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The GST, a broken promise and a lot of drama for Sheila Copps

Sheila Copps had made a promise to voters that obligated her to resign from office, which she did. She was also immediately re-elected.

Deputy prime minister resigned from office in 1996, ran again and won subsequent byelection

Pressure on the deputy PM

Digital Archives

25 years ago
2:19
In the spring of 1996, Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps was under pressure to live up to promise she had made on the campaign trail. 2:19

It wasn't as if Sheila Copps had been responsible for the GST's continued existence.

But the three-term MP and subsequent deputy prime minister had made an election campaign promise to resign if the Liberals didn't quash the tax.

So when, in April 1996, the Liberal government signalled the GST had to stay, that put pressure on Copps to live up to her 1993 promise.

Some of that pressure was coming from constituents in her hometown of Hamilton.

Was there any other way?

Lots of people calling in to Hamilton talk radio believed that Sheila Copps had no choice but to resign her seat in the House of Commons after promising she would do so if the Liberals didn't scrap the GST. (The National/CBC Archives)

"On the local talk radio station, the phone lines were jammed, the callers unanimous," the CBC's Heather Hiscox told viewers on April 24, 1996, as her report on The National caught them up on the controversy.

The callers believed Copps had to resign or face a likely defeat in the next election.

At first, Copps didn't seem like she was going to follow through on her promise.

"Sometimes, I shoot from the lip and maybe I shouldn't," she told reporters in Churchill, Man., while accompanying Prince Charles during a royal visit.

Pollster John Wright said a lot of voters wouldn't accept seeing Copps back away from what she'd pledged to do.

"When a politician stands up and for principles says what they are going to do and doesn't go through with it ... the public will hold them with some measure of contempt," he told CBC News.

It was 'the only way'

Copps to resign and re-run

Digital Archives

25 years ago
3:27
On May 1, 1996, Liberal Deputy PM Sheila Copps decided to resign over a broken election promise -- but also to run to win back her seat. 3:27

At the start of May, Copps made the call to step down. Speaking to reporters at a news conference, it was clear she had found the situation to be stressful.

She told a story about a trip to a bank machine she'd made a couple of days earlier.

"It was probably the first time in my political career that I wasn't able to look somebody straight in the eye," said Copps.

"And for me, it's important that I can look Canadians straight in the eye and I think the only way to clear the air is to step down and put my fate in the hands of the people."

The CBC's Jason Moscovitz reported that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien hadn't asked for her resignation and he had believed the government could survive the controversy. But Copps believed there was only one way forward.

Hamilton voters made their call

A byelection victory for Sheila Copps

Digital Archives

25 years ago
2:47
Sheila Copps was re-elected to Parliament in June 1996 during a byelection that was triggered by her own resignation. 2:47

The night of the byelection, Copps was the lead story on The National. A report from Moscovitz summarized her efforts to win back her seat.

"Copps says she knocked on 32,000 doors. This was about working as hard as she could to prove she wasn't taking the hometown people of Hamilton for granted," Moscovitz told viewers on June 17, 1996.

Copps told reporters she had to wait to see what the people casting ballots decided to do.

Ultimately, voters in Hamilton East sent Copps back to Ottawa. The re-elected MP won a majority of support, though not the two-thirds of ballots she captured in the general election of 1993.

Moscovitz said it was likely Copps would return to her dual role as deputy prime minister and heritage minister.

Two days later and just 49 days after she resigned, Copps was sworn back in to her prior roles.

After winning the byelection, Sheila Copps was happy to rejoin the Liberal cabinet and resume her work as deputy prime minister and heritage minister. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

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