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Former COCA president David Surplis remembered for leadership and humour

Angela Gismondi
Former COCA president David Surplis remembered for leadership and humour

Former Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA) president David Surplis recently passed away and the construction community says he will be remembered for his leadership during a difficult time in the industry.

“He had to steer the industry through five really bad years in terms of government relations and the construction economy,” recalled David Frame director of government relations and business development at the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA). “1990 through 1995 we had an NDP government which was bringing in a lot of legislation that was troubling to employers and it was at a time when the construction industry was in a terrible funk. A lot of members, a lot of prominent firms, went out of business during that time.”

He added, “David had to rally the industry work as much as he could at Queen’s Park but a lot of the work was with other industries outside of the construction industry. It was a big challenge. He worked his way through that and once the mid-90s came the industry started to grow again and he was able to work with the industry to help them find their legs again.”

In addition to his time at COCA, Surplis, who passed away Aug. 23 at the age of 82, was a professor of political science at the University of Guelph, a political staffer at Queen’s Park and worked for former Minister of Health Dennis Timbrell and was also an association leader for the Ontario Dental Association.

Frame, who became COCA president after Surplis, said he knew him well both personally and professionally.

“I walked into the first-year University of Guelph intro to political studies and David was the professor who taught that course,” said Frame. “That’s when I met David.”

“I wasn’t going to pursue working in the political realm until I was enthralled by listening to David and hearing David’s experiences and what David had to say. He was a big influence in my life and I had a chance to work with him at every stage of my life after being a student, so that was fantastic.”

In addition to living in the same neighbourhood for 35 years, they both worked at Queen’s Park around the same time as well.

Frame was fortunate to have lunch with Surplis about a month ago. He said Surplis will be remembered for his sense of humour.

“David had a unique sense of humour that was in almost everything he said,” Frame explained. “He had a casualness about him that made him so easy to work with gave him the ability to bring people together and work our way through tough situations and find agreement.”

Surplis stepped down as COCA president in 2001 after he was diagnosed with cancer.

“In COCA’s almost 50-year history, David was without question its most consequential leader,” said Ian Cunningham, president of COCA. “He was a unique character blessed with the intellect you would expect from someone who had earned a PhD. He was decisive, collaborative, engaging and very witty.”

Cunningham said Surplis influenced the course of public policy in Ontario.

“I first encountered David in the early 1990s when corporate CEOs and association leaders joined together like never before in opposition to the government of the day,” Cunningham recalled. “Then I got to know him well, later that decade, when I was senior vice president and then acting president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and he was on our board of directors.” 

Cunningham succeeded Surplis as COCA president more than 15 years ago.

“In my role, as staff leader of COCA, David provided me with guidance, support and encouragement for which I will be forever grateful,” he recalled. “He was a wonderful friend and I will miss him dearly.” 

Former Ontario Building Trades business manager Patrick Dillon said he met Surplis even before he joined COCA during his time in government.

“Over the years when I was at the Building Trades and he was the head of COCA we had lots of times to cross paths working on issues for the construction industry,” Dillon said. “I always found him to be a real gentleman. He always had a humorous side to him. He was trying to deal with the real problems, not fabricated issues…he was a real solutions-oriented type of guy.”

Toronto Construction Association president John Mollenhauer also said he worked closely with Surplis during his time at COCA.

“He was a true old school gentleman that was liked and respected by all his industry peers,” he said.

Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela

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