Meet the Chillest Man in Canadian Politics

We talked to Peter Stoffer about the recent election upset, why he likes his fellow politicians, and his collection of baseball caps.

by Jenn Jefferys
Nov 3 2015, 4:25pm

Peter Stoffer's office. RIP. Photos by Jenn Jefferys

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

On Parliament Hill, there are very few judgement-free sanctuaries to catch one's breath and really relax amid the noise and vanity.

In my early twenties, as a volunteer for another NDP MP, I found one space where I could get a beer and let my political guard down a little—namely, Peter Stoffer's office.

There's a number of things about the thickly-mustached Nova Scotian that set him apart from his colleagues. For one, he sat quite contently among the back benches of the House of Commons for 18 years until becoming a casualty of the Liberals' bloody sweep of the Atlantic provinces this October. If you asked him why he was content to be on the sidelines, he'll tell you it's so he had more time to engage with his constituents (not exactly a typical mentality among some of the more power-hungry people in the House).

Stoffer had also established that nice, regular guy reputation that Rob Ford so desperately wanted. Stoffer calls it as he sees it, so when someone says something dickish, he calls them a "dickhead."

If you really get to know Stoffer (probably over a beer or a rum and coke—which were always flowing in that office), you'll learn pretty fast that this isn't your standard, yawn-inducing white-collar parliamentarian. This is just a dude who really digs telling stories, hosting parties, and helping folks out—particularly veterans, who were his primary focus during his time in office.

If there's a party happening on the Hill you can generally assume Stoffer is hosting or organizing it, and you can also assume that politicos from across the political spectrum will be welcomed. Reporters, staffers, volunteers, MPs, senators—literally everyone is invited when Stoffer's door is open.

There's a lot of great stories that start with "the other night at Stoffer's office..." And not just from dippers. Why? Because there really was no place else where some of the most stressed out, high-strung people in the country could kick off their heels, loosen their tie, throw a few back, and just chill the fuck out for once. Stoffer absolutely loves being the national vessel for chilling. He's kind of like that one uncle you can't wait to see at Christmas every year cause he always manages to keep it real and sneak you some booze when your parents aren't looking.

Once you get past the stache, the second thing you will notice about Stoffer is that he's kind of a hoarder. His office is covered in wall-to-wall shit—thousands of baseball caps, political pins and memorabilia, sports gear, puppets and stuffed toy animals, flags, military equipment, and more photos and awards than you'd want to count. There's a story behind every piece, and Stoffer is more than happy to tell you about it. The man loves to talk.

In the middle of the office, a full-sized pool table has sat for years to welcome countless friendly games across party lines. A dart board also dons his wall, and a guestbook sits open to all those who pass through.

When I caught up with Stoffer during his last week on the Hill, he was in the process of regaling half a dozen friends and well-wishers the story of how he once "stole a Greyhound bus" and somehow "never got arrested" (I never did find out whether this tale was true or not. Knowing him, it probably was.) He unceremoniously sat in an old wooden rocking chair, with a giant smile on his face and a can of beer in hand—getting up to give a hug or handshake every few minutes as a new guest arrived to pay their respects, Maritime Godfather-style.

VICE: So. You didn't see the results [of this election] coming. How do you feel about it?
Peter Stoffer: Well, obviously disappointed. But the reality is, you've got to give hats off to—something I haven't said in 31 years—to Prime Minister Trudeau, you know? Hats off to him and his team. They ran a great campaign and we just weren't successful. We came up short.

There are so many reporters, politicians, and staffers who love [to hang out with you]. Why do you think that is? What is it about you that resonates with people?
I think it's because I've always, always, always liked people. I don't look at politics in a partisan nature. Although I'm a New Democrat, I'm proud to be a social democrat. I've been that way my whole life, but I haven't met one senator or MP in my entire career that I wouldn't want as my neighbor.

Really? Even Stephen Harper?
Why not? He's a good man. We just see politics differently, that's all. What's wrong with that? I mean the reality is these are all good people. And they all gave of themselves and their service. So when you step into the public eye, it's never that easy to do. And so, I admire the prime minister, Prime Minister Harper, for what he did. It's hard to be a leader of a party or a prime minister. You know, some people love you, some people don't.

George Bush [Jr.] once said when he came to Canada that Canadians waved at him with all their fingers, you know? All their fingers, not just one. I mean, and he said 75 percent of Americans don't like him, but he sure loves that other 30 percent.

These things happen in politics. You can't take it personal, because if you do, then you shouldn't do this job. And the people of Canada, they're not wrong. The only people who are wrong on Election Day are those who don't vote.

Now, I expect this office that we're in is very special to you, and holds a lot of memories. What will you miss the most about it?
The people. I mean the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who came to this office. Just to see it, out of curiosity. But it all sums up with a couple of Americans a few years ago who were [outside] the window. And they went to the guard below, and they looked up, and they said to the guard, "How do we get to the gift shop upstairs?" That was perfect. Then I knew I had it right.

But I can't tell you how many cabinet ministers, MPs, individuals, who have come in, closed the doors, had a couple of beers, and had a game of pool with me. Just to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. Because they knew that one, I was a relaxed fellow, they could come in here and be comfortable. And that whatever happened here, goes with me to the grave. From all parties.

[At this point in the interview, Mark Critch of CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes and his camera crew show up unexpectedly, prompting Stoffer to get up and welcome them.]

Mark Critch and Stoffer

So, I'm curious. Tell me what motivated you to decorate your office this way.
Well, I had three hats of my own, a guy gave me a fourth one. I had to put 'em somewhere, so I put 'em on the wall. Then just like rabbits they breeded. People from across the country gave me the hats. Then the pins came, and the buttons came, and everything else came. I've had to put it somewhere. If someone's going to give you something you might as well display it. It's what I did.

Do you typically like to hang onto stuff, onto collectibles? Are you a sentimental kind of guy?
This is all for charity. This is why I did this. Because my wife Andrea said it's not coming home. You're not putting it in our house! I said from the beginning, when I leave politics, either voluntarily or involuntarily, all of this would be donated.

Yes, I remember you telling me that the first time I was here [as a volunteer in 2013]. You've never owned a Blackberry or a computer. Am I right?
No. The office does, but I don't.

I like to do things the old traditional way. You got a concern? Call me and I'll phone you back. You can email me, but I'll phone you back. I find that social media a bit cold, as a way to communicate. I'd rather look you in the eye and talk to you. Or on the phone.

I respect that. I like that. How many phone calls a day did you make? On an average day?
About 80 to 100. One time I did over 300 in one day. You can do them really quick, a lot quicker than email. Because the last thing I want to do is become your email buddy. Because then you'll send me every joke, everything you ever heard, everything you ever read, then it never stops, and the staff, all they do is they go through all the emails, 90 percent of it is to be discarded and they look for that 10 percent that are of value. So no. When people from Prince George complain about the BC Railway, they'll send it to an MP in Nova Scotia. Not your most appropriate choice of [who to] send it to. But with a click of a button you can send it to anybody. So if you've got a problem, give me a call!

I guess you've seen a bit of that shift, too. Into the reliance on technology and social media [during your long career in politics].
Yeah, I don't like it. I find it disturbing. But hey, it is what it is.

If there was one NDP colleague that you worked with over the years that you enjoyed working with the most, who would that be?
Ahhhh, that's an impossible question to answer. All of them. But if you're going to say one, the one that probably had the biggest impact on me, Bill Blaikie. Bill was here 29 and a half years and was one of the best of all time. You've got to say Bill, but everybody else. Because the entire team of people were wonderful. Wonderful.

Right. So what's next for you? Do you plan to return to politics?
Well, I'm going to finish up the office, and finish this beer. And uh, have another one. And then talk to people. Get everything all packed up, ready to go, and move it down to Nova Scotia and see where we go from there.

So it's undetermined at this point. You don't know whether you'll come back to politics someday, maybe run provincially?
Well, never say never. I'll be 60 in January. So I'm still a young guy. So I always thought—

[At this point 22 Minutes' Mark Critch interrupts us by dropping a big bottle of rum into Peter's lap].

You know what, Mark? She asked me what I'm going to do. You know what I'm going to do? You know, I used to work in a hotel restaurant for years. Because they feed you, you get to meet people, and they give you money! Brixton's could use help [Brixton's British Pub is the NDP's main watering hole in downtown Ottawa].

Okay, I've got one more question for you: If you could give one piece of advice to a young person, maybe someone feeling kind of cynical about politics, what would you give them?
Get involved. Run for politics. Regardless of what level you are—regional, municipal, provincial, federal—go for it. It's a great career.

For women as well?
Absolutely. The more women we have the better it will be.

There's a lot of feminist memorabilia in here. Do you identify as a feminist?
Yeah. Why not? I have two daughters, my wife's strong. Why not? If we have more women involved in politics, I think it would be better for everybody.

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