Former Ontario premier David Peterson is more powerful than ever

Published On Fri Jan 28 2011

Former Liberal premier David Peterson practises law on Bay Street and enjoys the life of an Upper Canadian gentleman, indulging a passion for horses that has included fox hunting in Ireland. (Jan. 28, 2011)

Keith Beaty/Toronto Star
By Linda Diebel National Affairs Writer

It may be that one of the most powerful men in Ontario is living in the wrong century. Country squire and avid equestrian David Robert Peterson would have flourished in the early 1890s, when the Ontario legislature opened its doors at Queen’s Park location. A gentleman of his breeding would have sent a creamy embossed card on a silver tray to the premier’s office and known he would soon get a response.

The card would have been impeccable, just like its sender. “Mr. Peterson,” it would have read. “Discretion guaranteed.”

There would have been no confusion about who Mr. Peterson was. That’s how power works.

The basics haven’t changed much in 100 years for a man like Peterson. At his large farm north of Toronto he enjoys the life of an Upper Canadian gentleman, indulging a passion for horses that has included fox hunting in Ireland. He practises the law on Bay Street, where he is chair of Cassels, Brock & Blackwell LLP and occupies a corner office with a view of city towers to the east and Lake Ontario to the south.

This former Liberal premier brought his Conservative counterpart Mike Harris to Cassels as a business adviser. Harris joined a stable that overflows with such prize names as political fundraiser Ralph Lean and Maxwell Gotlieb, the former Osgoode professor routinely named (as are so many others in the firm) among “the best lawyers in Canada.”

But it is the manner of service Peterson offers Premier Dalton McGuinty that is unique and truly marks him as a 19th-century character. He’s the go-to guy, the trusty adviser who’s always dependable and, most important, never asks for anything as unseemly as money in return. He doesn’t want his name to show up on any list of provincial salaries or access to information requests for fees paid by the premier’s office.

“I never want to cause any embarrassment for the premier,” he says in an office overflowing with photos of family members, mixed in with Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, Richard Branson and Queen Elizabeth. “I don’t lobby and I don’t ask for anything from the government. The premier asks me to do something, I do it and I do it for free.”

At well over six feet, with silver hair and the trademark yellow tie, Peterson has the easy charm of a happy man. He’s says he’s as nuts about his author/actress wife Shelley as when they married in 1975, a couple of months after he saw her on stage. They have three children, Ben, 32, Chloë, 30, and Adam, 28.

He usually has a phone to his ear and probably has returned every phone call he’s ever received.

McGuinty apparently phones him a lot. “Everybody wants something from the premier and my job is to help him,” he says. “I’m the one guy in the province who understands the burdens he has to carry. Well, maybe there are a few others. I want to lighten those burdens, not make them heavier.

“I’m a loyal guy and I feel very, very affectionate towards Dalton, to be perfectly frank,” says Peterson, 67, of the 55-year-old premier. “I did the eulogy at his father’s funeral. I’ve watched him grow. I’m very proud of him.”

He’s a little testy about the “lobby” part. It was reported that the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) engaged Peterson and Cassel Brock in 2009 to help lobby the Ontario government to sanction mixed martial arts in the province. The government had been cool to the idea but in August 2010 announced the MMA would be coming to Ontario. “I did not lobby,” insists Peterson, stressing that UFC hired Cassel lawyer Noble Chummar for advice on the file, and that he’d had nothing to do with it. In fact, adds Peterson, Shelley is not fond of the sport.

Such power as his walks softly. It takes the publicity of a MMA kerfuffle to even be noticed. Sure, on Jan. 26 McGuinty’s office organized a tribute dinner for 700 of Peterson’s closest friends at Constitution Hall, with the money raised going to his choice of the University of Toronto. He’s chancellor there, something he says he owes in part to his friend and former U of T president, Rob Prichard. He cites Prichard, along with Frank McKenna, among his dearest friends or, as he puts it, “people we just adore.”

Peterson moves within spheres of influences that he attributes to serendipity. Still, contacts are contacts. The room in the Convention Centre for his dinner was packed with lawyers and various VIPs, including politicians likely between gigs, such as Michael Bryant and John Tory. Richard Powers, professor at the Rotman School of Management, said in the night’s video that Peterson is “the best-connected” board member in the country.

Peterson was chair of Toronto’s successful bid for the 2015 Pan Am games and negotiated the brief dismantling of the barricades in 2006 during the fraught dispute over Six Nations land in Caledonia. When they went back up soon after, he called it “heart-breaking.”

He grew up in London, the son of Marie, 97, and Clarence, a farmer/businessman who recently died at 97. Although the family electronics firm did well, they were far from rich, and it was only later, in politics, that he began to make the kind of contacts that serve him to this day.

He lost the premiership in 1990 by calling an early election. Bud Wildman, an NDP MPP at the time, says it a “serious mistake that devastated him.”

Peterson rebounded: “I know people who can’t stand not being in politics,” he says. “If they lose, or if life doesn’t work out, they can’t get beyond it. You’ve got to get beyond it. I did.

“My life has been wonderful. It’s serendipitous, I don’t know how, but every day, I know something nice is going to happen and it does . . . you just have to recognize it.” (On that day, it was the antics of his grandson, Luke.)

Once Peterson was out of politics, Canadian corporate icon Ted Rogers put him on the board of Rogers Communications, and today he’s director of some 30-odd firms. “Ted and (wife) Loretta were wonderful to us,” he says. “They had us down on the board many times,” says Peterson of the Rogers’ yacht.

Publicity about his holdings is rare, and his net worth is unknown. However, in 2010, when shares in Shoppers Drug Mart fell during the dispute between the province’s pharmacists and Health Minister Deb Matthews (Peterson’s sister-in-law), the Star’s Rob Ferguson worked out that he lost $450,000 over just a few months.

Arguably, Peterson has more power than the premier. But he says “nobody has more power than the premier with a majority.” Peterson concedes he has “a different kind of influence.”

Asked to describe it, he explains: “There’s no official title but I know all these people . . . Half of my life is philanthropic and half of my life I make a living, but they all go together.

“Hopefully you use all the power you have for good. If you can put this person together with that person, then good things happen. If you can spot those opportunities, you can do it.”

Like in 2005.

That’s when he put Paul Martin together with Belinda Stronach. She was a disgruntled Conservative MP and he a beleaguered Liberal prime minister.

What was she to do?

She called Peterson and, within days, crossed the floor of the House and helped save the Martin government.

For a few months anyway.



1:18 pm Sunday

David Peterson and Dalton McGuinty are both part of the aristocracy of the Legal Cartel, born with silver spoons protruding from their rear ends, and an arrogance that appears to be an essential personality element of any successful charismatic lawyer politician who are able to present perfectly while their actions show another personality that is reviled.

The odds of David Peterson, not being a legal advisor to Dalton McGuinty prior to the G20 legislation is entirely remote.

No sane person is going to believe otherwise. Lawyers know law, they know how to "do indirectly what is prohibited directly", they are experts in obstruction of justice and depriving citizens of legal and democratic rights that a flagrant abuse of their absolute power.

It's enough to make you want to puke.




Classic feedback included below that will most probably be deleted by the Star.

This fawning, obsequious homage to David Peterson is enough to make one either throw up or gargle Draino. The man was a dud both as a politician and as Premier of Ontario. David Peterson is only important or of relevance to the people of Ontario and to this province WITHIN HIS OWN HEAD. As for this supposed journalist, please write about something of interest and/or importance to the readers of this paper!