Michael Chong: Small-town boy to national thinker

Conservative MP Michael Chong addresses a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday December 3, 2013.
Conservative MP Michael Chong addresses a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday December 3, 2013. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Michael Chong pulls a sepia-coloured photograph down from the wall of his Parliament Hill office. A Hong Kong family, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, poses stiffly and seriously in the way people would in 1929.

“That’s my grandmother, and she’s pregnant with my father,” he notes. Nearby is a photo of Chong and one of his sons with an enormous tractor – the family still rooted in the small southern Ontario town of Fergus, where his parents settled.

The MP for Wellington-Halton Hills is clearly proud of his heritage, and proud of his parents – his father one of the first Chinese-Canadians to pass medical school in the 1950s, his mother a Dutch immigrant and nurse who helped raise three children.

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From that multi-ethnic childhood home, thriving in an overwhelmingly Caucasian town, emerged a thinker devoted to a pan-Canadian identity rooted in its hard-won civic institutions.

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“There has been a Canadian identity, fragile as it sometimes may be – an identity forged out of a common history, out of war and out of necessity,” he once wrote.

Chong, 42, has stirred a provocative debate on Parliament Hill and across the country about how to rebalance the power of MPs with that of the Prime Minister’s Office. His recently tabled “Reform Act of 2013” already has a solid foundation of support within his own caucus.

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Chong’s parents tragically never got to see him become a member of Parliament, a minister and a standard-bearer for parliamentary reform. His mother and father died in car accidents 20 years apart – at the same rural intersection.

He speaks about the loss without hesitation, remarking that it is one that so many others have experienced.

“In rural Canada, car accident deaths were something you grew up with,” Chong said.

“I remember going to high school, and there were kids who were killed in car accidents, people whose parents were killed in car accidents.”

Interest in politics blossomed early.

“I remember participating in high school in the re-election campaign for Perrin Beatty,” said Chong, referring to the Mulroney-era cabinet minister. “I had a ‘Vote Perrin Beatty’ button on my pencil case.”

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He left Fergus for the big city to attend Toronto’s Trinity College, taking philosophy officially and politics unofficially. Chong immediately fell in with the young Conservatives, and there formed friendships with other familiar names: current ministers Tony Clement, Kelly Leitch and Peter Van Loan, MPs Stella Ambler and John Williamson, former campaign chairman Guy Giorno.

“He’s always been very intelligent, very thoughtful. Kind of an all-around good guy,” said Ambler. “We were friends when we were tiny Tories, and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Chong worked on Bay Street at an investment bank, as an adviser to Toronto’s Pearson airport, and at the National Hockey League Players Association as their chief information officer. Although he wasn’t involved in an organized league, he recalls pond hockey was literally mandatory growing up.

“My parents said to us, ‘Get off the bus, you’re going to have a cup of tea and a cookie, and then you’ll go across the road to the neighbour’s pond and you’re going to play hockey to get some fresh air.”‘

There have been criticisms of Chong’s bill, but there likely won’t be any on his command of the subject. Chong is no dilettante in the area of parliamentary reform and Canadian history.

After graduating from university, he embarked on a side project with friends Rudyard Griffiths and Erik Penz that became the Dominion Institute – now called Historica Canada. The objective was to promote a shared identity through knowledge of civics and history.

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The inspiration came after the near rupture of the federation during the 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec. They viewed the No side’s emphasis on economic reasons for keeping the country together as thin.

“We felt the argument should be we should stay together as a country because we have built something together that is unique in the world,” Chong said.

“We have built political institutions that are unique, that have built the prosperity of our modern society, and that is the more fundamental reason for us to stay together.”

Chong went on to run for the Progressive Conservatives unsuccessfully in 2000, but finally made it into the Commons in 2004 under the new Conservative Party of Canada banner and leader Stephen Harper.

“What struck me was how much the party leaders in Parliament ran Parliament. That’s what really surprised me,” Chong said of his first impressions.

“I didn’t realize the extent to which the three, back then four, party leaders, really ran everything, from committee memberships to appointments, to controlling the boards of internal economy.”

When the party took power in 2006, he was promptly named intergovernmental affairs minister, a seemingly good fit for a man so interested in the state of the federation.

But his time in cabinet was short-lived. By the end of the year, Chong made the decision to resign on principle – he could not support a government policy to recognize Quebec as a nation.

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“I still believe today as strongly as I did back then that in the views I had then.”

Since then, he has worked away at reform projects from the backbench, including a 2010 motion to improve question period (It passed, but not much has changed). The perpetually chipper, not particularly partisan MP is well-liked across party lines, which might explain why his current bill has quickly gained momentum.

He also spends a lot of time in the riding, living in the small town where he grew up. Chong and his wife Carrie, who works in advertising, have three boys under the age of nine.

“Mike’s paid his dues, he’s been in Parliament for 10 years as a backbencher, and he’s a relentless constituency MP,” said Griffiths.

“He does an incredible amount of work in his constituency and takes that representative function seriously. What I’m really thrilled to see is that all that hard work has developed for him this incredible credibility on this issue of parliamentary reform.”

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