The IPO of Deborah Coyne

The IPO of Deborah Coyne

November 19, 2005

The rain beats down in torrents outside the Loblaws at Bayview and Moore as a harried blonde woman in a black raincoat rifles through the store’s snack section on a Saturday night. Unbeknownst to the yawning checkout clerks, the woman is one of the most talked about but least known women in Canada.

She twirls around, and we both gasp in surprise. It’s been a year since I’ve seen Deborah Coyne. We last spoke in August, 2004, at a get-together of high school friends.

Today she has big news. After years of urging by her friends to run for public office, she tells me she’s seeking the nomination in the riding of Toronto-Danforth, currently held by NDP leader Jack Layton. Then some other important news, as she triumphantly holds up a package of Froot Loop Winders: “I’ve been looking for these for my son. I finally found them.”

To the people who know Deb or Deborah (not Debbie), her friends from high school, her co-workers and her family she is a fresh-faced, perennially cheery, bundle of energy, with way too much to say in too little time. To the rest of the country, she’s the mystery woman who had a baby with Trudeau, the woman TV viewers strained to catch a glimpse of at his funeral.

Coyne has only given one other personal interview in her lifetime, but now that she’s entering public life as a candidate — and because we’re friends — she’s agreed to talk.

Deborah Margaret Ryland Coyne, 50, is a lawyer, hockey player, consultant, law professor, author, constitutional activist, Oxford grad, mother of two and perhaps the closest thing you could find to the girl next door. Wearing little makeup and sporting the same blonde pixie haircut she did at Elmwood, an Ottawa girls school we both attended 35 years ago, she’s as self-deprecating as ever.

Coyne grew up in Ottawa’s leafy Rockcliffe Park, spending summers at the family cottage on Meech Lake. Her father, who died this summer, was a lawyer and municipal councillor, her grandfather James Bowes Coyne, a judge on the Manitoba Court of Appeal and her uncle James, the former Bank of Canada governor. Actor Susan Coyne and columnist Andrew Coyne are cousins. She graduated with first class honours from Queen’s University in 1976 in economics and history, and was awarded the Gold Medal at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she graduated first in her class in 1979. She has a master’s in international law from Oxford.

After graduation, she practised briefly and then taught at the University of Toronto’s law school. On several occasions during that time, she invited some of her Elmwood friends and myself up to her apartment for chili and chocolate cake.

What stands out from those visits are the filing cabinets. While the rest of us were decorating our places with Ikea, Deb had filled up one bedroom of her two-bedroom apartment with filing cabinets. She slept on a pullout couch. Coyne says, “I used to cut out newspaper clippings and file them under different subjects in those filing cabinets. I was policy chair for the Turner campaign in 1984 and I had to be on top of every single issue.”

When she moved to Newfoundland to work for then-premier Clyde Wells (whom she calls, “a wonderful man, a straightforward politician who knew where he wanted to go”), she took the filing cabinets, the mover complaining, ”Lady, this is a commercial move.” In 1993, she finally got rid of them after using the contents for the book Seven Fateful Challenges for Canada. (She’s written four books, all on politics)

This is Coyne’s first public foray into politics, but she’s been a player for years. She was a leading opponent of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, and political events serve as fenceposts in her life. When she speaks of her time at Oxford, she says, ”That was when we were repatriating the Constitution,” A trip she took to Peru happened ”just after Meech died.”

It was the media’s discovery in 1991 that she’d had a baby with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau that vaulted her into the public eye. Coyne has never talked publicly about the relationship, nor will she now. “It is my personal life and I don’t think it’s of relevance.”

I remember when the story broke, I phoned her in Newfoundland, not knowing whether it was true or not, but not really wanting to know either. As a reporter, I was familiar with how today’s front-page story fades quickly in the public’s memory. I reassured her, “Don’t worry Deb. This is as bad as it gets.”

I was wrong, of course. The story was the front page of the next day’s Toronto Sun, with a file photo of Coyne and Trudeau at a conference.

Coyne also shuns any questions about her children, Sarah, 14, (with Trudeau) and Matthew, 9, (from her marriage to journalist Michael Valpy, from whom she is now divorced.) I have not seen either in probably five years and all I can say is that they are sweet, affectionate children, both smart like their mother, who dotes on them.

Coyne is happy to comment on Trudeau’s politics, but it could be any smart liberal Canadian talking. She says, “If you are asking, ‘Am I a Trudeau Liberal?’ I would say yes — if that means I believe in a strong federal government, a principled view of the world. He was an enormous influence on many people, so of course he was an influence. Trudeau personified a certain view of the country but he also personified a view that went back to Sir John A. Macdonald and it wasn’t this series of distinct societies.”

As to the media coverage, in the dailies as well as the more irreverent and aggressive Frank magazine, she answers, “I ignore it. I may be aware of it, but I ignore. I’ve never spoken to Frank.” That doesn’t mean that Frank magazine hasn’t dogged her. They sent a photographer to her wedding to Valpy (unbeknownst to her and their guests) and subsequently published the pictures.

Now, she’s seeking out a public profile. In preparation for her upcoming nomination and the election, Coyne is renting a three-bedroom house in Riverdale and has resigned her Ottawa-based position on the Immigration and Refugee Board.

She laughs that she’s had a somewhat nomadic existence, traveling to Greece, Russia and Israel, trekking solo across India, Pakistan and China, living long-term in four cities. She takes it in stride that she will be packing up everything once again.

Already she is feeling at home in the area’s coffee shops (the chai latte at Riverdale Perk is the best, she quips) and various ethnic restaurants. She says, “I see the riding as a good fit. It represents how Canada is becoming, multicultural a fantastically vibrant riding.”

She’s also not far from Withrow Park, one of the city’s best dog parks. She laughs, “Our black Lab is five. Her name is Genevieve. We have Chloe and Madeline, cats — all names from the Madeline books.”

Coyne’s favourite books are biographies, and she describes herself as a big West Wing fan. A non-smoker who enjoys the odd glass of wine, Coyne describes herself as ”a pretty strong person” with ”good friends who help me out.”

Lawyer Paul Torrie, a friend since law school, says “She’s authentic, she’s real, she’s an original. She is fearless, takes on challenges that she believes deeply in … She’s been thinking and writing about the country as long as I have known her.”

Coyne’s nomination is scheduled for next Friday, although it may need to be held earlier. Dennis Mills, who had held the riding previously, and lost to Layton by 2,400 votes, is expected to nominate her. Right now her nomination isn’t being contested. Coyne says the Liberal party sought her out to run in the riding and that she has the support of powerful local Liberals Maria Minna, Bill Graham and Carolyn Bennett.

The riding is more politically diverse than some might think — the northern end of it has been represented by right-wing city councillor Case Ootes for years.

And historian Michael Bliss, who met Coyne in 1987 during the Meech Lake struggle, says she may be in for a bit of a fight even from some Liberals.

”She’s a bit of a Liberal maverick,” he muses. “I don’t think she has been privy to the inner circles of the party because I don’t think some people have forgiven her for her Meech and Charlottetown stand, which I think was her finest moment. I think Deborah Coyne probably did more than any non-elected person in Canada to help defeat Meech and Charlottetown and that was something the Canadian people approved of.”

Of course, having a formidable opponent like Jack Layton is a challenge, but it doesn’t phase Coyne. She says, “Some people say Jack Layton is untakeable. On the contrary, I think he is eminently takeable. I don’t see him as a good representative of this riding. He’s a professional critic, pronouncing on national issues here and there. The NDP itself gets stuck in policy loopholes, where they can’t move off base zero on health care or gas taxes. Toronto-Danforth is not being well represented.”

Layton is careful when he speaks of Coyne, measuring her more as an unknown quantity. ”You have to treat anyone who is running as posing you with the challenge of ensuring you get your message out,” he says. ”But I don’t believe I have ever met Deborah Coyne in the riding, which I’ve been representing in one way or another for over a decade now.”

Might it be a dirty campaign? Coyne hopes not. She says, “You just have to keep your eye on the ball and not get distracted. The media like to distract, which they do in too many areas, but that doesn’t bother me.”

© National Post 2005