The apprentices of power

Julianne Labreche March 12 1979

The apprentices of power

Julianne Labreche March 12 1979

The apprentices of power


Julianne Labreche

Some time ago, in the recesses of a posh Ottawa restaurant, Deputy Prime Minister Allan MacEachen and a ministerial aide sat dining together, immersed in late-night shop talk. Suddenly MacEachen slipped from his pocket a confidential document marked “For the Minister’s Eyes Only.” When the surprised aide protested, questioning the wisdom of sharing such secrets, MacEachen’s retort was sharp and stern: “I pay you to be my eyes, and my ears.”

It’s a comment that conveys much of the agony and the intimacy, the pressure and the privilege, enjoyed by the nearly 200 ministerial aides who work discreetly

in the shadows of Ottawa’s (and Canada’s) political stars—the ministers of the federal cabinet. Publicly, these backstage executive and special assistants are rarely seen, much less heard—their almost invisible existence confined to the often thankless task of nursing their ministers’ sensitive political well-being. The aide’s job is everything that the nine-to-five office worker’s isn’t: a gruelling, often emotion-rending lack of routine that frequently entails 12-hour days and working weekends, and includes every task from giving advice on sensitive matters of public policy to satisfying a minister’s addiction to candy.

The ideal aide, Secretary of State John Roberts once wrote when he served as an executive assistant, “looks at politics not through his own eyes, but through the

prism of another’s hopes and ambitions.” Yet even though these young, often bright, well-educated aides are accustomed to cloaking their egos to press and public, many, like Roberts, are career climbers who use the job as a way to reach the summit of elected office. Now, with a federal election fast approaching, there’s a palpable air of restlessness and uncertainty in the cool March air of Ottawa as the aides weigh the make-or-break decision of whether to campaign for their ministers, take the political plunge themselves or find new jobs. The feeling, says one aide, “is like an athlete stretching and doing warm-up exercises before a marathon.”

Cabinet ministers such as Marc Lalonde, Martin O’Connell and Roméo LeBlanc all quietly worked at one stage in

their careers as aides to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Others, like federal Liberal MPs Francis Fox, Ralph Goodale and Ralph Stewart, also began as aides. One Tory, Joe Clark, served back in 1967 as an aide to Robert Stanfield, and fast gained a reputation as a diligent worker. Many of these former aides agree there’s no better way of learning the political, sometimes cutthroat, ropes, than working for a cabinet minister. As Stewart says, “You really got to know what was going on up on Parliament Hill.”

Making that leap to active political life, however, is a gamble that requires a commitment almost equivalent to entering monastic life—total dedication. At a time when politics is considered an unholy business, these aides are the exception, usually single and strongly attached to their jobs, willing to endure the long hours

and stolen leisure time to get ahead. “The secret is that you have to be willing to say this job is the most important thing in your life. Everything is so intense and people burn out pretty quickly,” says Sharon Vance, assistant to NDP member Stuart Leggatt, and one of the parliamentary aides who shares a routine which is sometimes as gruelling as that of her ministerial counterparts. The fast-paced tasks of briefing ministers, speech writing, travelling with their bosses and returning reporters’ calls can create a lot of strain. Richard Cannings, a 35-year-old special assistant to André Ouellet, for instance, when interviewed, had just put in two consecutive 14-hour days. He’s leaving the job to return to university in the fall, concluding in retrospect: “In some ways, this is anti-life. It’s such a little bubble of a world.”

The frustrations of the job are relieved through boozy events like “Wonderful Wednesday,” a weekly gathering in a designated minister’s office where aides meet one another over a cash bar. And there are the rare cases of ulcers and nervous breakdowns, which tend to increase as the political action heats up. But many aides find the thrill of working closely with political movers and shakers compensates for the pressure. One tells of getting an emotional high out of contributing just two lines to a draft of the National Housing Act. Says another: “I’m on the road an awful lot, but I wouldn’t be in the job if I didn’t really like it.”

Even though ministerial aides aren’t underpaid—special assistants make up to $27,000 and executive assistants can earn $31,000—their job security is negligible, being entirely dependent on the electoral popularity of their boss. More difficult still is the unsettling spectrum of responsibilities. Says Bill Lee, a former executive assistant and now president of Executive Consultants Limited in Ottawa: an assistant “can be anything from an extremely powerful, policy-influencing, unelected official to a glorified overpaid baggage-handler.” For unlike the old days, when the words “ministerial aide” conjured up a grandiose portrait of power, today’s aides are sometimes confined to menial chores—and coping with all the apparent trivia can be traumatic. Tory leader Clark’s aides are still smarting from the stigma of losing his luggage on his world tour this winter. An aide travelling with Trudeau was once reprimanded for forgetting to buy a box of chocolate Turtles to satisfy the prime minister’s sweet tooth.

More confident aides command more respect. In Ottawa circles, for instance, Eddie Goldenberg, executive assistant to Finance Minister Jean Chrétien, is known to have the minister’s ear. He has followed Chrétien loyally through three senior portfolios over four years—highly unusual when the normal turnover rate for aides is every two years. He sits in with

Chrétien on most senior policy sessions, even finance budgets. Another effective executive assistant, Eric Acker, who works for Defence Minister Barney Danson, travels with him constantly—in 1977, he and Danson mapped 200,000 miles, the equivalent of eight times around the world. And Acker doesn’t believe there are political secrets between him and Danson.

Successful aides also cultivate a special relationship between themselves and their minister, a “personal chemistry,” as one aide puts it, that seldom can be transferred. Justice Minister Lalonde and his special assistant, Patrice Merrin, who tried for a nomination in the upcoming election but lost, share an enthusiasm for sports, and often jog and play squash and tennis together. “We’d be friends, even if I didn’t work for him,” she says. Sports Minister Iona Campagnolo and her special assistant, April Holland, also communicate on several levels. “She inspires fierce loyalty and instils in us the feeling that absolutely anything is open to us,” says Holland, who often shops and dines with her minister. Occasionally, with the long and lonely hours that bring ministers and their favored aides close together, another kind of relationship can develop: MP Joe Clark married his aide, Maureen McTeer; Immigration Minister Bud Cullen lives with his 34-year-old executive assistant,

Nicole Chenier; and former supply minister Jean-Pierre Goyer’s common-law wife, Marie-Josée Drouin, is also his former aide. In the close Hill society, such aides are subject to gossip for stretching the limits of hand-shaking to hand-holding and beyond—and Chenier is naturally

sensitive about the topic. “I’ve proven myself,” she once said. “This isn’t some job I’ve latched onto.”

Many aides decide, after their stint with a minister, to move on to private business or into the government bureaucracy instead. A handful survive. Among them is Pierre Deniger, the former assistant to Transport Minister Otto Lang, who is contesting the Quebec riding of Laprairie in the coming election and remembers that after working for two years for Lang, “I got progressively hooked. The more I got into politics the more I liked it.” Another candidate, Jean LaPierre, just 22, André Ouellet’s assistant for four years and also a lawyer, is running in the Quebec riding of Shefford. “Without that experience as an aide I wouldn’t run,” says LaPierre. “Besides, Ouellet had a great deal of confidence in me.”

Aides who seek nomination and fail to get it can usually count on the tight Ottawa network to protect them from embarrassment. Last year, for example, aides in the prime minister’s office leaked a story to a local newspaper that the most elevated ministerial aide in the nation’s capital, Jim Coutts, had decided not to run in a Toronto riding because Trudeau so badly needed his services. The truth is, though, that Ottawa’s top aide had declined to seek nomination because he didn’t think he had a chance of winning.O