I think I first met Eric Cunningham in the mid 1970’s at a house party in Oakville. I was just starting out in broadcast Journalism and he was a newly-minted MPP representing what was then called Wentworth North. A few years later when I was just getting my feet wet as CHCH news director, the MPP Eric dropped by the newsroom to pitch me on the notion that a proposed elevated transit system that the Davis government was touting for Hamilton was a bad idea. I remember his intelligence and intensity in making his points. The result was that a documentary we produced on the transit issue was a lot more balanced than it would have been without his intervention.
I got to know Eric better in 1984 when true to his nature, which it must be admitted, could be impulsive; he jumped from the provincial Liberals led by David Peterson, who was but a year away from forming a government; to the federal Liberals, led by John Turner. In the ensuing election the Liberals were reduced to about 40 seats and Eric was thrashed in his riding. Almost certainly Eric would have been a member of the Peterson Cabinet had he stayed at Queen’s Park..
After a year or so working for Smith Transport, then owned by Paul Martin, Eric purchased the Ontario Editorial Bureau from Lou Cahill, one of Canada’s Public Relations pioneers. The company had handled media relations for events ranging from the Royal Visit of 1939, the opening of the QEW and Marilyn Monroe’s sojourn in Niagara falls to make the movie Niagara. The business prospered and grew.
Over the years, I started calling on Eric to be a guest panelist at CHCH during our federal and provincial election coverage. Paired with other pundits like Tom Reid, Jack Macdonald and Mike Davison, Eric provided some sparkling wit and insights; and while clearly Eric was on the panel to provide the Liberal viewpoint, he always avoided shrill partisanship. In the intervening years Eric and I would check in by phone regularly to exchange political gossip, and the other kind.
Fast forward to 1996, when I had tired of the daily news grind, and was looking for a new career. It was Eric who came forward with the backing and support to start Best Communications, as a subsidiary of Eric’s OEB. I credit Eric for saving me from burnout and for introducing me to the work that has been my life for the past almost 20 years. I will always be grateful for his role in springing me.
Eric sold his public relations business in 2000 and joined United Water, a Paris-,based utility company that was looking to capitalize on the wave of privatization that was sweeping the public utilities sector then. He did a lot of travelling and made a fair bit of money in the 3 years or so that the job lasted. It also coincided with or perhaps precipitated the end of his marriage to Joan Montgomery—an event that would take Eric on a Kafka-esque legal nightmare that lasted literally until the day he died. The story is well documented elsewhere about how lawyer James Edney of the Toronto firm Blaney, McMurtry, hired a pair of private detectives to confirm Eric’s ex-spouse’s suspicion that he had concealed assets in offshore accounts. The detectives produced a totally fraudulent report that said he did, and the game was on. (The two con artists repeated their frauds in the United States and the Caribbean and thankfully, are now serving lengthy stretches as guests of the US penal system). But their capture did not provide much in the way of relief for Eric. For the next decade Eric exhausted his financial and emotional resources in an attempt to clear his name, something he eventually did. But the damage was done. His savings were gone and his health was seriously impaired as was his ability to do the consulting work that he had done so brilliantly for many years
For most of the past five years, Eric’s main occupation has been trying to keep a lawsuit alive in the hopes of recovering some of his lost financial resources. Ever able to find optimism in dark corners, the day before he died Eric sent me an email; “Thanks for all your help this year. I know that 2015 will be a year of promise on my legal file.”
On New Year’s Eve in the Huntsville home he shared with his wife Heather (Hunter), who had been an unwavering support in the past difficult years; Eric had spent the entire day working on his legal case. According to the Toronto Star he joked with a friend that day that the stress of his legal battle was going to kill him. He was experiencing some chest pain and Heather begged him to put the legal work away. Eric eventually did lay his work down… but died in his sleep sometime early New Years Day.
We contacted two of Eric’s oldest friends for comment, Ron Foxcroft has known Eric since grade school, and Harrison Arrell, now a judge who was a college roommate. Their comments follow:
Eric was a loyal friend while growing up in grade school and all of our adult life. His mother was a trail blazer physiotherapist and dear friend of my mother. Eric excelled at everything he undertook, and in particular was a champion competitive wrestler all through high school and university. This drive and determination from his youth and athletics was his trademark all through his adult life. He was brilliant, hard working, and loyal to his family, close friends and clients. He should be remembered as someone who helped a lot of folks, and was an example of how all elected representatives should serve. I will miss him terribly.-Ron Foxcroft
“Jake”, as he was affectionately known by some, and I first met in High School at Nelson in Burlington. That friendship continued to date. Eric and I were roommates at Western in our 2nd year. Needless to say we had a terrific year and surprisingly we both even managed to do reasonably well academically with he continuing on at Western from which he graduated and me transferring to law school at Windsor. Eric was a wonderful, loyal friend. He was considerate, thoughtful and full of passion on which ever topic he was involved in at the time…
Eric was passionate about politics from high school on. He was involved throughout university. He never appeared polarized as to party but more as to what he felt was right on any given subject. Doing the right thing was always foremost in his thoughts and actions. He was a wonderful friend who will be deeply missed by me and many. Mr. Justice Harrison Arrell.
Throughout his shortened life Eric Cunningham was a champion of honor in public service, loyalty to friends and civility in discourse. He was also a fighter for justice. Those were qualities he carried to the very end. My thoughts and best wishes go out to Eric’s wife Heather, daughter Ashley and the rest of the family.