Copps is a third-generation member of a political family that has dominated Hamilton-area politics on the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Her father, Victor K. Copps, was one of the most influential mayors of the City of Hamilton; the city's landmark sports arena, Copps Coliseum, bears the family name in his honour.
Sitting in the left wing of the Liberal Party of Canada, Copps has been a tireless advocate of womens and minority rights and a staunch environmentalist and Canadian nationalist. Her combative style and reputation for flamboyance has, however, hampered her personal popularity.
Copps earned a Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) Degree in French and English from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and pursued further studies at McMaster University in Hamilton and the University of Rouen in France. She worked as a newspaper journalist, both with the Hamilton Spectator and the Ottawa Citizen.
In 1981 she entered provincial politics with the Liberal Party of Ontario, winning the seat of Hamilton Centre. Three years later, she switched to federal politics, representing the Liberals in the riding of Hamilton East. The 1984 election swept Brian Mulroney and his Progressive Conservatives to an overwhelming victory; though Copps won her seat, she would have relatively few allies in the House of Commons. Copps would prove to be an influential member of the small Liberal opposition (quickly dubbed the Rat Pack), earning praise and scorn for her spirited attacks on Mulroney and his ministers. After a mere two years of federal political life she released the autobiography Nobody's Baby, and by all accounts was seen as a rising star in Canadian politics--perhaps destined to be Canada's first female Prime Minister. With the resignation of Liberal leader John Napier Turner in 1990, Copps raised her national profile considerably by running for the party leadership, finishing third behind Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, Jr.
The elections of 1993 saw the Liberals swept to power by crushing Kim Campbell's Tories. Chretien, now Prime Minister, named Copps Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Environment. In a 1996 cabinet shuffle she dropped her Environment portfolio and became Minister of Communications and Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship.
In what has proven to be a curious sidebar in Canadian political history, Copps resigned briefly in the spring of 1996. One of Chretien's campaign promises had been to abolish the hated Goods and Services Tax, a promise he had reneged on in an effort to avoid decreasing government revenues. Partly in response to alleged constituent anger and partly in protest of her own government's policy (spearheaded by finance minister and rival Paul Martin), Copps vacated her Hamilton East seat and then promptly ran again in the ensuing byelection. She won handily, and Chretien reinstated her to her previous cabinet posts.
The following summer, a substantial reorganization of the Canadian government saw several cabinet positions disappear and allowed Copps to piece together a new porfolio, Canadian Heritage, which included many of her favourite elements of past posts (the National Parks component of Environment, most of the responsibilities of Multiculturalism and Citizenship, and the broadcasting regulatory element of Communications). As Minister of Canadian Heritage, Copps' particular flavour of unabashed Canadian nationalism has often drawn controversy. She led a largely unsuccesful campaign to keep American magazines from producing "split-run" Canadian editions and faced widespread criticism for her efforts to bolster nationalism through the distribution of tens of thousands of free Canadian flags. The flag effort was one of many expensive projects that Copps had embarked upon, leading many to accuse her of being too generous with taxpayer money for projects of questionable relevance, especially in times of financial difficulty.
Copps' now-tarnished reputation led to Chretien's stripping of her status as Deputy Prime Minister following his re-election in 1997, instead bestowing the largely responsibility-less title on political stalwart Herb Gray. Politically speaking, Copps is widely seen to have made little upward progress in the years following this demotion. Her future in Canadian politics has become increasingly questionable, and even her once unshakable hold on her Hamilton riding is threatened.
Following Jean Chretien's announcement of his intent to retire in February 2004, Copps was the first to officially declare her candidacy for the party leadership. Starting well behind the overwhelming favourite, Mr. Martin, Copps' campaign was seen as largely hopeless, and its relevance openly questioned, in advance of the convention on November 15 2003. As expected, Paul Martin easily won the Liberal leadership and went on to become Prime Minister.
On December 9, 2003, Copps turned down the offer of a patronage appointment from Martin so that she could remain in the House of Commons. She did not bother to find out what position he had in mind. The next election is expected to be difficult for Copps as her riding boundaries have been redrawn and another MP, Tony Valeri, is expected to challenge her for the nomination.
In an interview later in December on a Hamilton television station, Copps complained that Martin was trying to drive her and other women and Martin opponents out of the Liberal caucus. On January 14, 2004 she admitted she is considering running for the NDP against Valeri in the upcoming election.