Society

Low blows: A cringe-worthy history of local political train wrecks

She claimed to have apologized for her “blunt language” but the water cooler jokes and the meme sharing were already in full swing.

When Lisa MacLeod, the MPP for Nepean and minister of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, suddenly set upon Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk at a Rolling Stones concert near Barrie, Ontario last week, her alleged profanity-laced takedown of Melnyk for his handling of the team made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Apology or no, it was almost certainly the most damning foot-in-mouth move from an Ottawa-based politician thus far in 2019.

It was also all kinds of funny, which caused us to look back in search of similar implosions in Ottawa politics. Here are five.

Duking it out in Council Chambers
According to local historian James Powell, Ottawa’s pioneering-yet-combative mayor from the 1950s and 1960s, Charlotte Whitton, created more than a little controversy during her almost 15 years in city council. In one chamber incident, Whitton made several attempts to physically accost — yes, punch — fellow councillor Paul Tardif. She attacked him another time following a heated debate, brandishing a toy gun that she’d kept in her desk, causing Tardif to cry “Don’t shoot!” Many of Whitton’s accomplishments as mayor were praised but her taste for theatrics made her enough of a celebrity that in 1955 she appeared on the popular American TV game show What’s My Line?

Left: Former Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien (photo by The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick). Right: Terry Kilrea, who ran in the 2006 mayoral race (CP Photo/Ottawa Citizen/Pat McGrath)

The Swinging D*ck Contest of 2006
Back in 2009, then mayor Larry O’Brien faced influence-pedaling charges for allegedly offering a political appointment to his 2006 mayoral race competitor Terry Kilrea if Kilrea agreed to drop out of the race. It was awkward enough that some relatively common political skullduggery had been brought to court, but the episode reached a new low when O’Brien (who was ultimately acquitted) described a key encounter with Kilrea as “a big swinging dick contest” in an interview with the Ontario Provincial Police.

The 2013 Strip Club Breathalyzer Brouhaha
No charges were laid, but veteran councillor Peter Clark had himself a night to forget in May of 2013. Clark was pulled over after leaving a Montreal Road strip club, given a breathalyzer, and then allegedly intimidated the Ottawa police officer who had stopped him. Because Clark’s breath test registered in the warning range, his car was towed and his license was suspended for three days. The then 75-year-old politician, who later apologized for his behaviour, made the episode feel even slimier by commenting to the media: “He [the police officer] said he pulled me over because he thought I was trying to pick up a hooker. Well, number one I didn’t stop, I didn’t open the window. I didn’t wave at anybody. I don’t know where he got that impression.”

Making a Racquet about the Wrong Jack Purcell
Our entire municipal government was disgraced in 2014 when a public art installation at Jack Purcell Park seemed to pay homage to the incorrect Jack Purcell. Our Purcell was a beloved neighbourly type who repaired countless hockey sticks and gave them away to youngsters before he died in 1991. However, the tall sculptural elements in the art installation are shaped suspiciously like badminton racquets — seemingly in tribute to the badminton-playing Canadian icon Jack Purcell. City officials tried to deflect and minimize the embarrassment but the Somerset Ward councillor at the time, Diane Holmes, was not amused. “I’m sure people are wondering what in heaven’s name are these things,” Holmes said, before musing aloud whether the architectural firm hired to create the installation “just Googled Jack Purcell and the only thing that comes up is the badminton player.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson at a news conference in 2017, shortly after he announced that hi will let political critics read his Twitter feed again after several went to court claiming he was violating their constitutional rights by blocking them. The Canada Press/Adrian Wyld

The Great 2018 Twitter Takedown
He’s not quite at Donald Trump levels when it comes to venomous tweeting, but Mayor Jim Watson has been known to occasionally weaponize his Twitter account in heated and highly personal exchanges with political opponents. And he even blocked especially persistent critics from accessing his feed. That changed abruptly in late 2018 when Watson reached an agreement with three litigants that forced him to unblock not only the litigants but all the followers whom he had blocked. Before the case, Watson insisted that his was a personal account and that he had “the right not to be attacked and harassed by the same individuals on a regular basis.” After the settlement, a suddenly more reflective Watson agreed that as a public servant he actually had no such right and then resumed tweeting with his Twitter tail firmly between his legs.