People & Places

“If I could go through that, I could go through anything” — Bob Chiarelli on love and loss

As his wife carol was dying a brutal death from cancer, Bob Chiarelli sat by her side, caring for her, feeding her, and loving her.

“It was terrible. It changed me. And I also knew that if I could go through that, I could go through anything. Her dying was terrible, unspeakable. She became disfigured — it was just awful,” Chiarelli says.

The couple married in 1985 after Chiarelli’s divorce from his first wife, Susan, with whom he had three children, son Chris and daughters Donna and Lynn. Carol was the yin to his yang. Where Chiarelli can come across as quiet, she bridged that gap for him — a vivacious woman who put everyone at ease. The two became parents of a blended family of five children, including Carol’s two daughters, Michelle and Andrea. Their daughter together, Katie, made it a family of eight.

In 1994, Carol was diagnosed with cancer. Her odds of a successful recovery: 90 per cent. And yet she ended up being a statistic. Her death and her fight to live undoubtedly made their mark on Chiarelli’s life. Over several interviews, he frequently refers to the horrors of her illness as something that gives him strength.

Both divorced Catholics, the two couldn’t marry in the Roman Catholic Church. This was something Carol, who was very devout, struggled with — perhaps more so as she knew she was close to death. Helping her through the illness, a Catholic priest visited her regularly. One day, she told her priest she wanted him to marry them. He agreed, and the couple, with their six children and a handful of close friends on hand, were married again at the Civic Hospital, this time in the eyes of their God.

Carol’s death left Chiarelli a single parent.

Photo by Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Back in 2004, when he was sitting at the helm of council, the normally calm, unflappable Mayor Chiarelli was doing a slow burn after letting Rideau councillor Glenn Brooks get under his skin. The two were arguing over details of a development, but it was clear it was really a clash of personalities. When the meeting ended, Chiarelli marched over to Brooks and, with his finger wagging right in the councillor’s face, dropped the F bomb. Who knew Chiarelli had a potty mouth?

While initially chastised for his unmayoral-like behaviour (he did offer an apology), some on hand liked seeing this other side of the mayor that hadn’t been in public view before. Hearing his unexpected outburst had gained him some unexpected respect, Chiarelli uncharacteristically offered a happy smirk before bolting to his office.

Fast-forward 10 years, when an overflow crowd at the Tailgators on Merivale greeted long-time Liberal Bob Chiarelli after he won in the provincial riding of Ottawa West-Nepean in the 2014 provincial election. The victory was that much sweeter because he beat — for a second time — his nemesis, Ottawa Citizen columnist Randall Denley. It was his ninth election win in a political career that began in the late 1980s.

The crowd on hand was whipped into a political frenzy by the time Chiarelli walked through the doors of his victory party, supporters there from a sense of duty or a genuine feeling of friendship. Making his way through the masses, a victorious Chiarelli did what he had done so many times before: meet, greet, smile, and hug. It was a long walk to the podium, with so many there wanting to shake his hand, offer a congratulatory smile, or be part of a thankful exchange.

Once his victory speech had been delivered, the long-time politician — leaving the crowd wanting — settled into his seat, where he stayed for the rest of the evening with his family.

On Loss

It was a far different scene this past June. This time, the crowd at Tailgators was sparse, and there was no jubilation and no hangers-on looking for a piece of Chiarelli. At 76 years of age, having spent more than 30 years in politics, Chiarelli had lost — and vowed he wouldn’t run again. But as he had four years earlier, Chiarelli addressed the public and the media. There were no regrets, no melancholy, certainly no tears — in fact, little emotion whatsoever.

“If you’re not prepared to lose, don’t run,” he told the small crowd. And again, he sat down to spend the rest of the evening with his family.

Missing from that family unit was Chiarelli’s son, Chris. The only son in a blended family of girls, Chris was diagnosed with schizophrenia just as he was finishing his degree in chemistry at the University of Waterloo. Chris — a physical carbon copy of his father — had a brilliant mind and a bright future ahead of him until the diagnosis. He was, as one of Chiarelli’s daughters described him, their father’s best friend. It was devastating news that changed everything.

“He was a perfect kid, a top student in the co-op program. I got a call from one of his teachers at Waterloo. The teacher said there was a problem with Chris and they’d taken him to the hospital. I thought he was in an accident or something,” says Chiarelli. As he continues to talk, his voice drops to a whisper.

“We took him home. It takes a while to diagnose. It was a really, really rough time. It was hard for all of us with his diagnosis of schizophrenia.

“They have visions, hear things — he felt he was getting signals in his head. This was 1983 or 1984, and they didn’t have the types of medication they do now. He was taking 100 pills a day.”

Initially after his diagnosis of schizophrenia, while attending Waterloo, he tried to live on his own, but for the last decade of his life lived at home.

“He made every effort to work, to do normal things. He got his degree in chemistry, so he understood the chemistry of the illness. It was terrible,” Chiarelli says. “He’d talk about just wanting someone to put a bullet in his head. He’d say, ‘My brain is destroyed.’ ”

Chris passed away from cancer in 2012.

In public, Chiarelli can come across as shy, almost awkward. Looking at that persona now, he’ll only admit to not being a “back-slapper.”

His kids know he can be introverted but have seen him change over the years.

“Don’t be led to believe that politics is all he’s got,” says his oldest daughter, Donna. “Underneath that thick skin, there’s a really creative side, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a big heart. From the time we were very young, he was spending time running a family business with his brothers, writing poetry and painting, chauffeuring Andrea to 5 a.m. swim practices, coaching hockey for many years for Katie’s team, and more recently carving out time to play with his grandchildren. This is also a guy who builds a little ramp out of his swimming pool so that if a squirrel or other small creature falls in, they’ll make it out safely.”

And with them, in their family home, he is much different from the public figure he has crafted. Chiarelli is the type of person who just wants to relax at the end of a tiring workday.

“He’d come home and say he wanted to take off his monkey suit,” says Katie, his youngest daughter. “He’s going to kill me for this story, but he’d take off his suit and watch TV in his underwear, eating popcorn. He was obsessed with popcorn, ate it every night. He’d fall asleep with his mouth wide open, and we’d put a piece of popcorn just resting in his mouth.”

Apparently there’s photographic evidence, which Katie (rightly so) declined to offer up.

Most of us know Chiarelli as perhaps the most-hated Ottawa MPP during his time as Minister of Energy. As the key cabinet minister in eastern Ontario, Chiarelli bore the brunt locally of any provincial angst; being de facto head of the controversial smart metre program made everything worse.

If you ask him about that reputation, you won’t get a quick answer. Chiarelli is a detail guy; he’s not about to be rushed in telling his side of the story. He spent the better part of an hour explaining what the Liberals inherited from the Tories — and how they fixed it.

Did he feel guilty about the seniors and low-income families struggling to pay their hydro bills? No. Did he worry about the parade of protesters picketing his local constituency office? No.

Instead, he said, he was focused on fixing what he describes as a mess the Liberals inherited from the Tories.

Chiarelli doesn’t see it as a heartless explanation. Rather, he believes intently that he and his party were doing the right thing for the province. He still becomes passionate when speaking about the environment and his concern for the increasing number of people reliant on puffers. He vehemently believes that the changes being made, the concessions agreed upon, and the improvements to the environment made that difficult time worth it. Certainly, not everyone will agree.

“A Few Irons in the Fire”

Now, with politics no longer on the radar, Chiarelli has no plans to retire — instead, he’s getting back into the consulting business.

But he’s also looking to find a happy balance that allows him to enjoy more time with his family, including his grandchildren. He shares his life in Cedarhill with his partner, Randi Hansen, who has his same love of politics and has been a constant fixture by his side for almost 20 years. Hansen is as extroverted as Chiarelli is introverted. Full of fun, she once described him as the “Italian Stallion!”

When they first met, Chiarelli was leading the charge against smoking in public places. Hansen, a smoker, was asked if that created a conflict between the two of them. Apparently it didn’t. “Bob and I have a deal. I don’t smoke in his car, and he doesn’t pee in my pool,” she quipped.

The two regularly host large family dinners on Sunday nights and holidays. To the grandchildren, she’s Mormor, the Scandinavian word for grandmother — a salute to her heritage. While he’s not keen to return to a life that sees him commuting to Toronto on a regular basis, Chiarelli says he has “a few irons in the fire” and is not looking for a life of golf and travel.

Bob Chiarelli with partner Randi Hansen (far left) and his children and grandchildren at Villa Marconi, where they celebrated his 30th anniversary of political work— it all started with a 1987 win in the former ward of Ottawa West

“After this election, I got lots of notes saying, ‘Too bad you lost,’ all that sort of stuff. But right now, I’m not thinking of what happened or what’s happening in the future. This is a memory jogger for me. I won a lottery for life. I have a great family. I went to university on a hockey scholarship, went to law school, practised law, was elected as a member of provincial parliament, was a cabinet minister, mayor of the nation’s capital, and regional chair. I’m 76 years old, and I’ve never spent a day in the hospital. I’ve got wonderful children, wonderful grandchildren. I lost two elections, yes, but I won nine. And I’ve worked really hard and helped a lot of people.”

It’s a little jarring to hear Chiarelli describe his life as being like winning the lottery, given what he’s been through — losing a wife, losing a son.

“What I did with Chris and with Carol, I had to steel myself. You have to go as deep as you can. You’re not going to give up, but you’re not going to make everything possible. But I made it through it. And that’s the lottery. After the experience I had with Carol, that turned me into a different person. I made it through. After that, I can do anything.”