The Copps family political dynasty is commemorated on the West Harbor
There’s a new sign on Bayfront in Hamilton with a familiar last name.
It doesn’t go off the tongue like “Copps Coliseum” once did, but “Copps Pier” goes a long way in acknowledging one of the city’s most influential political families.
And while the Bay Street Coliseum – now known as FirstOntario Center – previously bore the name of Hamilton’s beloved former mayor Vic Copps, the new sign also recognizes his wife Geraldine “Gerry”, a councilor longtime Citizenship Court judge; and his daughter Sheila, who rose in federal politics to become Deputy Prime Minister.
At the June 18 grand opening of the Copps Pier promenade at Pier 8, the four Copps siblings – Mary, Brenda, Kevin and Sheila – shared the stage. The afternoon was sunny and the atmosphere festive. But, there were lingering clouds from the controversial $3.5 million coliseum renaming deal eight years ago.
“I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed to see Vic Copps’ name removed from the Colosseum in 2014,” eldest daughter Mary Copps-Sutherland said in a moving speech. “I’m a financial person and I understand the reason, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t sad. Today I am happy and excited to see a new place with the family name.
Sheila told me later – unlike her sister and some other family members – that she accepted the decision. Corporate renaming of important buildings to raise funds is common these days. “And dad didn’t care about his name. He cared about the hockey arena and his good appearance. So he would have taken the (money). I know he would have. He was a practical realist.
And she noted, “Copps Coliseum was a building and buildings are being torn down. Parks are forever,” she said.
Time will tell us. But, I’m reasonably certain Copps Pier will be around long enough for new generations of Hamiltonians to wonder where the name came from.
So here’s the story as best I can tell for those who don’t know it: it’s an archetypal saga of triumph (Vic becoming one of the city’s most popular mayors), tragedy (about from his heart attack while in office in 1976 which left him severely debilitated) and rebirth (with daughter Sheila and mother Gerry pushing into politics where Vic left off).
And that’s important. Vic, who died in 1988, was the key political figure behind the controversial urban renewal plan that led to Jackson Square, Hamilton Place, the Convention Center and the Colosseum that bears his name, among other buildings. Love him or hate him, his vision changed downtown forever.
Sheila, 69, had her hand in the fate of the Port of Hamilton as she rose through the ranks of Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. She brought the famous WWII Haida destroyer to Hamilton along with the ill-fated Marine Discovery Centre. And she has been a key player in pushing the industry out of the West Harbor to expand the recreational footprint on the waterfront.
Géraldine, who died in 2016, served as alderwoman for Ward 4 from 1985 to 2000 and, among other things, advocated for social and environmental reform and took a particular interest in the city’s struggling sewage treatment plant.
Vic was born in the small northern Ontario community of Haileybury in 1919 and as a young man worked for a local newspaper in Timmins. In 1945, he was recruited by CHML radio in Hamilton as a sports broadcaster.
He met Géraldine, who worked for Stelco as a secretary, through her involvement in a women’s softball league. She regularly approached Vic to try to get him to broadcast match results. They started dating and got married.
In 1960, he was elected to the City Board of Control before overthrowing incumbent Mayor Lloyd D. Jackson in 1962.
He became Hamilton’s first Catholic mayor and one of the first things he did was to end the Orange Order’s annual anti-Catholic parade, which was highly controversial at the time.
He also “reached out to all minority communities and flew their flags at City Hall on their National Day. At the time, it was a bit groundbreaking,” Sheila said.
His main focus was downtown Hamilton and finding a way to modernize it. “It caused quite a bit of controversy because there were a lot of beautiful buildings that were demolished. His idea was to make Hamilton follow Toronto,” says Sheila.
Although the core demolition upset many, his unassuming style had a way of winning over the Hamiltonians. He was known for saying things like “let the haters call us a lunch bucket town”.
“He never spent a lot of money,” Sheila says. “He always wanted to stay in the same house. If he had a book and a bed, he would be happy. He was not a material person. He drove an old car and didn’t care.
But in 1976, he decided to take part in the Around the Bay road race. He intended to run the Boston Marathon. He trained. I was examined by a doctor and took a stress test.
“During the race, he had a heart attack. He fell. They were with him in a minute. But, it took several minutes to get her heart going again.
He struggled during physiotherapy to walk and talk again, with some success. The brain damage caused by anoxia, however, was severe. He could never work again. Cared for by Géraldine at home, he lived another 12 years.
I asked Sheila if she thought her father understood that she had followed in his footsteps in politics, with her first election as MP in 1981 and MP in 1984. She said she didn’t think so.
“If I told him my name, he would say, ‘yes, yes, Stee-la.’ You didn’t know what he really knew.
“He liked the joke ‘How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it. He laughed a thousand times.
Sheila thinks her parents would be very happy with the surname on the boardwalk park of a vastly transformed West Harbor.
“Both my parents are buried in the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery across from the park,” she said. “My mother swam in this port. My father participated in the race around the bay. Wearing was a big part of both of their lives.