Peter Kormos, former Welland City Councillor, maverick NDP MPP, and Niagara Regional Councillor, but most of all a true fighter for working people in Ontario, died at home from natural causes at the age of 60. People across Ontario were shocked and saddened by his untimely passing, but none more so than in his working class hometown of Welland, ON.
After news of his death shook the community, a makeshift memorial appeared on the front steps of his modest Bald St. home. A pair of cowboy boots with flowers stood out as the most fitting tribute to the man who often dressed in a uniform of denim shirt, chinos, and the cowboy boots which he proudly purchased at Elio’s shoe repair in Thorold.
Peter will be honoured at a Memorial Service at Pleasantview Memorial Gardens in Fonthill at 1 p.m. on May 11.
Peter was born to a working class family in Welland in 1952. His parents were children of immigrants and his father worked for many years at Atlas Steel. Teachers and friends remember him as a sensitive and precocious student who developed his political chops at Eastdale Secondary School, where he protested the Vietnam War and rebelled as the student council president against an overly strict and conservative principal.
Peter was eventually expelled but managed to finish his high school courses at Niagara College, and eventually went to Osgoode Law School. He paid his way by working factory and odd jobs.
My cousin, who was his neighbor and a longtime political supporter, recalls an old boyfriend getting into some trouble in the eighties and being defended by a young hotshot Kormos, who drove around town in a Corvette yet was developing a reputation as a smart and stellar lawyer who took on the roughest and toughest cases. He reportedly worked half of these cases pro bono.
I was a grade nine student new to his riding because the recession had forced our family to move west from Nova Scotia for work. It was the fall of 1990 and the Ontario NDP was on a high after defeating the Liberals in the September election. I didn’t know who Peter was, and hadn’t yet seen him in action or learned of his epic 17 hour filibuster against the Liberal’s move to introduce no-fault auto insurance, a scheme that limits compensation to accident victims while lining the pockets of insurance companies.
Peter always had time for students, speaking at school assemblies or greeting a school trip to Queen’s Park. Peter came out to meet our class and shake our hands. He was kind, charming, and a bit like celebrity to us. Our rather straight-laced and serious history teacher was blushing and seemed giddy around him.
Peter was then making waves as a cabinet minister and doing his Welland-Thorold constituents proud, but a few months after this, Premier Bob Rae had kicked him out of cabinet for posing fully clothed as the Toronto Sun’s “Sunshine Boy”.
The real reason for the firing was ideological. As Rae began implementing austerity measures and steering the party away from its social democratic roots, Peter stuck to his principles as always and did not toe the party line. He became one the most outspoken and important critics of Rae during and beyond the Social Contract.
In 1995 the ONDP suffered a political defeat to Mike Harris and a loss of support and confidence from the trade union movement. But Peter was re-elected by a comfortable margin, and then three more times until his retirement in 2011. Incredibly, he won over 53 per cent of the vote in 2007.
I do not get wrapped up in electoral politics, but would sometimes find myself at the Club Sociale in Welland on election night, caught up in the moment, and chanting “Peter, Peter” with the rest of the crowd. Although I can’t completely say he was a socialist, he was pretty darn close. It was exciting to see an intelligent, principled, and respected politician make socialist ideas popular and accessible to people, all while winning landslide elections through recessions, devastating job losses from free trade agreements, austerity measures, party crises, and of course the fateful election in 2003, when the NDP lost party status.
Much has been written about Peter since his passing, from funny stories and anecdotes of his rebelliousness, to his strong work ethic and commitment to his constituents. Everyone seems to have a story about him. I will simply miss hearing his familiar voice and feeling the confidence that working people in Niagara were well represented with his commitment, flare and humour.
Peter stood on countless picket lines, marched in every Labour Day Parade, and attended most of the demonstrations that were important to all of us in Niagara over the years, from protests against privatization, hospital closures, hydro sell-offs, wars, and G20 Summits. Beyond seeing the empty seat at Regional Council this week, we will feel this loss for many years to come, at every protest, parade, and picket line.