It’s 8 a.m. and Sheila Copps is asleep in her Kingston, Ont. hotel room. She’s an early riser, but not today. She’s been working overtime, rehearsing for her role in a local dinner theatre production of Steel Magnolias.
And so, when I call the former Liberal MP and Heritage Minister at our arranged time, I awaken her.
Fortunately, after a 20-year career in federal politics, she’s used to early morning awakenings and wants to go through with the interview.
Uh, so how’s Steel Magnolias going?
“It’s going great,” Copps says groggily. “I’m usually up at 6:30 a.m., but I’ve been rehearsing 12 hours a day, so you can’t stay up to 11 p.m. You’re my wake up call.”
Apparently, an actor’s life is not all it’s cracked up to be.
But who would’ve expected Copps to become an actor upon her recent retirement from politics? It’s certainly not the first choice for most of her peers. Typically, former MPs become members of corporate boards and the higher-profile ones do the lecture circuit. While Copps is part of the speech-for-hire circuit, her dinner theatre foray is probably a Canadian politician first.
You could say Copps was born to be a politician. Her father, Victor, was a popular Hamilton mayor (who has a coliseum named in his honour) and her mother, Geraldine, was a Hamilton city councillor. Though Copps initially pursued a journalism career, she soon turned to her family trade. Copps found her political feet while working behind the scenes for Stuart Smith, who was at the time, leader of the Ontario Liberal party. Inspired by that experience, she ran as an Ontario MPP, won, and in 1984, she won a federal seat.
As a freshman MP, Copps earned notoriety as part of a vocal number of opposition Liberals (dubbed the “Rat Pack”) who criticized Brian Mulroney’s government. One of her most memorable moments in Parliament was when John Crosbie addressed Copps as “baby” during a House of Commons debate. Copps responded, “I’m nobody’s baby.” That became the title of her first autobiography.
During the Chrétien years, Copps was a member of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, posted to top positions such as Minister of Canadian Heritage and Deputy Prime Minister.
But once Chrétien retired, she decided to run against Paul Martin for the Liberal leadership in 2003. She drew marginal support and lost, in an era of with much in infighting , and earned the ire of winner Paul Martin. In 2004, Copps was squeezed out of her Hamilton East-Stoney Creek riding in a bitter nomination fight with Martin favourite Tony Valeri.
During that high-profile battle, Copps made an appearance on Rick Mercer’s Monday Report, vowing to run in the riding, with or without the Liberal party.
She wasn’t able to keep that promise.
“I was right in the middle of a maelstrom,” Copps says. “The NDP did ask me to run for them. [NDP MP] Alexa McDonough called and she wanted me to run. But I just finished selling 6,000 party memberships and I couldn’t just abandon them. So three days before the election, she called and said it was time to make a decision, otherwise the [NDP] party would feel like I was damaged goods. I said I wasn’t ready to make a decision and that they could withdraw their offer and we could agree to remain friends. And that’s what happened.
“I could have run as an independent, but I put it all in perspective. I made the decision that was best for me, my family, and my values.”
Two months later, Copps announced that she was retiring from politics. Though she suggested to reporters at the time that she might return once Paul Martin is no longer Prime Minister.
“I knew I didn’t want to be associated with Paul Martin,” she adds.
Now, the left-wing leaning Liberal has returned to journalism, becoming a columnist for the right-wing leaning National Post.
“It’s a new experience,” she says. “I’m enjoying it.”
Also, in the meantime, she’s investing herself in a stage role as Clairee Belcher in Steel Magnolias — a role played by Olympia Dukakis in the 1989 film adaptation. She’ll earn about $720 a week plus benefits for the role.
Copps will perform five shows a week during the play’s four-week run at the Howard Johnson Confederation Place Hotel. When Copps finishes Steel Magnolias, it’ll be just in time for the release of her autobiography, Worth Fighting For, which she promises will shake up Parliament Hill.
While the book’s details are currently embargoed until its release, Copps says that writing the book was a “cathartic experience.”
“I had to deconstruct what went on,” she says. “During [the past two years], I went through grief, anger, sadness; all of the stages of loss. I was upset and emotional. Writing the book helped get it all out. It’s the truth from my eyes where I sat and a lot of that information is not in the public domain.”
Her version of the truth is expected to cause front-page headlines, if you believe the hype.
“There will probably be push back from the PM’s office,” she teases. “But if you don’t like my truth, you can write your own book.”
She pauses thoughtfully.
“Well, you’ll find out all about it when my book comes out.”
Steel Magnolias begins its four-week run today and Copps’ autobiography, Worth Fighting For, is released on Oct. 25.