The final days of Francis Fox

ROBERT LEWIS February 20 1978


The final days of Francis Fox

ROBERT LEWIS February 20 1978


The final days of Francis Fox

Francis Fox eyed the reporter’s notebook as the Air Canada DC-9 neared the Rockies en route from Regina to Calgary. He’d been ruminating gingerly, as many Catholic politicians do, about irregular attendance at mandatory Sunday mass, but his agile mind flashed abruptly to his heavily rural, churchgoing constituency near Montreal. “Hey,” he said, “that won’t sound very good in my riding. Let’s say consider myself a practising Catholic.”

One week later, almost to the hour that conversation, Fox’s concern was poignantly irrelevant as he tendered his resignation as solicitor general to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The PM had learned—in a letter whose authorship and motivation may never become public—

that Fox had a fleeting affair with a married woman who became pregnant before he entered the cabinet in September, 1976, and that Fox left himself open to a charge of forgery because he signed her husband’s name to a consent form at the hospital where she had a legal abortion.

In the clubby atmosphere on Parliament Hill there was genuine and widely shared empathy with Fox—if only because so many politicos know they could have been victims of similar circumstances. Fox’s problem, which arose after his marriage began to break down about four years ago and after he launched into a certain reckless sowing of oats, served to underline the strains of public life (see following story). Marriage

trouble has become a common feature of life on Parliament Hill—as it has in the country at large.

The difference is that, unlike a corporation executive or an assembly-line fore-

man, a politician’s personal life is now the subject of intense scrutiny by opponents and reporters who, in the incestuous Ottawa maelstrom, set no records themselves for moral hygiene. Ottawa Confidential, in fact, has been elevated to a regular Press Gallery beat, along with federal-provincial affairs—and there is no doubt about which story sells best, especially since Trudeau’s celebrated separation last May.

Everything about political life is magnified, including the opportunity for personal pitfalls. The days and nights are long, the separations from wives and children extended, the proximity of booze and companions of the opposite sex palpable and, increasingly, the frustrations of the political spouse are acute. Male-dominated as it is, the political scene also attracts its fair share of groupies, in the manner of professional sport or rock music. On the Hill, by

Date Unknown: To expedite his lover’s abortion, Fox signs her husband’s name on the consent form

day at least, many of them can be found behind departmental typewriters.

Marc Lalonde, the Trudeau intimate and Fox’s political godfather in Ottawa, was “heartbroken” at his protégé’s undoing. “Being a minister,” he observed sadly, “is different from being president of a company. It’s not whether it’s a criminal offense, it’s whether it’s offensive. I can’t help feeling there is a certain amount of

hypocrisy about it all. While people are totally cynical about politicians, at the same time they expect them never to do any wrong.”

Fox’s personal history is a classic of the genre. His marriage to Joan Pennefather, in 1965 when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, was one of those storybook romances. Both had grown up in the comfortable surroundings of the town of Mount Royal in Montreal. A product of the Jesuit-run Collège Jean de Brébeuf, he was a brilliant lawyer from the University of Montreal and Harvard. She was the daughter of a prominent Montreal industrialist, the top student at the private Catholic women’s college, Marianapolis, a winter carnival princess and an MA grad from McGill.

After Fox spent two years in a Montreal law firm—his patron there was Phillippe de Grandpré, later a judge of the Supreme Court—and worked with Lalonde in the Prime Minister’s office, Joan Fox played an important role in bringing an essentially shy man out of his shell and onto the hustings in 1972, when he was first elected comfortably in the riding of Argenteuil-DeuxMontagnes. Settled in Ottawa, Joan became a close friend of Margaret Trudeau and, while not nearly as flighty, came to yearn for the same independence that Margaret publicly espoused for married women.

By 1974, after Fox’s reelection, Joan had rejected the role as obedient political spouse. She moved to Montreal where she picked up a diploma in communications from Concordia in 1975, then went off to Paris with a younger man. Early in 1976 Fox launched divorce proceedings on grounds of

adultery and, when the petition was granted in December 1976, he retained custody of the couple’s only child, John, now 10.

Fox, according to one associate, “had the guts ripped out of him” by the split. In his personal dealings, especially with women, he seemed more aloof, self-protective, even hostile. He was the most eligible bachelor in Ottawa —and he knew

it. He once joshed with a friend about his new-found visibility as solicitor general, allowing with a twinkle in his eye, “It works.” Ironically, of late, Fox had become much more discreet about his personal relationships and appeared less frequently at such favorite haunts as Chez Zou Zou, the Montreal singles disco where his name could be used as a password—and often was.

The prevailing theory is that Fox volunteered to see the married woman through the brief hospital stay for the abortion. The procedure itself had already been approved under the law when Fox and the woman arrived at the hospital. Presumably, in the anxiety of getting on with it. Fox hurriedly signed the husband’s name to a form (Trudeau said later the name held no significance other than as the spouse). “The guy,” concludes one intimate, “is guilty of a noble act.”

Fox’s downfall was sealed before the same House of Commons television cameras that hoisted him to recent prominence during the RCMP affair. That prominence prompted the letter that did him in. It was the stuff of Greek tragedy. At 38, and after a careful grooming, Fox had emerged as one of Trudeau’s few genuine cabinet heroes—“our new superstar,” as Liberal campaign boss Keith Davey described Fox at a boisterous party caucus last fall.

January 18,1978: Coutts reads a from a ‘concerned citizen,’ nailing



Beyond his visibly effective 16 months as solicitor general, Fox epitomized the modern, bilingual Canadian and he seemed destined for a run at the prime ministership after Trudeau. Now his future is uncertain. His going also sent palpitations through the normally steady hearts of Trudeau’s election campaign planners and threw volatile and untested JeanJacques Blais into one of the stickiest portfolios in the government (see p. 22).

Pending a more candid account of what went on—and why—Fox watchers were left to wonder, in the words of the Chorus during the last bloody scene of Oedipus Rex, “What demon of destiny ... has ridden you down?” Was it an aggrieved husband, a consciencestricken friend of the woman or of Fox, a Conservative in a hospital record room—or worse, someone connected with the RCMP? Officially the Force refuted the suggestion and the new commissioner, Robert Simmonds, was so rattled that on the day of Fox’s resignation he admitted, in a tone suggesting it was a rare event, that he was going home to have a good, stiff scotch.

When the opposition at-

tacked Fox for a cover-up on

the RCMP case, they missed the whole point. With his connections, his crisply effective style on television, his network of Ottawa friends. Fox was the impresario of a snuggle-up. He knew everyone, and had no enemies. Two nights before he resigned, he was the main event at a fundraising dinner at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel.The 150 people who turned out. at $l00-a-plate, included the crème de la crème of the Montreal legal community. Pierre Lamontagne, the RCMP’S attorney, had no hesitation in saying: “If there was a Francis Fox fan club, I’d be president.” Even though Conservative Brian Mulroney was away on business, he bought up a whole table for eight.

Fox’s 15-minute speech was, at least for a while, his last one—and he knew it. The day before, January 24, Trudeau had called Fox to his Ottawa office and told him about the week-old assertions the PM had in his possession. Reportedly, the PM had confirmed the story himself in a call to the woman. Until Friday, January 27, Fox and his associates, as one of them put it, “hoped there would be something to get him off the hook. But by Friday, there was no turning back.”

With principal secretary Jim Coutts, the PM’S cool chief fire fighter, shuffling between Trudeau and Fox, the solicitor general, ashen-faced and shaking, prepared

his resignation. After a weekend of skiing at his Laurentian chalet with his son, Fox returned to Ottawa to write his Commons statement. At the same hour Trudeau was closeted with Lalonde, Justice Minister Ron Basford and Secretary to Cabinet Michael Pitfield over lunch at 24 Sussex Drive. While awaiting the text of Fox’s remarks, the four men discussed his possible successors.

After his Commons statement Fox escaped into the protective cocoon of his closely knit family. He spent some time

January 24,1978: Trudeau calls Fox on the carpet, shows him the letter, says it’s confirmedI

January 30,1978: Pitfield, Trudeau, Lalonde and Basford talk about Fox’s successor

with his sister, Marie-Hélène, who works on Trudeau’s staff, then drove with her back to the Laurentians. Later Fox’s other sister, Liz, a homemaker and part-time French teacher who lives on the West Island of Montreal, joined Fox. His brother, Bob, an Alcan executive, drove in from Arvida. In Montreal his parents, a fine couple who’d received a standing ovation at his fund-raiser, attempted to buoy his spirits. His mother, Pauline, a member of the legendary Taschereau family, urged her son to keep his chin up. “She should have been

here,” said one Ottawa staffer, “to show us how to bear the pressure.”

Fox returned to Ottawa twice in the aftermath of his resignation—once to meet Ontario government officials investigating his case; a second time to return telephone calls and to answer some of the many messages of support that had come from around the country.

When any member of the government is forced into resignation, he tears a piece out of each of his cabinet colleagues. For Trudeau and Lalonde, however, Fox’s departure is a special wrench. Fox represented Trudeau’s vision of Quebec’s newguard federalist. He was a member of a select cabinet committee of senior ministers who are devising changes in the Con-

Later on January 30: Trembling, Fox tells the House that he is resigning and gives the reason

stitution. In an impassioned one-on-one exchange with Trudeau in cabinet, Fox also talked the government into a Throne Speech commitment last year to provide trials in French outside Quebec.

In public terms, Trudeau is now left with only one French-Canadian minister who can attract a roomful of people in any province—Finance Minister Jean Chrétien. Trudeau, ever the stoic, does not often betray his inner feelings. But the tears that clouded his eyes as he emerged from the

Commons the day Fox resigned spoke libraries.

Ironically, in light of the tragic ending. Fox was intent on shielding his private life from the public. In a recent interview' with the Toronto Globe and Mail, for example, he urged the reporter not to mention his divorce. Later, Fox reluctantly agreed to a television interview with Peter Desbarats of the Ontario Global network, but only after a concession that the interview would not deal with his divorce or his son. On the morning of his resignation. Fox canceled the interview. The name of the program— In Private Life. ROBERT LEWIS