Former Hamilton MPP Eric Cunningham died in his sleep on New
Year’s Day, hours after telling a friend that the stress from an
ongoing lawsuit against people he said had sullied his
reputation was going to kill him.
Cunningham, also a former federal candidate for the Liberal
Party and public relations consultant, died at his home in
Huntsville. He was 65.
In his final years, he became the very public face of the fight
to have private investigators Cullen Johnson and Elaine White
face justice. The pair is accused of reeling in clients by
faking bank records
to suggest that ex-spouses and relatives
had stashed money offshore.
White and Cunningham’s ex-wife Joan Montgomery alleged during
divorce proceedings in 2007 that he had hid $2.3 million in
offshore bank accounts. A judge would rule that the evidence was
Johnson and White, who the Star exposed in a 2009 investigation,
serving jail sentences
for money laundering in the United
States. They still face fraud charges in Ontario.
Cunningham was recently fighting a lengthy court battle against
two of his ex-wife’s lawyers, suing them for, among other
things, malicious prosecution. He alleged that they did not do
their due diligence when they presented the so-called evidence
gleaned from the private investigators, said his civil lawyer,
Marc Munro, who added that Cunningham was hoping for a positive
outcome in 2015.
“Literally his final words to me were: ‘The stress of this is
going to kill me,’ ” said private investigator and friend
Derrick Snowdy. “We just laughed it off.”
Cunningham is survived by his second wife, Heather Hunter,
daughter Ashley and son-in-law John Mesec.
“He was brilliant, kind, humorous and a warrior,” said Hunter,
his wife of seven years. “He was diligent, he was thoughtful. He
was such a fighter. He was a justice seeker. He was fighting for
justice for himself and for his family. And he was the strongest
person I’d ever known in my life.”
Born in Hamilton on April 14, 1949, Cunningham attended the
University of Western Ontario and McMaster University and worked
as an advertising executive.
He was the eldest of four children — two surviving brothers,
Douglas and Duncan, and a sister, Pamela, who predeceased him.
His father, also named Eric, died when Cunningham was 10 years
His mother, Catherine Estelle, was considered a pioneer in her
field, opening one of the first private physiotherapy clinics in
Ontario on Brant St. in Burlington in 1963, and later becoming
chair of the licensing body for physiotherapists.
Estelle, who died three years ago, was an important figure in
her son’s life, and actively volunteered on his political
“There may have been prejudices out there in the workplace to
the advancement of females, but whatever barriers were put in my
mother's way she moved them aside and never complained about
it,” Cunningham told the Hamilton Spectator after his mother’s
death. “She got things done.”
Cunningham was first elected to the Ontario legislature in 1975
as a Liberal MPP for Wentworth North after having lost his bid
the previous year for a seat in the House of Commons. He was
re-elected in 1977 and 1981, serving until 1984. The Liberals
were in opposition during Cunningham’s political career. He
served as the transportation critic.
“He was a very, very creative guy, and was always thinking new
and clever things to do,” said former Ontario Premier David
Peterson, who assumed leadership of the party in 1982 and was
first elected at the same time as Cunningham in 1975. “We were
part of the new guard that was coming in.
“He was bright and energetic, liked a good scrap, wasn’t
fearful. He was a good man to have on the team and was very
committed to his community.”
Cunningham quit provincial politics in 1984, attempting for a
second time to run federally, but lost again as the Progressive
Conservatives under Brian Mulroney won a landslide victory.
After that he went into public relations, and was working as an
independent consultant based in Burlington right up until his
Current Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin assisted
Cunningham with his 1984 federal campaign, and said it was
because of him that he decided to join the Liberal Party,
calling Cunningham a mentor.
“His constituents loved him and he loved them. He always had
time for the little guy and fought some seemingly unwinnable
battles,” said McMeekin. “He relished a good fight.”
The fight of his life would begin in 2007, when Montgomery and
White alleged that Cunningham had $2.3 million in accounts in
the Cook Islands, Panama, the Bahamas, Hong Kong and the Cayman
Islands. Although Cunningham would come out the victor when it
was proved that the information from the private eyes was a
fabrication, the ordeal took an immense toll on him, both
financially and emotionally.
“I was happy to be vindicated but this whole thing has beaten me
down, had a huge and negative effect on my life,” he told the
Star in 2009 during its investigation of Johnson and White.
Star investigations editor Kevin Donovan, who along with
reporter Moira Welsh investigated the pair, said: “Eric was a
quiet and honourable source of information over the many years I
knew him. When he became a victim of a financial scam he was a
dog with a bone, doing everything he could to help the Star and
then the justice system flush out the truth. A lot of victims
and perhaps future victims owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Munro, Cunningham’s civil lawyer, said he was “extraordinarily
determined” to pursue his lawsuit against the lawyers. He said
he now has to seek instructions from Cunningham’s family on the
next steps for the legal fight.
“He believed in the process,” said Munro. “He truly believed in
the saying that justice grinds slowly, but it does grind.”
Cunningham’s wife said Smith’s in Burlington will handle funeral
arrangements, with a service expected to take place early next
With files from Kevin Donovan and the Hamilton Spectator