strike against what they viewed as unreasonable restrictions being placed on their rights to expression. Depending on who is asked, anywhere up to about 100 the school’s roughly 900 students joined the walk-out that ultimately resulted in Kormos being thrown out of school.
“However silly it may seem in hindsight,” says Kormos, “the strike was a youthful exercise in protest, totally in tune with what was going on in bigger cities in North America at the time and, at the end of the day, it got me expelled from school and barred from every other school in the province. Here I was. I had just done my first two months of Grade 12 and I was out. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
There were those, including many educators in the Welland area, who were disturbed that someone as bright as Kormos had been tossed out of school in protest of rules Jarowslawki says were lifted when Francis left Eastdale the following year. He was befriended by a number of them and by others across region including the late Judy LaMarsh, a Niagara Falls lawyer who was a secretary of state in the cabinet of Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson. With the help of some of those people, he was able to gain admittance as a mature student at Niagara College and take enough night courses to t Niagara College to earn his way into York University and, later, to Osgood Hall’s law school.
Kormos paid his way through college and university working at gas bars and books stores, and at a furniture-manufacturing shop in the Toronto area where he remembered women, with their “hunched backs and mangled hands,” doing long hours piece work over sowing machines. “I was very conscious of the fact that however hard I was working, they were working harder. And come Sept. 1, I was going back to a luxurious university campus. They were there for the rest of their lives. That is the difference. … But I wanted to do those jobs. I wanted the opportunity to see what was going on in those places.”
Kormos would return to Niagara to practice criminal law, often butting heads with the police and Crown attorneys over down and outers he felt were wrongfully charged. “Some very good lawyers will pick and choose their cases,” he says. “But I had no qualms about taking on the hopeless cases because you just have to work that much harder. It is easy defending people who didn’t make confessions.
“I also did 50 per cent of my clients pro bono. I’m not proud of that. It was probably bad business but look. A community of people invested in my education. I only paid but a fraction of my tuition compared to what people are paying now, so I have been a beneficiary, directly and indirectly, of so much sacrifice and hard work. So my attitude has always been, whether I was practicing law or doing (politics), you don’t do it for the money. You do it because you are fortunate enough to maybe have the skills and aptitude to do it reasonably well. And the strange thing about practicing law is that even though I had that attitude, I made a whole lot of money. It was bizarre. I made an embarrassing amount of money by not caring whether or not I billed clients.”
Kormos went on to do politics, first as a city councillor in Welland, then as the MPP for a Niagara Centre Riding that includes Welland, Thorold and parts of Pelham and south St. Catharines. He made province-wide headlines in 1990 for staging a record-long, 17-hour filibuster in the provincial legislature over a no-fault auto insurance plan the then-Liberal government was floating that he felt was unfair to drivers, taxpayers and innocent victims of traffic accidents.
By 1990, the rookie MPP had made such a stamp for himself at Queen’s Park that, later that year, when the NDP ousted the Liberals in a provincial election, its leader, Bob Rae, felt he had no choice but to appoint him to a position in his cabinet. But his stint as a minister of consumer and commercial relations didn’t last very long. The following year, after countless run-ins with Rae and his colleagues over auto insurance and a host of other issues, and what Kormos described later as a self-deprecating appearance as ‘Sunshine boy’ in the Toronto Sun, Rae turfed him out of cabinet.
In his 1996 political memoir, ‘From Protest to Power’, Rae paints Kormos as “an impossible colleague, and an even more difficult minister. He missed meetings, threw tantrums and belittled his colleagues in cabinet committee. I asked him to get his act together, but it was clear I was just Big Nurse to him, yet another authority figure whose nose he would find a way to tweak.”
Kormos dismisses Rae’s portrayal of him as “rebel” and “loose cannon.”
“That’s dishonest, I think. I wasn’t the one who was breaking promises. I wasn’t the one who was abandoning the electorate. I wasn’t the one who wasn’t prepared to take the heat for making tough decisions. So who was really being rebellious here,” he asks of a former premier he still believes caved in on a promise to introduce public auto insurance and on many other of the party’s principles. “I remember telling the media when they asked me – Mr. Rae, you were the one who was leader of the party. You were the one who violated the trust that the voters placed in you.”
Swart, who was at home in Thorold at the time of the squabble, still sides with Kormos as an individual who may be a rebel, but has never rebelled against his principles. “I think Rae didn’t like him,” added Swart recently, “because Peter could out argue him and because he was concerned that Peter might one day run against him for leader of the party.”
At the end of it all, Kormos isn’t all that concerned what Rae thinks of him or about the kind of criticism he received two years ago from Nicole Smith, Liberal MPP from North Bay, for not wearing a tie in the legislature – a slap he countered by coming to the legislature the following day wearing a tuxedo.
Well, by God, if I don’t have to wear a tie, I won’t,” said Kormos. “I work hard at Queen’s Park. I start early in the morning and I go until late at night. I really do. So Miss Smith suggested that the most important thing was to impose a dress code. Well, give me a break.”
More important to Kormos is speaking out on behalf of people in his riding.
“How many people get an opportunity to do what I do and, by God, it is just not my nature to be a little cog in the wheel,” he says. “It is a waste of an electoral position to have someone who is just going to be a silent little voting machine.”
On his desk in his Welland constituency office, Kormos holds up a photograph of himself and dozens of people – many of them in their 70s and 80s – who gathered at a recent banquet in the city at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church.
“I see these old timers who are now dying off one at a time, by the way, and it gives pause to reflect on the struggles and sacrifices they made,” he says. Most of them can’t really talk about those struggles and sacrifices in an articulate way. They are just there. But if and when I can be a bit of a voice for those people, or for their children and grandchildren, that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.”
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