Between 1959 and 1960 Pierre Sévigny, associate defence minister in John Diefenbaker’s Conservative cabinet, had an affair with a woman identified privately by the RCMP as a prostitute and a security risk. When Diefenbaker found out, he reprimanded Sévigny, but kept him in the cabinet. The story did not surface for five years. On Nov. 29, 1984, Robert Coates, defence minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative cabinet, visited a cabaret in West Germany where he chatted with a stripper and bought her drinks. When Mulroney found out about the incident on Jan. 22, 1985, he said he assured himself that there had been no security breach. But when the Ottawa Citizen broke the story on Feb. 12, the Prime Minister accepted Coates’s resignation.
Ethics: In the star-crossed political fortunes of Coates and Sévigny lies the measure of how unforgiving public life in Canada has become during the last quarter-century. Says Arnie Patterson, a former press secretary to Pierre Trudeau and now a Halifax broadcaster: “Things have changed dramatically in
the past 20 years. Nothing is private. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
In fact, whether the issue is sexual morality specifically or the broader question of ethics, Canadian public life has clearly become a high temperature crucible. A more aggressive press—possibly becoming even more aggressive in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding former Senator Gary Hart—pursues perceived and imagined peccadillos, from the use of government aircraft for private purposes to the size of the Prime Minister’s clothes closets. Among the media’s favorite targets: New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield, acquited in 1985 on a charge of marijuana possession, whose freewheeling private life has long been a subject of intense speculation.
In part, the media’s sharper focus may be the result of the declining calibre of political candidates. Says Vancou-
ver lawyer Alexander Macdonald, former attorney general of British Columbia: “There is a general lowering of standards today, in terms of truth-telling, pork-barrelling and the financial side.” But the more intense media scrutiny becomes, the more able, qualified candidates hesitate to join the political circus.
Gossip: Fifteen years ago, recalls Sinclair Stevens, the former Mulroney cabinet minister forced to resign a year ago amid conflictof-interest allegations, “there used to be an understanding of decency. There were all kinds of stories about Trudeau’s personal life, but newspapers chose not to print them. I am convinced to2 day they would.” Accord| ing to Stevens, still awaiting the results of a judicial inquiry into his case, the media’s appetite for gossip is larger now. And he says, “If you look hard enough, presumably you can find something on any politician.”
Still, many observers contend that the Canadian press corps seldom looks hard enough — remaining a timid shadow of its American and British cousins. Indeed, despite constant rumors about marital strains between Pierre and Margaret Trudeau in the mid-1970s, Canadian newspapers largely avoided the subject—and its possible influence on affairs of state —until British journalist Robin Leach broke the story in People magazine in March, 1977. One Canadian who did broach the subject, Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nichols, wrote a column on how Margaret’s behavior 8 might affect the prime £ minister. When the 8 Sun’s editors told her it was not, as she put it, an “acceptable topic for comment,” Nichols threatened to resign. The piece was published—in the paper’s back pages.
Ottawa, of course, has always been a town where politicians, their aides and
journalists worked hard, played late— and kept the hottest stories out of the news. In the 1970s one prominent Tory MP discovered his wife was having an affair with a caucus colleague. The wife of a prominent Liberal MP left town for a vacation with another man. With alcohol and ice readily available in MPs’ offices, after-hours socializing often turned into ribald parties. On one occasion, an MP was seen running down a corridor near his office wearing nothing but a towel. From alcoholic binges to adultery, those stories and the names of their participants have seldom, if ever, been published.
Says Nichols: “You can’t drink and roll around on the floor with someone, then get up in the morning and write about their political foibles.”
Security: In terms of sexual scandal, no Canadian story rivals the Sévigny-Munsinger saga, which rocked Parliament Hill on March 4,
1966. That was the day Liberal Justice Minister Lucien Cardin, angered by Conservative needling in the Commons over security leaks, invited Diefenbaker to tell the House all he knew about “the Monsignor case.” Subsequent disclosures made it clear that ministers in the previous Tory government had kept company with German-born Gerda Munsinger, an alleged prostitute and security risk —and a shapely five-foot, eightinch blonde. The Tories said that she had died, but six days later the Toronto Daily Star's Robert Reguly found Munsinger, then 37, living in Munich. Her lurid revelations enthralled the nation and led to a royal commission that subsequently criticized Diefenbaker’s leniency, but found no security breach.
Nor, apparently, was there any breach of security involved in Robert Coates’s brief visit to the Tiffany cabaret near the Canadian Forces base in Lahr, West Germany. There, in November, 1984, Coates bought several drinks for a stripper named Micki O’Neill. Within hours of the media’s discovery of the event, Coates resigned as defence minister and retreated to the obscurity of the Tory backbench.
Seven years earlier, on January 30, 1978, scandal also destroyed the political career of Francis Fox, then solicitor general in the Trudeau cabinet. On that day Fox announced his resignation, admitting to a stunned House of Commons that a couple of years earlier, before entering the cabinet, he had had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant. When the woman—the wife of one of Fox’s Liberal colleagues—applied for a therapeutic abortion, Fox, then separated from his
wife, signed the name of the woman’s husband on the admission form.
Abortion: The Liberal caucus shared the pain of the Fox incident. A bilingual Rhodes Scholar, a protégé of Marc Lalonde and respected by Trudeau, Fox was developing a following in English Canada and was a future candidate for leader. When the abortion affair clouded his chances, there was a sobering sense that the measurement of Canadian politicians had taken a new turn.
But had it not been for the forged signature on the abortion form—and the reporting of that to an official in Trudeau’s office by someone whose
name has never been made public—it is unlikely that Fox’s affair would ever have come to light. Even now, say some observers, the sexual preferences and extracurricular habits of some Canadian politicians are routinely and discreetly ignored. Says the Sun's Nichols: “We accord our political leaders incredible privacy. We do have a duty to report more than we do.”
Other observers maintain that in the absence of conduct that may be illegal, the press and the public must carefully decide where to draw the line of due scrutiny. According to Richard Emberley, president of Omnifacts Research Ltd., a Halifax-based polling company, “The line comes at the point where exposure of the information is in the public good. The fact that Brian Mulroney is the proud possessor of 85 pairs of Gucci shoes, from where I sit, does not either inhibit or enhance his ability to do his job.”
Truth: What matters most to the public, says Jack Davis, minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources in B.C. Premier William Vander Zalm’s Socred government, is telling the truth. “Lying is the greatest sin. If you’re discovered lying, you’re dead.” In 1978 Davis himself admitted to converting first-class government airline tickets to economy fare and pocketing the difference. Davis credits his subsequent comeback to the fact that he told the truth.
The question now is what impact the Hart affair will have on reporters—and politicians. For better or worse, many observers say that Canadian reporting will become more aggressive —despite more stringent Canadian libel laws. Says Nichols: “This is all evolutionary—the matter of standards and the matter of law. These things are set by precedent, and there is going to be a spin-off effect.” Like Gary Hart, some Canadian politicians may find themselves caught in the spin.
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