This year’s Community Builders Awards Hall of Fame winner will be remembered as a member of the small army of people who supported this community during the bad times of the late 1970s and 1980s. He continued to do so during the good times to ensure the community would survive the future cycles of a boom and bust economy.
Floyd Laughren is one of the “players” who steered the community from a one-industry town dependent on mining into a diversified regional capital and centre for post-secondary education and health care in northeastern Ontario.
Laughren has served Greater Sudbury as an educator, a politician at Queen’s Park for 27 years, a champion at times of unpopular causes, such as occupational health and safety, and as a community leader.
Once the second most powerful politician in Ontario, Laughren is humble and unassuming. Ask him about his career, which includes being deputy premier and finance minister from 1991 to 1995, and he delivers a curriculum vitae of just a few hundred words.
One of eight children born to Irvin and Erma Laughren, he was born in Quebec 71 years ago. He grew up on a farm near Caledonia in southern Ontario.
He studied business at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, and then headed out west to work as a manager for Zellers.
Like many of the 2007 CBA winners, the end of the 1960s was a pivotal time in his life. He had returned to Ontario to study economics at York University, and in 1969 was hired to teach economics at Cambrian College in Sudbury. The college, in its infancy at the time, didn’t have a campus. Classes were held in the old Sacred Heart College building on Notre Dame Ave.
The young professor quickly made a good impression with the city’s social democrats who were weary from the battles of the Mine Millers and the Steelworkers only a few years earlier. Two years later, Laughren was encouraged to enter politics. It was a decision he never regretted.
“I loved politics. I liked politicians…their sense of commitment and their sense of fun. Most, at both the provincial and federal level, work hard,” he says.
Nickel Belt voters elected Laughren in the fall of 1971, and he headed to Queen’s Park as part of Stephen Lewis’ team. During Laughren’s 27 years in politics, the Ontario NDP experienced a number of historic firsts. With Lewis, a dynamic leader, the NDP’s popularity grew and in the 1975 election, won 38 seats. The party became the Official Opposition for the first time, and brought a progressive voice to conservative Ontario.
“A strong opposition can do more for the community than having a member on the government side,” says Laughren.
In 1985, when popular Premier Bill Davis retired, the Progressive Conservative dynasty of 42 years ended. In the election that year, the PCs, led by Frank Miller, won 50 seats. The Liberals won 48 seats, and the New Democrats held the balance of power with 25.
NDP leader Bob Rae and the Liberals’ David Peterson signed an accord putting the Liberals in power. In return, Peterson agreed to enact a list of NDP policies such as child-care reform, non-profit housing and equal pay legislation. By 1990, Laughren had sat in opposition for almost 20 years. The Liberals had won a huge majority government, and it looked like they might hold the power for some time. At age 54, he was considering retiring.
That summer Peterson made a strategic error. He called a snap election only three years into his mandate. It didn’t sit well with voters. On Sept. 6, 1990, to everyone’s surprise, the New Democrats won the provincial election with 74 seats (of 130) with 37 percent of the popular vote. Laughren won his Nickel Belt seat with 60 percent of votes.
Northern Life’s headline read, “Entire province in shock.”
New Premier Bob Rae asked the veteran MPP to be his deputy minister and treasurer for Ontario’s first New Democrat government. In his 1996 book, from Protest to Power, Rae writes, “My choice was Floyd Laughren and this proved to be wise…He had a steady hand and always displayed a marvellous sense of humour. We had not always seen eye-to-eye on all issues—in the seventies Floyd had been a voice on the left of the party—but since my becoming leader he became a tremendous source of quiet support. He had an enormously difficult job in government, and he never wavered or flinched.”
Characteristically, Laughren gives most of the credit to his staff and advisers at the time. One of Laughren’s first tastes of government responsiblity was on a trip to Japan where he represented the provincial government at Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Olympics. The trip took place only days after the election. “Pink Floyd” declared it would be the first Olympics with a social conscience by creating non-profit housing. Toronto lost the bid to Atlanta.
His former constituency assistant, Ian Wood, remembers, “On more than one occasion, Floyd was in New York or Paris one day, and sitting at a kitchen table in Chelmsford or Levack the next.”
The NDP honeymoon ended as soon as Ontario entered a deep recession. The government brought in the Social Contract, austerity legislation that reopened collective bargaining agreements with the province’s public sector unions. Rae Days entered the lexicon. In order to get the provincial budget under control, public employees were asked to take 10 days off without pay.
Laughren says he remains disappointed that union leaders and their members could not understand the need for cost-reduction to save jobs during this difficult time.
The relationship between the New Democrats and its traditional base of power, the unions, soured and has remained uneasy ever since. In the 1995 election, the NDP won only 17 seats. Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution swept the province.
It is hard to go from power to a voice in the wilderness, but Laughren continued to serve his constituents in Nickel Belt for another term. He retired in 1998, on the eve of another provincial election, moving aside for Valley East MPP Shelley Martel to run in Nickel Belt. Due to redistribution of electoral boundaries, Valley East and Nickel Belt became one riding.
During his last term, Laughren met a difficult foe with the same determination he used to tackle political opponents. He survived prostate cancer.
He retired from politics, but not public service. Laughren was asked in 1998 to chair the Ontario Energy Board, the Crown corporation responsible for regulating natural gas and electricity utilities in Ontario. He served a three-year term. Laughren has continued to serve people of the Sudbury Basin. He serves on the Laurentian University board of governors, is a director with the Community Savings Credit Union of Sudbury, and is a member of the advisory committee for the Sudbury Community Foundation.
In 2005, he chaired the United Way campaign, which raised more than $1.5 million, a record since the agency began in 1982. “He was seen flipping burgers, writing speeches, and canvassing community members all in the name of helping our community,” says United Way executive director Glenn Thibeault. He is also a member of the Science North Foundation and has helped to raise money for the Dynamic Earth expansion.
Most recently, Laughren was asked to serve his community again, and he said yes. He chaired the Greater Sudbury Community Solutions Team to find out and report on why citizens are unhappy about the amalgamation.
In 2001, Laughren received an honorary doctorate of laws from Laurentian University in recognition of his political service to the province. In 2002, he received Cambrian College’s Fred Sheridan Award for his contributions to the community.
The Cambrian Foundation has established the Floyd Laughren Bursary for accounting and business students, and the Floyd Laughren/Justin Eves Foundation Special Needs Bursary.
Laughren and his wife, Jeanette, have three children to whom they have passed on their principles and beliefs in social activism. Tannys is executive director of the Laurentian University Students’ General Association; Joel is a teacher in Taiwan, and Joshua is the director of communications for the World Wildlife Fund in Toronto.
His new business card reads, “Floyd Laughren, At Leisure.” This gives him time to spend with his grandson, Max, and time to feed his woodstove. Recently Laughren told a reporter for Northern Ontario Business that he accomplished more in his career than he ever thought he would. His colleague at Queen’s Park, Jim Bradley, then MPP for St. Catharines, caught the true measure of the man when speaking in the legislature in 1996 to celebrate Laughren’s 25th anniversary as an MPP, “There are no pretensions with Floyd Laughren; what you see is what you get.”