Sleiman finds new joy — making things happen
Cherubic-faced, soft-spoken and perhaps a bit too trusting in the essential goodness of human nature, Ed Sleiman might at first glance appear too gentle a soul for the brutish, backstabbing blood sport that is politics in the 21st century.
But appearances can be deceiving. Behind that placid, non-threatening demeanor lies, not a pushover, but an intense competitor who is unblinking in the face of intimidation and relentless in pursuit of his dreams.
Sleiman was the David of last month’s election, the little guy, pebble in a sling, who slew the mighty Goliath in bringing Ken Lewenza Jr., the CAW’s designated council champion, crashing down in Ward 5.
Backed by a small number of friends and relatives, vastly outgunned and outnumbered, Sleiman managed the unthinkable, unseating the esteemed son of Canada’s most powerful union president, in labour-dominated Windsor of all places.
I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised, because the 67-year-old proud grandpa has been overcoming odds all his life. Born in the ancient Lebanese port city of Tripoli, the oldest of seven kids, he received almost no formal education before starting work at the age of 12 in his dad’s welding shop. He couldn’t read or do math, but developed skills that eventually led to wellpaying jobs on oil pipeline projects in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
But Sleiman wasn’t satisfied. Hungering for a life with more stability and greater opportunity, he applied to immigrate to both Canada and Australia. Canada’s acceptance letter arrived first and in 1965, at the age of 22, Sleiman landed in Montreal and quickly moved on to Toronto.
Unable to speak English, he ordered food in restaurants by pointing to meals on other tables.
But those welding skills were in great demand. A counsellor asked him where he wanted to work. “Wherever there’s a job,” he replied. Within days Sleiman was off to Chatham and then Ridgetown to work on pipelines being installed by Union Gas.
He eventually settled in Windsor, met a local girl, sponsored his parents and siblings to join him here and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well not quite. It bothered Sleiman immensely that he had an income but no formal education, “not even Grade 1.”
He quit work and entered a training program. In 23 months he earned a Grade 12 diploma and in 1975 — just a decade after arriving here as a near-illiterate — he graduated from the University of Windsor in mechanical and industrial engineering.
Old school, he never considered accepting welfare and it disturbs him to see more recent immigrants arrive with a strong sense of entitlement and intimate knowledge of Canada’s social assistance programs.
“People who came in the old days had a different attitude,” he lamented.
Now, as training director for UA Local 522, Sleiman takes great satisfaction (he compares it to sculpting clay) in steering young people, some of them salvaged from dead-end situations, through plumbing and pipefitting apprenticeships that enable them to become productive citizens and work anywhere in Canada.
As a councillor in waiting, with more than a week to go until the swearing-in, he’s discovering a new joy, that of being able to make things happen for his future constituents. During the campaign an elderly homeowner complained to him about a muddy bog at a Pillette Road bus stop.
Following his victory, Sleiman contacted Transit Windsor. They responded by installing a concrete pad and bench. “I couldn’t believe how good they were at Transit Windsor. I feel great about it. That’s so rewarding when you see you’ve made a positive change for the people.”
The astonished homeowner told Sleiman he hadn’t expected to hear back from him until the 2014 election.
Less successful have been his efforts to mend fences with the CAW. Perhaps a bit naively, he went to the Turner Road hall last week (the equivalent of entering the lion’s den) and asked to speak to Local 444 president Rick Laporte and labour council head Dino Chiodo. Told they were in meetings, he left his phone number and asked to be called.
He’s still waiting. A bit disappointed. But still hoping for a response that could open lines of communication because, “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to hold a grudge about anything.”
Why? Because life is too short and too precious to waste on petty squabbles.
“Some people think we are going to live forever,” said Sleiman. “But we are just visitors on the face of the Earth. What we leave behind is what we do in this life.”