In Hamilton the day is grey and damp, and a bruising election race has ended, but out east it’s blue skies, new beginnings and the ex-politician is breathless from a different campaign.
“I just cut a 50-foot pine,” says David Sweet, breathing hard, at that very moment standing in a forest in New Brunswick on the Acadian Peninsula, on the Tabusintac River that flows into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
He took a chainsaw to the tree by himself?
“Yes, that’s something we do here,” he says, and laughs. “I was fortunate, when I bought my first chainsaw, there was an Acadian lumberman who was working beside us, and I thought, you know what, forget YouTube videos … He showed me the ropes.”
When last the public heard from Sweet, the Hamilton Conservative member of Parliament was leaving politics, announcing that he would not run in the 2021 federal election after having won five straight campaigns, starting in 2006 in a riding that over the years incorporated Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough and Glanbrook.
His decision to leave the political arena came in the wake of blowback he received from travelling to the U.S. during the pandemic lockdown over the 2020 Christmas holidays, that forced him to resign from the House of Commons ethics committee.
Sweet and his wife, Almut, uprooted from Ancaster’s Meadowlands in September 2021, and headed 1,500 kilometres east, buying the Ocean River RV Resort and Campground on 45 acres that was listed at $1.2 million.
They ran the campground this past summer and fall, and cleared nearly 1,000 trees to upgrade access to the resort and expand the number of RV camp sites from 53 to 60, all of which takes up just five acres of the sprawling property.
If it seems a big change, it also fits with Sweet’s affinity for searching, and reinvention, over the course of a life that delivered darkness and pain as a boy and father that has never quite left him.
“As the Good Book says, there’s a season for everything under heaven,” says Sweet, who talks of faith informing every aspect of his life.
“It was a good time for me to depart.”
It was Almut who planted the seed, when they discussed what to do after politics.
“My wife said, ‘I’ve spent too much time in an office.’ I said, so what are you thinking?”
For years their family loved RV camping, motoring to places like Savannah, Ga., South Carolina, Texas and Florida.
Why not run their own RV park?
They looked across Canada for an opportunity that offered woods, water, and space to expand and increase their investment as a legacy for their children.
They found it in the community of Tabusintac; the name is from a Mi’kmaq word that means “where two are,” referencing where the river and French Cove join.
The property included a roomy house with vaulted ceilings and a view of the river that they share with son Christopher, a novelist, and his wife Annie, and their two children.
“We enjoy the outdoors and serving people, so we thought what can we do to connect the two and have some fun while we’re doing it?” says Sweet. “It’s a new adventure, and a new way to serve people.”
The adventures young David Sweet experienced were far different.
Growing up in Kingston, his father was a drinker, his mother struggled with mental illness, as did his younger brother, Paul. At 12, Sweet ran away from home to live on the street. At 13, he stole cars for joy rides and was forced to attend St. Joseph’s Training School 200 kilometres away for “delinquent” and “unmanageable” boys; Paul was sent there as well.
In 2018, Sweet spoke publicly about abuse suffered by boys at the school, to support claims that were being made at the time by former students.
He says there were times he endured solitary confinement during his two years there, and that he knew friends who suffered sexual abuse, although he had escaped it by running away.
“I am thankful to this day I wasn’t victimized, but I know many of them were. I watched the soul drain out of one fellow, a happy-go-lucky kid who kind of went into a silent walking coma.”
It’s a long time ago, but Sweet says he’s still working through those experiences.
He married at 18 and divorced at 19. At 21, he was working driving a tow truck and met Almut, a dispatcher. They lived together until 1983, when he says he made his “commitment to Christ,” and then they married.
In 1997, he was a featured speaker at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton at an event for the “Promise Keepers,” a Christian men’s organization; the following year, he was named president.
He left the organization in 2004 to run for office in Hamilton, and lost, before winning his first campaign in 2006.
He and Almut have five children, ages 29-38, but when asked, he will say they have seven.
They lost a daughter, who was born prematurely at six months and breached; Sweet tried in vain to save the baby in their bedroom with no time to get to hospital. They named her Ruth.
In 2017, they lost their 23-year-old daughter, Lara, to suicide.
Lara was his brother Paul’s biological daughter. Paul’s mental illness had prevented him from caring for her, so he gave her up as an infant for adoption. (He died from cancer in 2015.)
Sweet says they knew Lara might grow up living with mental illness as well. She fought drug addiction.
“We walked into it with eyes wide open, and there were a lot of struggles, but along the way beautiful memories as well … I’ve tried to discipline my mind to settle on the good times.”
In the final, late summer of her life, Lara was living in Oshawa and seemed on the road to better days.
“Things overwhelmed her, she carried that load on her shoulders,” he says. “She took her life. She left me a note.”
In photos Sweet shares from out east in New Brunswick, he appears nearly unrecognizable from his days as a politician, when he rarely showed facial hair, and shaved his head bald.
He has a full greying beard, and wears a cowboy hat — an accessory he says he wore in the past among friends, but rarely in public.
He has posted selfie videos on Facebook, that he opens with: “Hi, this is the Outdoor Maverick here …”
“Outdoor Maverick” is the name he came up with for his Ocean River resort persona, as a fun way to introduce the place.
He delighted in their first season of operation in listening to the laughter of guests at barbecues, or wading up to his knees in the river to help set them off in canoes and kayaks.
“It’s a beautiful thing and has been profoundly rewarding.”
It’s not a year-round endeavour: on Oct. 15 they closed the campground for winter, and the Sweets will soon drive their RV south, while son Christopher and family stay so he can work on finishing his second novel.
How permanent is Sweet’s adventure?
“I’m 65 now, I’m in this for good,” he says. “To be able to be out here in the woods, it’s a glorious time in my life, and I’m very blessed that I’m physically strong enough to be able to do it.”
Still, when asked if will ever return to politics, he shows that he has not lost an instinct for leaving doors open: “One should never say never because circumstances have a knack of changing. I do not foresee another journey into politics.”
He recently read an article about how people evolve in their lives differently — that for some, their personal stories seem consistent, and they are who they have always been, while others keep changing course.
He quotes a line in the piece about how a “rewrite” to your story is always possible, and that change can offer freedom “to be not just the protagonist of your life story but the author of its plot.”
Fate has been both kind and brutal, and while Sweet is passionate about his faith, he believes in free will.
He speaks of the attraction of a life where most days he can see results from what he puts his hands upon.
He stands there in the shade among tall pines, a few of which he has felled, and looks up at the small break in the canopy.
It is a view that guests will enjoy next season, gazing at the heavens through a window put there not by God, but the guy in the beard and cowboy hat.