Love, Loss & Lot­tery Life the of

A pub­lic fig­ure for decades, Bob Chiarelli has re­mained quite pri­vate about his per­sonal life. Now, with more than 30 years in pol­i­tics be­hind him, he talks to Sue Sherring about the fam­ily life he has pro­tected, dis­cussing the painful life-chang­ing ex­per

Ottawa Magazine - - BY THE BOOK -

AAS 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. 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.

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

“It was ter­ri­ble. It changed me. And I also knew that if I could go through that, I could go through any­thing.”

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.

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. “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.”

“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.”

Fam­ily ties 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 be­gan with a 1987 win in the for­mer ward of Ot­tawa West

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