Maclean’s Interview: Julie Couillard

Julie Couillard talks with Kenneth Whyte about her deal with Maxime Bernier, his disloyalty, and her respect for the PM

Kenneth Whyte

Julie CouillardQ: I’m going to start at the beginning of your relationship with Mr. Bernier, and that very first meeting that you two had.

A: Well, it was actually my real estate broker that invited me to a cinq-à-sept. I had mentioned to him a couple of days prior that the Conservative party had approached me to maybe present myself as an MP, which really took me by surprise. But to tell you that I ever took this proposition seriously, no. Still, I was curious about it, and my broker says, we’re all going for supper afterwards and, by the way, a minister is going to be there, and maybe you’d like to come and pick his brains, basically, about politics and everything to do with becoming an MP. So I said yeah. He mentioned to me it was the ministre de l’industrie—industry minister—Maxime Bernier. As a joke, my broker said, “He’s pretty cute, and he’s single, so who knows?” That’s how we first met.

Q: In the course of the evening, Mr. Bernier got a bit forward with you.

A: Well, actually, that was at the beginning of the evening. We had just sat down, and he leaned forward and gave me a little peck on the cheek. And some people will say, “How come you got shocked by that? Because next time you saw him you guys ended up being intimate on your first official date.” It’s not the same as if you meet a guy for the first time, you hit it off well, and then it’s officially a date. First of all, my brokers were there. It was a business meeting. I mean, I was in a suit. That’s why it was totally out of place.

Q: You took him outside, gave him a lecture, and said you weren’t there as a little helper.

A: Exactly, yeah.

Q: What did you mean by little helper?

A: Well, that was the English translation. I’m not a girl that some company will introduce you to so that, basically, if you find her cute you can have your way with her. Because there were other young girls, all of a sudden, that joined our table, that were not businesswomen. They were there just to party. I wanted to make it clear to Maxime that, you know, you’re a very nice guy, we get along great, and you’re handsome and all, but I’m calling the shots and nobody else.

Q: It is kind of offensive for somebody to do that at a first meeting. Why not run from him?

A: Well, because he was very apologetic.

Q: So you don’t think he mistook you for a little helper?

A: No, because I can be very blunt. And he was taken aback.

Q: It wasn’t really a business arrangement he proposed when you started to see each other steadily, but it was kind of a professional arrangement, right?

A: No. Maxime proposed a personal relationship with a condition attached to it. That’s how, really, it was presented to me. The first offer was if I wanted to become his girlfriend, and if I would be interested enough to have a serious relationship with him, there were certain strings attached to the fact that he was a politician and a public figure. [They would have to go out for a year.] Though I was a bit shocked in the sense that it’s not the most romantic way to ask a girl to go out with you, after his explanation I had to agree with him. He was a politician, he was a public figure, and it came with the territory.

Q: Right.

A: I put myself in his shoes. Sometimes you do have to compromise because of your work. And at that point in time, I didn’t anticipate not getting along with Maxime.

Q: In My Story, you describe some behaviour on his part that wasn’t terribly impressive, his temper tantrums, throwing an iron across the room, and calling you when you’re at official functions with important people, summoning you from across the room in a rude way.

A: While I’m talking with the wife of our ambassador nonetheless, yes.

Q: And then there’s the fact that you found out [that there were] other women.

A: There’s one specific event that I found out while I was his girlfriend, the rest I found out after I was just his friend.

Q: There’s a considerable amount of stuff like this in the book about him, and I have trouble seeing what attracted you two. Did you like him?

A: At the beginning I did.

Q: Why?

A: Well, he’s easygoing, he’s fun, you’ll enjoy a good supper with a good bottle of wine. And we did have a very strong attraction for one another, and you have to understand that we had a long-distance relationship. Four days out of the week Maxime was not there. Every other weekend he had his two daughters. Most probably, if Maxime would have been living where I’m living, after a month or two I would have said, “You know what, buddy? This is not working out.” It took me six months because he got promoted and he started travelling a lot, and sometimes I wouldn’t even see him for two to three weeks, so when we finally did get together it was like our first date all over again. It wasn’t easy for me to realize that he was lacking depth.

Q: Regarding the men in your life before Maxime Bernier, Gilles Giguère was murdered, and Stéphane Sirois was fairly high up in a motorcycle gang.

A: No, he was not.

Q: No? What was he?

A: While I was with him he was not a biker. He gave back his patch, because that was my condition. I didn’t want to go out with a biker. After I divorced him he went back into that world and eventually turned into a rat.

Q: You’ve been left heartbroken, broke, and embarrassed by various men in your life. Do you feel you have been unlucky in love?

A: I’ve had my unlucky strikes, I have to admit. You have to understand that I was put in a position where I had no choice to write a biography to re-establish the facts and my credibility, and had I written that book at 78, let’s say, there would have been a lot more happy times. At this point in time in my life I made a choice of keeping the good business ventures and my happy relationships for me, for the little I had left of my private life.

Q: So you don’t think you have a habit of picking the wrong guy?

A: Well, I could have a better average.

Q: I get a bit confused about the end of your relationship with Mr. Bernier. It was in December 2007 that you sort of broke up, but you continued to see one another. You were still more than friends, though.

A: Yes, we were. I had nobody else in my life, so j’ai rendu le pratique agréable, I made what was practical agreeable. I mentioned to Maxime in December that our relationship was not fulfilling me and that I had no time to waste, at my age, and I knew that Maxime was not the guy. And to tell you the truth, Maxime agreed that it was better that we remained good friends, you know? I had given him my word that I would remain his official girlfriend for a year and, to tell you honestly, though you know that that person is not the person of your life, you still can grow very attached. I certainly didn’t do it against my own free will or all those things that people implied, that I was paid to be his escort and whatnot. That’s totally ridiculous. How many people had an ex that they kept seeing until they met someone else that was more interesting? I think we have all done it. So all of a sudden, because he’s a minister, there’s this hidden agenda behind it.

Q: Everybody’s trying to impose a story on your life.

A: It was much simpler than that, and a lot duller than that, if you ask me.

Q: Well, it’s not very dull.

A: Concerning my relationship with Maxime it was. Yes, fine, I did have a fiancé that got assassinated, but that was 12 years ago, and yes, I ended up divorcing a guy that used to be a biker before he went out with me, or got married to me, but that was 10 years ago.

Q: Is that one of the things that was so horrifying for you about this? Because you’ve been working, travelling in different circles, and holding your own with ambassadors and important people around the world. And then all of a sudden, you’re reading about yourself in the paper.

A: All of a sudden I’m a biker’s chick and I’m this and I’m that and I’m trash and I’m a whore and I’m possibly sent by bikers. What the hell? That’s 10 and 12 years ago, so what does that have to do with anything now?

Q: Was it necessary, in order to re-establish your reputation, to go so deeply into Mr. Bernier’s character flaws and his misbehaviours?

A: I think that it was. When you have a team of people who work 45 hours a week to portray you and to sell your image in the media, getting to know the real, true person behind this image can’t be easy. It needed to be done so that people would understand not his actions, but his inaction in this circus that crashed my life. Some people will say, “Yeah, well, it’s pretty harsh.” Well, I’m so sorry but his silence was basically sending a message to the public that he was endorsing everything that was being said. That man knew me, he spent a year with me, six months as his girlfriend, and I was good enough to remain his very good friend for another six months, and he still wanted me to stick around to keep accompanying him in all his official functions, so I couldn’t have been such a vulgar woman and a slut and a this and a that and a biker’s chick. Yet he let all these things be said about me, and he was the politician, he was the one who had all the tools to stand up and say, “Listen, now, this is not right.”

Q: In March of this year it broke on TV that the minister is dating a biker chick.

A: May.

Q: May, sorry, and he went underground.

A: Exactly, he started acting like he never even knew me. Do you honestly think that the media, politicians, [the general] population would have been the slightest [bit] interested in what Julie Couillard did in her life 10, 11 years ago, 12 years ago? Who gave a damn? Nobody. Everybody became interested. Why? Because I was the official girlfriend of a federal cabinet minister. He ran the other way waving while I was drowning.

Q: What should he have done?

A: Well, he should have at least straightened out the facts, and right from the get-go he could have stopped this then and there. He could have said that this is all a cheap way of trying to damage his reputation and damage the party that was in power, and that it had nothing to do with the real issues of our society today and it was just cheap politics. He had all the tools and all the people. He knew that the RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec, la Communauté urbaine de Montréal, all of them, [that] did investigate me back then, came to the conclusion I had nothing to do with organized crime aside from the fact that I was seeing people that knew people in that scene, but on a personal level, and I was not implicated in the criminal activities of any sort. This was just a cheap attempt to damage our government. That’s all it was!

Q: In the book, Stephen Harper comes off better than pretty much anyone else you encountered in that world. You were impressed with him.

A: Yes, I was. I have to admit that I do not have the same political views as Mr. Harper but I do have a lot of respect for the man.

Q: George W. Bush impressed you as well.

A: I had this image of this cold, very restrained person, but he was such a friendly and accessible guy, and very light and funny. He had a great sense of humour. That totally threw me off.

Q: You say in the book that you thought you let Mr. Bernier off too easily. Is there more to the story that you haven’t written?

A: The only more would be things that I do not think are of any public interest.

Q: He would, when you were together, complain about Mr. Harper being fat or being controlling. Doesn’t everybody complain about the boss?

A: Maybe. But Maxime doesn’t have just a job, he’s a politician. That’s very different. He shouldn’t have a right to disrespect our Prime Minister. And what really pissed me off is that Maxime was a guy that two years before wasn’t even in politics and there you go, all of a sudden, because of Mr. Harper, he ends up, hey, the minister of external affairs! Come on! The man might not be perfect, we’re all perfectly unperfect, but you should respect him for giving you that opportunity.

Q: You answered this question already about the men in your life and your batting average. Do you think it’s the kind of man you’re attracted to or the kind of man who’s attracted to you?

A: Well, I don’t know. I know for my part my flaws are more that I see a good-looking guy and he’s a good talker and he’s a lot of fun and he makes me laugh, and then I have a tendency of more dreaming an image of that person, and then I fall in love with that image, but the guy I’m falling in love with does not even exist. That’s what I would have to watch out for. And because, I guess, of my looks some men are attracted to me for the wrong reasons, they stop at what they see instead of seeing deeper than that.

Q: When you were travelling with Mr. Bernier and going to official functions, you did meet some people and you exchanged business cards on occasion. Did any opportunities or any doors open for you because of that?

A: I didn’t really exchange business cards at all, to tell you the truth, when I was with Maxime. I’ve had the pleasure of saying, “I’ve met our ambassador in Paris.” But I was the spouse of Maxime, that’s why I was there.

Q: Are you working now?

A: Oh, no. My life totally stopped. The seventh of May everything stopped.

Q: What are you going to do now?

A: That’s a very good question. I don’t have an answer. I still have a mortgage to pay, and a car payment and so on and so forth. I concentrated on re-establishing the facts and re-establishing my credibility because nobody will have anything to do business-wise with me—which is totally understandable—and I do not believe that the same career is ever going to pick up again.

Q: Real estate?

A: No, real estate and development. I specialized in a very narrow niche, where you always have to be in contact with the municipalities, with the provincial, even the federal government.