Michael Chong (Profile)

On the day when a typical federal CABINET was sworn in, the naming of a guy like Michael Chong might have ranked as the big surprise.

Chong, Michael (Profile)

On the day when a typical federal CABINET was sworn in, the naming of a guy like Michael Chong might have ranked as the big surprise. A complete unknown, who didn't even have a critic's role in Stephen HARPER's opposition shadow cabinet, Chong wasn't on anybody's short list - except, apparently, the Prime Minister's. At 34, the small-town Ontario MP who got the intergovernmental affairs portfolio is the youngest cabinet minister. But unexpected as Chong's appearance at Rideau Hall was last week, the arrivals of David Emerson - who jumped from the Liberals to be Harper's industry minister - and Michael Fortier - an unelected Quebec organizer tapped to be public works minister - overshadowed all else. The uproar over Emerson and Fortier marked the abrupt end of Harper's honeymoon period in office. For his government to get back on track, he needs his less controversial picks to shine - and surprises like Chong to make him look good.

On paper, elevating Chong makes a certain amount of sense. He's viewed as a moderate with ties to old-time Red Tories, which helps Harper consolidate his refurbished image as a centrist coalition-builder. He is, along with Heritage Minister Bev Oda, one of the cabinet's two visible minority members, and Harper needs to win more of the new Canadian votes that historically went to the Liberals. And he's from Ontario, where Harper needs to make further gains in the next election if he hopes to vault from minority to majority. But handing Chong intergovernmental affairs shows that Harper sees him as more than just a guy who has a lot of strategic checkmarks beside his name. As federal point man for talks with the provinces on the fiscal imbalance and other key issues, Chong is being asked to play a pivotal role in what is arguably the most ambitious part of Harper's agenda.

Those who have worked with him say he brings a blend of private-sector pragmatism and public-minded idealism to the job. He also has an intriguing personal history, which includes a strain of family tragedy. Chong grew up near Fergus, Ont., in southwestern Ontario farm country. His father was a Chinese immigrant physician, his mother a Dutch immigrant nurse and homemaker. After arriving in Canada almost penniless in 1952, his father went on to remarkable achievements. He worked his way through the University of Manitoba to earn a bachelor of science degree, and then completed medical school at the University of Ottawa. He met his future wife while training as a specialist in internal medicine at Queen's University.

Chong says his father, despite being a trailblazer, never sought recognition for himself as an immigrant success story. "My father was one of the most humble men I have ever known," Chong says. "He did not want any attention whatsoever. He really believed in the idea that doctors are there to help people." Chong's mother gave up nursing to be a stay-at-home mom to her four children, Michael and his younger sister and two brothers. But she was killed in a car accident in 1978, when Michael was only six years old. (His father remarried two years later.) Then in 1999, in a devastating twist of fate, Dr. Paul Chong died in a crash at the very same rural intersection, not far from the family home, where his wife had perished two decades before.

It's not surprising that Chong speaks with a particular reverence for his late parents. Yet he is not inclined to emphasize his ethnic background. "I view myself as a Canadian," he says. "I'm very proud of my Chinese and Dutch heritage. But I've never viewed myself as a hyphenated Canadian. I think most new Canadians want to be viewed first and foremost as Canadian." In fact, Chong has an unusually strong record in promoting better understanding of what being Canadian means, as one of the founders of the Dominion Institute, a Toronto-based organization that promotes the teaching of Canadian history.

The institute's executive director, Rudyard Griffiths, was Chong's roommate at U of T's Trinity College. "Mike was interested in politics and political history and good arguments," Griffiths says. After the close call of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Griffiths, Chong and a third friend, Erik Penz, were concerned that the best case for Canada was never really made. "The argument for the preservation of our country was based on economics and convenience," he says, "not on shared history, shared identity, in many cases shared values." Armed with a proposal for an institute to promote that missing sense of heritage, the three went to the conservative Donner Foundation. Its chair, Allan Gotlieb, who as Brian Mulroney's former ambassador to Washington is a Tory icon, was won over, and the foundation provided funding to get the institute up and running.

Chong remains a board member. His Dominion Institute background lends a certain gravitas to a resumé that otherwise doesn't signal much engagement with issues. He learned information technology on a series of jobs through the nineties, rising to head the IT department of the National Hockey League Players Association, and serving as an IT consultant for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. Politics, though, had been a passion since high school. He says the local MP when he was growing up, Perrin Beatty, a Mulroney cabinet minister and now president of the industry group Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, was a model and inspiration. Beatty followed closely as Chong lost in the 2000 election, then won in 2004 and 2006. "Mike was willing to run when it looked like no Conservative could win. Then he came to Parliament Hill with his priorities right," Beatty says. "Don't get seduced by Ottawa, serve your constituents, don't forget who sent you there."

But being a good riding man is no longer enough. Chong must now show that he can deliver results on high-profile files, and carve out a profile for himself against stiff cabinet competition. Three items dominate the intergovernmental agenda: making good on Harper's promise to fix the so-called "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces, negotiate a deal on health wait times, and smooth the way for the Conservatives to pull out of Liberal deals to help fund provincial daycare. Much more experienced cabinet heavyweights - particularly fellow Ontarians Health Minister Tony Clement and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty - have stakes in these issues and could leave Chong in their shadows. "Defining his role as part of the team, but also making sure he's able to provide leadership on these files, is clearly Mike's challenge," Beatty says.

And then there's the Prime Minister. Some observers wonder if Harper means to handle the provinces pretty much on his own, and so felt he could afford a novice in the intergovernmental post. Chong naturally denies that suggestion. "My age is not a factor," he says. "The Prime Minister believes I have the ability to do the job." Evidently so. But if Harper was willing to gamble on Chong, the stakes now look higher. With his cabinet-making judgment in question over the controversial appointments of Emerson and Fortier, Harper needs his other picks to pan out. The downside of a raw recruit messing up now seems that much worse. But the upside of an MP plucked from obscurity and turning out to be an inspired choice looks even more tantalizing.

Maclean's February 20, 2006