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York-Simcoe residents shaped Canadian government, says retiring MP

From party merger, to environmental efforts, to a family history of politics and law, Peter Van Loan reflects on his nearly 15-year political career
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Peter Van Loan retired as MP for York-Simcoe on Sept. 30. Jenni Dunning/BradfordToday

Although York-Simcoe MP Peter Van Loan is now officially retired, there is something every Canadian has thanks to him they will carry for years to come.

The image of the Grey Cup as one of the many background images in Canadian passports is due to Van Loan, a longtime Canadian Football League (CFL) and Toronto Argonauts fan, who encouraged its inclusion.

When it was looking as though it would be nixed, Van Loan said he went to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and urged him to keep it in.

“CFL football is a uniquely Canadian sport. We should be very, very proud of it,” Van Loan said, sitting in a Tim Hortons in downtown Bradford West Gwillimbury. “I’ve been to over 30 Grey Cups.”

Before Van Loan was first elected as MP for the new riding of York-Simcoe in 2004, he was a lawyer focused on municipal and planning law for 16 years. During that time, he was a member of the Toronto Argonauts Advisory Board when the organization was searching for a stadium.

During Van Loan’s nearly 15 years in politics, he was Minister of Sport from 2006-2007, when he championed a heritage sports policy to get more funding for Canadian sports such as lacrosse and CFL football, and he pushed for the now-cancelled fitness and arts tax credits.

But beyond the world of sports, Van Loan has also helped shape the Progressive Conservative Party to the way it is today.

As a lawyer and president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, he ran a campaign to have the Progressive Conservatives approve the establishment of the Conservative Party.

“That’s one of my biggest legacies. It restored competitive politics to Canada,” he said, noting the Liberals did not have to try hard because Conservatives were split between the reform and PC parties.

“What’s why you have the sponsorship scandal,” Van Loan said.

With former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier leaving the party this summer to start a new one, The People’s Party of Canada, Van Loan said he hopes the party will not again be divided and require another merger.

“Hopefully we don’t have to do that again,” he said.

Van Loan said, after the first merger, he had a “falling out” with former Prime Minister Joe Clark, who removed him as party president, but the campaign ultimately inspired him to enter politics.

In the past 15 years, Van Loan has held numerous positions within the government, including Minister of Public Safety, Minister of International Trade, and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and he was the longest-serving Conservative House Leader in Canadian history under the Harper government.

As part of that government’s inner circle, Van Loan said Harper was nothing like his reputation among some to be authoritarian, rather he was “very bright” and respectful of others.

He said he often gave the prime minister his opinions on issues from the perspective of York-Simcoe residents.

“Ottawa is such a bubble. (Political leaders) become kind of thirsty or hungry for this ‘Connect me with reality.’ This need for candid, straightforward advice is huge,” he said.

Since York-Simcoe has average Canadian residents living in rural and urban areas, Van Loan said he often shared the pulse of the communities there with Harper.

“The people of York-Simcoe are about as archetypal of Canadians. They don’t feel that the government owes them. They just want the government to let them succeed,” he said.

“This (community) had an outsized influence on where we went with this government not just because of me, but because of what this community represents.”

Locally, over the years, Van Loan has championed Highway 400 improvements and Highway 404 expansion, helped with the project to expand the East Gwillimbury Sports Complex in Sharon, and he was instrumental in pushing for infrastructure funding for the construction of the BWG Public Library and BWG Leisure Centre.

He also helped launch the now-defunct Lake Simcoe Clean-up Fund, which saw environmental groups do hundreds of projects, including on reducing phosphorus levels.

Some of these projects saw results within four or five years, including improving water quality and increasing the number of breeding native species, he said.

“I’m so sad, not surprised, the Liberal government cancelled it,” Van Loan said. “Their priority is Great Lakes, and Lake Simcoe is not a Great Lake.”

The environment, and potentially reinstating the Lake Simcoe Clean-up Fund, is a big issue for the incoming York-Simcoe MP to tackle, he said.

BWG farmer Jason Verkaik, and Georgina’s Heather Fullerton and Scot Davidson are all seeking the nomination for Conservative Party of Canada candidate in York-Simcoe.

While Van Loan sees many successes over the years, there were also dust-ups, including a near-brawl in 2012 with NDP MP Nathan Cullen, after an NDP attempt to have the Tory government’s omnibus budget bill ruled invalid.

Van Loan does not put much weight on this incident, which has been highlighted by national media since his retirement announcement in July.

“It’s tough being a Conservative in this country. The national media hate me. They’re simply hostile to the government,” he said. “I like to think I was fairly effective at delivering our message in ways they did not like. I never lost a confidence vote.”

Van Loan officially retired from politics Sept. 30, but the Georgina resident started his new job Aug. 1 as a partner at law firm Aird and Berlis in Toronto, focusing on municipal and planning law. The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury is one of its clients.

“Not a big vacation guy,” Van Loan said he has no plans to take time off after his political career and is jumping back into law by starting to rebuild his client list.

Although leaving politics, he said he “certainly won’t be a backseat driver” when it comes to still being involved with the party.

In fact, law and politics are in Van Loan’s blood — his grandmother was a lawyer in the 1920s and his grandfather was an agronomist and a one-time political candidate.

His grandparents were targeted as elites during Soviet and Nazi occupations in Estonia and had to flee several times, eventually ending up in Sweden, and then Canada.

Van Loan grew up hearing gripping stories about his grandparents and his mother, who once saved she and her parents from being executed by Nazis by pleading for mercy in German during the Second World War.

So, inevitably, he grew up a political person, he said.

When Van Loan was 12 years old, he joined his first campaign to support Bette Stephenson, a former physician and Ontario politician.

“History is what we are. We are building on the lived experiences of others,” he said.

But now, it is time to leave the political decision making to others.

“It’s been a great honour being (York-Simcoe residents’) support. It’s meant a lot to me. There is a genuineness in their hearts and that’s why I loved this area so much,” said Van Loan, choking up. “It was a great ride, but it was time (to retire).”

Jenni Dunning

About the Author: Jenni Dunning

Jenni Dunning is a community editor and reporter who covers news in the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury.
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