RYAN KELPIN/Special to Bullet News
Any written description of Peter Kormos will never do the same justice as experiencing him in person.
Anybody who had the privilege of knowing him or even just speaking to him will surely know what I am talking about. But I am going to give it my best shot.
My first experience with Peter was seeing him on TV, angrily waving a book at Queen’s Park and ridiculing his fellow MPPs for much of the bad public policy he objected to. I don’t remember the specifics, but i guarantee that this image is etched into many of our minds in Niagara and Ontario. I was young, I thought it was cool, I thought he was a rebel. There was enough fire in his belly to burn the town to cinders.
As I grew up I realized it was much more than that. These were real problems he dedicated his life to; he wasn’t doing this for the sake of rebelling. Over time I acquired a profound respect for him that only grew over the years.
I have two major political influences: Jack Layton and Peter. I was lucky enough to get a chance to interact with both in the last decade. I also had the opportunity to work for Peter in his constituency office, which was to say, an experience. He took the time when he was around the office to probe my thoughts and engage with me on issues that we both cared about. For this I am thankful to day the least. Without his encouragement I don’t know where I would be today.
It was always nice to hear my mom or a friend say they ran into Peter and he asked how I was doing. But that’s the kind of man he was. He had a genuine interest in the lives of the people he knew and especially the people of Niagara. I knew he wouldn’t be able to stay retired for long after he ended his 23 years of service in the Ontario Legislature, and I suspect many others expected the same. His passion for social justice, equality and human rights was too much of a fundamental principle of his being to keep him quiet for long.
He was willing to fight for every constituent that came through the doors of his office. The idea that somebody could be wronged by the government and left to feel hopeless and small was an affront to everything he stood for, and it was his driving force.
The concept of self-interest was foreign to Peter. He was not only willing to fight the government in power, but also his own party on numerous occasions, including the noted divide between him and then premier, Bob Rae. Principles trumped the strict party discipline of the Canadian Westminster system, and he was more than willing to take a stand. He became the strongest critic of Rae, and it ultimately led to his increased popularity as the NDP government crashed into itself. He was the true meaning of the term maverick. He wasn’t a pretender.
We, as a culture, celebrate the “little guy” or the man who fights for the “everyman,” and even these characteristics do not do the man justice. His refusal to wear a suit or tie to work is one of the greatest indications of this, as if to say that he thought buying suits to look good was a waste of taxpayer money that could go towards helping others. The mileage of a good pair of cowboy boots far outweighs that of some Rockports.
He had an activist streak a mile long, starting all the way back at Eastdale High School in the mid-1960s. Little did Niagara know what was in their future. The next 40 years were marked by Peter’s constant stand for the disadvantaged and the oppressed, especially if they struggled to stand up for themselves or were pushed aside by other interests.
The idea that Peter is an exception is something that we should not be fond of though. He places a high standard that other MPPs fall terribly short of, and this is something that displeases many of us. I wish he wasn’t the exception to how government works in our province, but we should celebrate and commend him for his actions that led to him being regarded as such a beloved and respected MPP from both sides of the aisle, and all levels of government. The fact that he referred to Dalton McGuinty as Pontius Pilate (for attempting to remove the ombudsman position in the province) and still receive the admiration and respect that he did, is quite telling to say the least.
Everybody has a story about Peter and how personable he was. Everybody remembers the escapades at Queen’s Park. I admired these characteristics, but it all came back to his role as fighter for the community and disadvantaged.
He was willing to take politically risky and controversial stances and fight for them to the point of one time, being kicked out of the governing cabinet. He was the voice of the people, not the party, and he transcended the strategic void of politics in this regard. Whether he was expelled from school, the cabinet or the party, nothing deterred his willingness to put others on his back and take up causes like poverty, lack of funding for those in need and unemployment. This is what is most important about him. He set a standard that will never be replicated.
I know that I am a better man for having known him. I would be more than willing to bet everything I own that most of you probably feel the same. He wouldn’t care about that though, he would want us to carry on his work and continue to try to make our nation, our province, our community, a better place.
I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to a giant who dedicated his life to doing the same for us.
Ryan Kelpin is a 23-year-old Welland native studying political science and sociology at the University of Toronto.