Former Cornwall Mayor Phil Poirier.
By Todd Lihou
CORNWALL, Ontario - When things were going well, nobody enjoyed being mayor more than Phil Poirier. And when things were going badly, no one took it to heart as much as he did.
The former mayor, just 68, now faces the greatest challenge anyone could foresee. Since August he has been battling a rare form of cancer that attacked the common bile duct that transports the vital fluid throughout the body. Treatments have been unsuccessful and doctors now tell Poirier and his family the condition is incurable – and time is short.
While his body is showing the effects of fighting a terminal disease, in some cases with stark detail, the look in his eye suggests that Poirier’s spirit for community, and his desire to see Cornwall succeed, has never been stronger.
“Out of all the hardships and what they threw at me…God only knows…I loved it, I still do,” Poirier said with an emotion that could only be understood if you’ve sat in the mayor’s chair. “It still pains me to this day what we lost, and where we could be today.”
It could be said that Poirier was ahead of his time, because ideas he championed that were turned down at the time have been resurrected years later.
He was twice elected mayor in Cornwall, once in 1988, and again in 2003.
Both terms were fraught with challenges – during his first run as mayor Poirier initially had support for a first-rate swimming facility to be built in Cornwall, complete with a wave pool.
Before the term was up voters were convinced the plan was bunk by a group that told the electorate Cornwall couldn’t afford such a grand design.
Ultimately Poirier’s vision for the pool was proven correct, as the Aquatic Centre that was built at the Cornwall Civic Complex includes many amenities the former mayor said should have been included years before – and some that weren’t.
In an interview Poirier recounted a story that not long after the 1992 election a group of powerful local business people approached him about moving forward with the idea and made offers to donate or provide services to the project.
But by then it was too late.
“They came into my office, a delegation, all the heavyweights – lots of money. There was about eight of them. They all apologized to me, to my face,” said Poirier, who in the years since has heard from dozens of people who suggested he got it right when he advocated for the construction of a pool. “If I was to given a dollar for every person that told me that, I would be a rich man.”
A similar theme ran through his second term as mayor, when some around the city council table waged open warfare with Poirier over a variety of issues – handcuffing his ability to provide the effective leadership he so dearly hoped to convey.
Poirier wears some of the blame for that – but it should be noted he was right when it boiled down to protecting city amenities.
Many of those who opposed him at city hall voted against a plan he supported that would have seen the city assume ownership of the waterfront lands – the same property that is now the site of a controversial chemical tank project.
At the time the federal government had voiced serious interest in divesting itself of the property – the same kind of proposal the city is now scrambling to pursue.
If Poirier and his camp had been successful just a few short years ago there’s no way those tanks would be under construction at this time.
“Today we would own it. We would own it!” he thundered, adding he has been in touch with Mayor Bob Kilger on the issue.
Despite differing political philosophies between the two, Poirier has provided a massive file on port divestiture, including background information and government contacts, that he began to create years ago when the issue first surfaced in Cornwall.
“He was kind enough to call me recently,” Poirier said of Kilger. “He told me that many people have no idea just how much vital information is contained in that file.”
Poirier’s time in office also included one of the darkest days in Cornwall’s history - the closure of Domtar Papers in 2006.
“I don’t wish that on anybody. Never. I won’t forget that,” Poirier recalls.
At the time Domtar was convening a meeting at Aultsville Theatre to explain to the hundreds of employees what the closure would mean.
Poirier, against the wishes of police, went to the meeting to hear from employees without the benefit of a bodyguard.
He was mercilessly berated by frustrated Domtar workers.
“I gave it a lot of thought, but said ‘I’m the mayor and I’m going to face the music,’” he said. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that were said to me.”
All of this is not to say that Poirier should be blamed for the hardships the city has endured, but to suggest that he fought valiantly in spite of the circumstances, for what he believed was right.
In fact, the story of Phil Poirier – the mayor - was almost never told.
Back in the 1970s he was a successful sales manager at Olivetti, a huge office supply company with a massive operation in Montreal that was considering opening franchises at locations throughout Canada.
He was setting up roots in Montreal, had started a family, and was generally happy with the course he had charted for himself.
Cornwall was one of the places Olivetti was opening a franchise, and almost begrudgingly Poirier agreed to start what would become Poirier Business Machines in 1977 on Rosemount Avenue.
Turns out it was one of the best decisions he would make because it led to a successful business venture that put food on the table for his family and fostered a political career few in the city can lay claim to.
“Today, in a lot of ways, if you look at the road map that is there…we are a better off city,” said Poirier. “We’re slowly getting onto the right track and that’s based on economic development to a certain degree.”
Economic development that Poirier helped to foster.
There were critics, to be sure, during his time in public life. But it should be noted that even when a political figure falls short on a given issue, especially in the fickle world of municipal politics, they have often given it their all.
It’s clear that despite the effects of a disease that is ravaging his body, Poirier gave it his all back then – and continues to today.