INSIDE THE BERNIER AFFAIR
The real story behind what made one of Harper's brightest lights in cabinet flame out
To understand it all, you need to go back to that clip. The TV news clip of Maxime Bernier and julie Couillard getting out of a car at Rideau Hall last August for his swearing-in as Canada’s new foreign minister. The clip
everyone has seen a million times, the one that revealed what a blogger for Italy’s La Stampa last week called “il décolleté più fotografato del Canada,” the most photographed cleavage in Canada.
So here’s Maxime Bernier getting out of the car. He’s been a member of Parliament, and minister of industry for 18 months, and if you must know it’s gone pretty well. He’s getting things done, earning good reviews. He’s growing from his fief in the Beauce into a tidy regional base of power and influence across eastern Quebec. The morning papers say he may one day replace Stephen Harper. It’s a good life.
But then everything starts weighing down on him. The phone rings and it’s the Prime Minister’s Office and Max, you’re out of
Industry. You’re being shuffled to Foreign Affairs. The Prime Minister’s on the other end of the line and there’s a war in Afghanistan, Max, and the Vandoos are being rotated into the battle space. The phone’s for you, five campaign priorities have collapsed to one, and it’s “Get Through This War,” so we need a Québécois face in front of this suddenly rather Québécois war, and there is no draft in Canada except for ministers
and your number just came up. The PMO is calling and there’s just one more thing, could you fire your chief of staff? She’s been a bit cheeky.
So he’s leaving the job he can actually do for a job he never wanted. He’s being told whom to hire and fire. Sure, it’s Foreign Affairs. For just about anyone else it would be the highlight of a career. But for Max Bernier it doesn’t feel like the highlight of much. So he calls the new girl, Julie, the one who’s so fiery and sad. He tells her to come out to the ceremony—and to wear that dress. She hesitates: isn’t it a bit much? But he insists. Later, when the PMO calls yet again to complain that Laureen Harper would never wear a dress like that, he’ll say, “Precisely.” And what he means, with the invitation and the dress and the tiny moment of rebellion against a PMO that will not stop hemming him in, is that at least for now, in this moment, Julie Couillard is a living symbol of the quality Bernier treasures most. The ideal he came into politics to defend.
BERNIER LEFT A JOB HE COULD ACTUALLY DO FOR A JOB HE NEVER WANTED
“We must decide, as
a society, whether we’re going to have more state intervention in the economy or less,”
Bernier had told Maclean’s more than a year before the portfolio shuffle, on the heels of his appointment as industry minister.
“And more freedom or less.”
This was radical talk at Industry, home to armies of regulators, measurers, micromanagers and subsidizers. But after the election he’d just fought, Bernier said, nobody should be surprised. “I said over and over again during the campaign that what we need is less government on our backs and less government in our pockets.”
These weren’t dry economic concepts for Bernier, a proud son of the Beauce, the fabulous region of rolling farmland between Quebec City and Maine where for as long as anyone can remember, an entrepreneurial spirit seems almost to have been in the drinking water. In one of his first speeches as minister, Bernier said his mission was to defend “the spirit of entrepreneurship and all it stands for—individual freedom, self-reliance, responsibility and autonomy.”
If the truth be known, Bernier was exercising his freedom and autonomy a bit much around town. The minister’s marriage, to a Montreal corporate headhunter, had produced two daughters and ended with a divorce that wasn’t finalized until after he was in cabinet. When the final divorce papers came in,
“he was pretty chipper,” a colleague recalls. Bernier
spent the next year burning off a lot of steam with a succession of women in Ottawa and Montreal social circles. There was no infidelity involved, but some Conservatives were still unnerved.
His first political battles, as he saw them, had been in the cause of freedom, of a more PG-rated sort. His father was Gilles Bernier, a talk-radio host who went to Ottawa in the Mulroney Tory sweep of 1984. Maxime studied at UQAM and the University of Ottawa, good schools, not the best. In the 1988 election he wrote speeches for Quebec Conservative candidates about the virtues of free trade. “It was a beautiful debate,” Bernier would say years later, “a debate of ideas.” For that campaign the Mulroneyites had reached out to a strange bedfellow, Bernard Landry, the pint-sized firebrand of the Parti Québécois. Landry was an economist who thought free trade would do wonders for Quebec, whatever it did for Canada. Young Bernier brought Landry to Ottawa to speak to his classmates.
Later, after the 1995 referendum, Landry became finance minister in Lucien Bouchard’s deficit-cutting PQ government. Bernier became an adviser in Landry’s office. Was he
a PQ sympathizer? The record has never been clear. What is clear is that he could be absentminded. It’s common for public servants to shuttle between Montreal and Quebec City in comfy, articulated commuter buses. One morning Bernier spent nearly the whole three hours in animated conversation on his cellphone, dropping names, making it clear he worked in Landry’s office. Half the bus could hear him. He arrived in Quebec City in time to receive a reprimand for his carelessness from one of those other passengers, a superior in Landry’s employ.
After working for a while in insurance, in 2005 Bernier became a vice-president of the Montreal Economic Institute, a bastion of free-market conservatism in Canada’s most highly taxed province. He was adept at fundraising but not a prolific writer. He published a couple of papers that boiled down the arguments of his 2003 book, Pour Un Taux Unique D’imposition (For a Single Tax Rate), which argued that charging higher taxes on the rich is no fairer than charging higher taxes against practitioners of a specific religion.
Harper had already asked Gilles Bernier to run for the Conservatives. Gilles said no but recommended Maxime. Harper and the younger Bernier spoke over dinner not long after and a candidacy was born. But the
younger man did not seem to have made an impression. When the campaign began in November, Harper was at the Château Frontenac in Quebec City the morning after the writ drop for an event with 10 Quebec Cityarea Conservative candidates, including Bernier. When reporters asked Harper to name his candidates, he said, “My staff can get you those names,” and beat a hasty retreat.
There is no surer cure for anonymity in politics than success. On Jan. 23, 2006, Bernier won two-thirds of the vote in the Beauce, giving him a 26,000-vote majority, the largest outside Alberta. From there he was assured a plum cabinet seat. He was strapping, soft-spoken, perfectly charming, with a good Conservative pedigree. He wasted no time showing he was no ordinary pol.
A few months after the Harper government was sworn in, a memo to cabinet bubbled up from the bowels of the Industry Department. It called for tariffs against cheap Chinese bicycles to protect Canada’s small bicycle manufacturing industry. As the discussion began, Bernier said he saw no reason why bike prices should be kept artificially high for every boy and girl in Canada, just to protect a few hundred jobs.
Awkward silence around the cabinet table. Finally somebody piped up: Max, this MC
comes from your department.
Bernier was unmoved. It’s the department’s opinion, he said, not mine. And I think it’s a bad idea.
Somebody else said: but Max, one of the bicycle factories is in St.-George-de-Beauce. In your riding.
Bernier was unmoved. The children of Canada need affordable bicycles, he said.
The same preference for competition in free markets allowed Bernier to make a far bigger impression in telecommunications. In a chapter for the book Hoir Ottawa Spends: 2007-2008, McGill University political scientist Richard Schultz describes how Bernier blocked two major CRTC decisions and talked the Harper cabinet into imposing a policy direction on the CRTC, a power cabinets had possessed since 1993 but had never exercised.
Part of it was lucky timing. Six weeks after he became a minister, Bernier received the report of a Liberal-appointed review panel on voice-over-internet telephony. It was a brilliant report by all accounts, one that urged the minister to give market forces much greater sway. The minister didn’t need to be asked twice.
In three separate confrontations with his own departmental officials, the CRTC and
even the PMO, Bernier fought for a clear government order to the CRTC to permit more competition among industry players. He sought outside legal advice, urged executives at Telus and Bell to make public announcements backing him up, went straight to Harper in an end run around just about everybody else in government.
“For the first time in the past 40 years of federal regulation of telecommunications,” Schultz writes, “a minister had made a policy difference.”
And then he was packed off to Foreign Affairs. By this point Bernier had a new girlfriend who was getting a lot of attention.
At first the reaction in Tory circles to Julie Couillard’s arrival, in the spring of2007, was relief. She seemed to be a stabilizing influence. Of course almost nobody knew her background. She had a lot of background. Her only brush with the law came nearly 13 years ago, when she was arrested alongside her then-fiancé Gilles Giguère, who ran a construction company and would sometimes hire Couillard’s father, Marcel. But Giguère was also the right-hand man to Robert Savard, a loan shark with long-standing ties to Hells Angels leader Maurice “Mom” Boucher. Savard, biker lawyer Gilles Daudelin and Marcel Couillard were all swept up in the same police operation.
Their arrests stemmed from an alleged plot to extort money from a real estate agent in suburban Montreal named Laurette Lavallée. Giguère, Savard and Daudelin were charged with conspiring to murder Lavallée as part of the plot. Couillard and her father, however, were released after spending 18 hours in police custody.
Daudelin told Maclean’s this week that Couillard and her father had invested money with Lavallée but suspected they’d been had when news about it proved slow in coming, “ft was for some business outside the country,” he said. “And they always wanted updates but never got any.” Eventually, Daudelin said, Gilles Giguère said he would collect the money from Lavallée.
In an interview with the now-defunct crime and sex tabloid newspaper Allô Police six weeks after her arrest, Couillard denounced the officers who burst into her bedroom in the early morning hours of Dec. 19,1995“What happened that day was absurd,” she said, noting she’d also filed a complaint with the police ethics commission alleging mistreatment.
Allô Police described Couillard as a “model and actress” who had appeared “at galas and
HE HAS TWO DAUGHTERS. 'BUT THE REST OF THE TIME MAXIME'S LONELY.'
TV shows.” Daudelin remembers her as an “impressionable” and stunning 26-year-old who would tag along on Giguère’s renovation jobs. “But she was disruptive wherever she went,” he says, “because—pardon my French—she had a pretty special body.”
Four months after their arrest, the charges against Giguère, Savard and Daudelin were summarily dropped after the prosecution’s key witness proved unreliable. Six weeks later Giguère’s body was found floating in a flooded ditch about an hour outside Montreal. (Savard was shot and killed in 2000, when two masked gunman burst into a restaurant where he was having breakfast.)
According to a report in Tuesday’s La Presse, Giguère wasn’t Couillard’s first encounter with Montreal’s criminal underworld. She had previously dated Tony Volpato, the righthand man to Montreal mob kingpin Frank Cotroni. This liaison gives new significance to something Couillard told the magazine 7jours after Bernier was fired by cabinet: “I didn’t take the bikers seriously. For me, they were just a bunch of tough guys who rode
motorcycles. The real criminals were the Mafia, the Italians.”
By 1997 Couillard had married Stéphane Sirois, a member ,
of the violent Rockers faction of ' the Hells Angels. “I hadn’t managed to save Gilles,” Couillard told 7 jours. “I wanted to save Stéphane.” Sirois testified in 2002 that, just prior to his marriage to Couillard, “Mom” Boucher warned
him he would have to choose between his future wife and his life as a drugdealing Rocker. Sirois chose Couillard.
But the two broke up a year later. In 1999, Sirois returned to the bikers, this time as a police informant. In court testimony against his former comrades, Sirois would claim Boucher had put a contract out on Couillard because he suspected she had reported some of the gang’s activities to the police. (Sirois is now in witness protection.) But Daudelin now doubts that Boucher, who was his client at the time, ever tried to have Couillard killed: ;Tf there had been a contract out on Couillard, she would be dead by now.”
In 2001, Couillard’s father Marcel was found guilty of growing marijuana in a hydroponic facility built by Sirois. At the time of his conviction, he had a frozen food business registered across the street from Couillard’s Laval home. By 2004, Couillard was dating Robert Pépin, the co-founder of a private security company. He pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and was suspected of running a car lease and buyback scheme that charged interest rates of up to 300 per cent on short-term loans. When he killed
himself in 2007, Pépin owed a lot of money to people linked to outlaw bikers.
It would be a huge stretch, then, to say Bernier and Couillard had comparable backgrounds. But by the spring of 2007, each in their own way, both could have used some calm. They quickly became inseparable. Bernier’s staffers, young and dedicated, most of whom shared his fervour for free-market policy innovation, paid the new girlfriend little attention. What they saw did not impress them overly. “You know, the kind who talks a lot because she doesn’t know what she’s saying?” one said.
At least Bernier’s private life was more settled. It was some consolation. His work at
eign Affairs was proving problematic.
Among admirers of his work at Industry, there is some suspicion that Bernier was shuffled out of that portfolio because he had become a dangerous free-market revolutionary—that the PMO’s political objective was to get Bernier out of a job, not into one. But several Conservatives interviewed by Maclean’s don’t buy it. With the Royal 22nd Regiment, based at Valcartier, Que., off to Afghanistan, Harper’s preoccupation wasn’t micromanaging telecoms policy, it was safeguarding the saleability of his Afghanistan policy for a Québécois population that has, historically, been more pacifist than Canadians outside Quebec.
The problem was that Bernier saw nothing as appealing in the new file as he did at
Industry. “Foreign affairs is about nothing but statecraft,” one former diplomat said. “It’s about how states interact. How can you be an advocate for the role of the state abroad if you don’t believe in the role of the state?”
A former Bernier staffer—there are a lot of those; his office practically had a revolving door out front—agreed that diplomacy “wasn’t Maxime’s cup of tea.” It showed. Here’s just one example. Canada sits in a couple of international clubs where the Americans aren’t invited, the biggest being the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. Last autumn the Commonwealth foreign ministers met in London ahead of a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Kampala, Uganda. Bernier skipped the foreign ministers meeting. Rob Wright, Canada’s high commissioner in London, replaced him. Not a horrible replacement, but a high commissioner has no mandate to do the kind of horse-trading that characterizes ministerial summits.
Now, the main topic of this round of Commonwealth meetings was what to do about Pakistan, whose upcoming election had every chance of turning into a bloodbath and whose border with Afghanistan was too porous for Canadian soldiers’ continued good health. Bernier skipped a chance to share ideas on that pressing strategic challenge with the Brits and the Pakistanis. Then he skipped the heads of government meeting in Kampala.
He just didn’t seem to have his head in the game. In Ramallah in January, he twice declined to specifically condemn Israeli con-
AT FIRST, NO ONE LOOKED INTO HER BACKGROUND. SHE HAD A LOT OF BACKGROUND.
struction at Har Horna in the West Bank. It left the impression that Canada was even more unequivocally pro-Israel than the United States, which had harshly criticized the Har Homa settlement.
From there, gaffe followed gaffe. Bernier announced Canadian transport planes would help with typhoon relief in Burma. There were no planes available. One had to be rented from the Russians. He called publicly for the replacement of a corrupt Kandahar governor in Afghanistan, thus guaranteeing the man ironclad job security from
an Afghan regime that is notoriously skittish about seeming to take orders from foreign powers.
His only real continued success was as a political player in Quebec. Oddly, for a skeptic about the power of the state, Bernier proved a dab hand at the intricacies ’
of electoral organizing. Soon after arriving in Ottawa he man aged to forge an informal but fruitful alliance with André Arthur, the independent MP for the Quebec City-area riding of Portneuf-Jacques Cartier. In return for allowing Arthur to sit on the Commons industry committee, the outspoken former radio shock jock fell into the habit of voting with the Conservatives in the House. The deal enhanced both partners’ credibility, giving the Conservatives the support of a popular Quebec radio personality and giving Arthur Industry files an independent MP wouldn’t ordinarily get to handle. Arthur says there was never much chance of his formally crossing the floor to the governing party. “I wouldn’t want Stephen Harper to have to answer for the things I’ve said during 40 years on the radio,” he told Maclean’s.
Still, Bernier’s skill at broadening political tents and finding allies on the ground did not go unnoticed. Sources say that in April, a nearly crazy idea started to circulate in Quebec Conservative circles. Perhaps it would be possible to arrange a swap. Action Démocratique du Québec leader Mario Dumont could move to Ottawa as a senior Harper minister. Bernier, in turn, could take over the leadership of Dumont’s party. It would be win-win, because both Dumont and Bernier were wellliked but both had plainly run out of steam in their current political incarnations. Neither man would have to adjust his political views to make the change. But the vague plans for a deal faded, not when Bernier was discovered to have left classified documents at Couillard’s house but before, when Dumont’s party performed spectacularly badly in three
provincial by-elections on May 12. Suddenly Dumont was less of an asset and his party was one nobody else would want to lead.
Then came the revelation, on May 26, that Couillard had taped a TV interview in which she said Bernier had left classified documents at her house. After defending his minister in public all day, Harper accepted his resignation that evening. What had been a subject of gossip inside the Ottawa Queensway became a global cause célèbre, allowing the blogger for La Stampa to affect a professional interest in Couillard’s décolleté.
Harper left for a whirlwind Europe trip amid questions he was not used to facing. The Prime Minister’s etiquette has often been questioned, as have his abilities to delegate and
to appeal to a broad electoral coalition. But his judgment had less often been questioned. Until now.
Next week a parliamentary committee is hoping to question Harper, Bernier and Couillard about the affair. Couillard has made it clear she has more information about Bernier’s indiscretion. Much will depend on the nature of the documents Bernier left at her home, if that can ever be ascertained. But some veteran diplomats say the damage to Canada’s international reputation is already done.
“At a time when the Harper government has made security the calling card of its foreign policy, this isn’t about Max and Julie,” one former diplomat says. “This is about being serious.” Mid-level Canadian officials are routinely invited to security briefings “way beyond their pay grade” in Washington, London and Paris with the highest officials of the U.S., British and French intelligence services, this person said. Now that word is out that Canada is a place where senior ministers leave briefing books lying around, that access is seriously imperilled.
Something else. David Emerson, the former Liberal minister who already wore a half-dozen hats before Harper handed him the foreign affairs file, now becomes the third man to hold that title in the Harper government’s 2V2-year existence, and Canada’s fifth foreign minister in four years. Depending on policy preferences and partisan allegiance, it’s been either eight years or 18—since Lloyd Axworthy or Joe Clark— since Canada had a serious, full-time foreign minister of unquestioned international stature. And even if Emerson doesn’t hand the file off to yet another rookie at the next cabinet shuffle, he may not run again. Canada’s long bipartisan run of underperforming foreign ministers seems likely to continue.
For the moment, none of that is Bernier’s problem. The deposed ex-minister has wondered aloud about whether he should leave politics, associates say. “Maxime is a single father, every second weekend,” André Arthur says. “He’s got two adorable daughters he takes care of a lot. But the rest of the time, Maxime is lonely.”
As for Couillard, after a half-dozen tumultuous relationships, she is also pondering her future. Dating a prominent politician hurt her business prospects, she told 7 jours, without going into detail about what those might be. “The fact of being linked to a party and a minister made things uncomfortable for certain people,” she said. “My business suffered for it.”
As for the future, Couillard would only say she wants to “keep making her place,” and mused about spending the rest of her life single. “Because the bar had been set so high [by former fiancé Gilles Giguère], men couldn’t pass the test. I’d like to find my equal. I’d need a strong man.”