Donald J. Matthews 1926-2018
If ever there were a man in love with life and country, it was Don Matthews: entrepreneur, president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and one of the very few who took on Ottawa and won. If he were in a room down the hall you could always hear his “har-har-har” laugh. If you were in that room, trying to avoid some contentious issue – and there were a few such issues in the PC Party – Matthews would declare: “Let’s put the codfish on the table and see how it smells.”
Matthews signed up for the Air Force at seventeen but by the time he was ready to fly Lancasters in bombing raids over Germany, the Second World War was over. He obtained his engineering degree from Queen’s on a vets program and launched his own construction firm in 1953 after rounding up $25,000 from friends and family. Forty years later, he headed an international giant with $500 million in revenue.
Throughout his business career, politics beckoned. He twice ran unsuccessfully for Parliament. He became president of the PC Party but the higher-ups couldn’t abide his forthright manner. When his term came up for renewal, the elites ran one of their own against him. Supporters of Matthews at the convention wore yellow construction hats. Ontario Premier Bill Davis walked the halls of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier, telling any Matthews backer he saw, “No one important in the province of Ontario is wearing one of those.” Matthews lost, but only by sixteen votes, 635-619.
Matthews had enemies among Liberals, too. A consortium Matthews created won the contract to renew and expand two terminals at Toronto’s Pearson airport. After Jean Chrétien was elected prime minister in 1993, the deal was cancelled. His bankers promptly put Matthews’s companies into receivership. Matthews fought back through the courts and a Senate hearing. In 1997 the government agreed to pay $60 million in damages and legals divided among the members of the consortium. Matthews had won, but at 71, he was never able to rebuild anything near his previous net worth.
His spirit, however, remained undiminished. I visited him last year at the Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital during the Conservative leadership race. I said if he were still active, he’d have formed a group to back a candidate. “Who would be in the group?” he asked. I rattled off some names and we moved on to other topics. As the visit ended, he asked for my business card. Odd, I thought, given we’d been friends for forty-five years. “This is a contract,” he said. “For what?” I asked. “To put my group together,” said Matthews, irrepressible activist to the end.