Jaffer & Guergis: a power couple, unplugged

Ottawa’s storybook young duo suffers a fall from grace
Colby Cosh with Chris Sorensen and Aaron Wherry
A power couple, unplugged
Photograph by Andrew Wallace/Toronto Star

Wearing a navy pinstripe suit, a blue check shirt, and a vibrant yellow and lime-green striped tie, Rahim Jaffer cut a dapper figure in a courtroom in Orangeville, Ont., a sleepy town of 27,000 northwest of Toronto. The former politician, his hair gelled neatly in place, sat near the back of the gallery on the morning of March 9 while the court dealt with its quotidian diet of scandal: a domestic dispute, a 17-year-old arrested for marijuana possession, a woman caught skimming from her employer. For his part, Jaffer, 38, looked confident. With good reason.

Jaffer would shortly plead guilty to a charge of careless driving, and promise to pay a fine of $500; the court was told he had already made a charitable donation of an equivalent amount. As part of the plea deal, the Crown had agreed to drop two more serious charges against Jaffer—drunk driving and possession of cocaine—but did not offer much in the way of explanation. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2009, Jaffer had been pulled over by police for speeding through the village of Palgrave. The OPP officer detaining him was said to have smelled alcohol on his breath; the ex-politician was reported by the OPP to have failed multiple breathalyzer tests, and when he was arrested and searched, an unspecified quantity of cocaine was allegedly found “on his person.” Nonetheless, there were “significant legal issues” surrounding those charges, Crown attorney Marie Balogh told the court, and she foresaw no reasonable chance of conviction. She refused to answer questions from reporters after the trial. Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the attorney general of Ontario, stated later that “there were issues related to the evidence that led the Crown to determine that the most appropriate way to proceed was with the plea resolution.”

Justice Douglas Maund wrapped up the proceedings, telling the accused: “I’m sure you can recognize a break when you see one.” Outside the courthouse, Jaffer did not respond to the judge’s remark or to any questions about the dropped charges. “I know that I should have been more careful,” he said. “I once again apologize for that and I take full responsibility for my careless driving. And that’s really all I have to say this morning.”

His lawyer also refused to say why the Crown agreed not to proceed with the drunk driving and cocaine possession charges. “I think it’s very important to note that there has never been an allegation that Mr. Jaffer was driving while impaired or while driving under the influence of any substance, alcohol or otherwise,” said Howard Rubel—although a criminal charge would seem to qualify, practically by definition, as an allegation. “Second, the charges—driving over the legal limit and possession of any illegal substance—has always been refuted and I think the withdrawal of those charges vindicates that refutation today.” Jaffer then climbed into a waiting SUV and sped off.

Back in Ottawa, Liberal MP Anita Neville boldly flung questions in the House of Commons about why a tough-on-crime Conservative government had so little to say about “a $500 slap on the wrist” for “one of their own.” It was the same Anita Neville who had been in the papers on Feb. 26 calling for the resignation of Jaffer’s wife, federal Minister of State for the Status of Women Helena Guergis. So goes the bizarre drama in which the parallel troubles of the most attractive couple in Canadian politics—a pair for whom, not so long ago, the sky must have seemed the limit—have suddenly culminated. It’s a Shakespearean drama, with immaturity as the protagonists’ shared tragic flaw.

On Feb. 19, Guergis, according to an anonymous account provided to Liberal MP Wayne Easter, had thrown a spectacular tantrum in the Charlottetown airport. Arriving five minutes before flight time with aide Emily Goucher, Guergis is said to have berated a staffer who told the pair their carry-ons were too large, warning him that she “knew [P.E.I. transportation minister] Ron MacKinley.” While preparing to pass through the metal detector, Guergis initially refused to remove her boots, but was obliged to do so when the metal in them tripped the alarm. Slamming the footwear into a bin, she barked “Happy fucking birthday to me! I guess I’m stuck in this hellhole!” (Feb. 19 was the minister’s 41st birthday.) If the anonymous letter is true—Guergis later apologized for her behaviour and admitted to having spoken “emotionally” to Air Canada employees—the minister proceeded to try forcing her way through a locked door onto the tarmac, and on being told that she would have to wait, began “screaming and hammering” at the window in an effort to get the attention of airside staff.

The Guergis story almost seems designed to express every loathsome quality one associates with politicians: feelings of grandeur and entitlement, contempt for the “little people,” do-you-know-who-I-am posturing, impatience with the delays that the authorities impose on civilians as a matter of course. Yet in assessing the fate of a political couple sometimes called “golden” before their troubles, one notices that Guergis’s apology and her tacit acceptance of the facts on record at least served to put an end to the story­—if not the teasing. The clock has been started on the process of forgiving and forgetting.

It is less clear that this is true for Rahim Jaffer. Exonerated legally from every sin but “careless driving,” he refuses to provide an alternative account of the events of Sept. 11. His decision to treat the matter as closed and to avoid the outstanding questions would seem to make a political comeback nearly unthinkable for a man who, during the Canadian Alliance leadership contest of 2002, was deputy leader of Canada’s official Opposition and briefly led it in the House of Commons.

A power couple, unplugged
Photograph by Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press

Jaffer, a Ugandan-born Ismaili Muslim whose family found a safe haven in Edmonton after fleeing Idi Amin’s regime in 1972, was a crucial figure in the rise of the Reform party. Co-owner of a coffee shop on a prominent corner in the city’s Old Strathcona district, he announced in June 1996, at the age of 24, that he would challenge Strathcona Reform MP Hugh Hanrahan for the party’s nomination. The announcement was timed ideally to provide good publicity for a movement fighting accusations of racial bigotry. Hanrahan, saddled with health problems, soon stepped aside; Jaffer was featured prominently in Reform’s national advertising and narrowly won the riding.

Jaffer was important to Reform not only for his youth and his symbolic value as an enterprising member of a visible-minority community; as a former aide to Liberal MP Dennis Mills, he had some knowledge of practical politics, and he was also the only comfortably bilingual member of caucus. His social skills counted in his favour too, even if he soon became better known for his natty dress, his love of parties, his membership in the epicurean “Snack Pack,” and his sequence of hot girlfriends, than for his work habits.

But his career hit some bumps. During the 2000 Alliance leadership race, he was named co-chair of Stockwell Day’s Alberta campaign but leaped awkwardly to Tom Long’s camp when the Ontarian entered the race days later. Then, in March 2001, he was caught allowing an aide to impersonate him on a radio show, forfeiting credibility he perhaps never quite regained.

Despite his mistakes, Jaffer bounced back to become national caucus chair of the united Conservative party, and his vote totals in Edmonton-Strathcona barely twitched, no matter what happened. It wasn’t until the election of Oct. 14, 2008, that he received his comeuppance; although 19,634 Edmontonians voted for him, more than had done so in 2004, he faced a returning candidate for the first time in the NDP’s Linda Duncan. With the Liberal party short on funds and suffering from a bad case of Dion-itis, Duncan was able to eke out a victory.

Jaffer has been romantically linked with Guergis since 2006; they met for the first time shortly before the election in January of that year, and eventually got privately engaged without setting a wedding date. No one could be surprised at Jaffer’s involvement with a former beauty queen. Guergis was Miss Huronia of 1992—a title that ended up attracting unwelcome attention after she sued the pageant’s owner, Sylvia Stark, for overbilling her on the entry fee for a national pageant. Guergis won the suit, but Stark filed for bankruptcy and Guergis never got her money back.

Guergis, like Jaffer, comes from a deeply traditional family that fled persecution abroad—in her case, the Middle East’s Assyrian minority, who had kept their Christian faith in the midst of the Islamic world for centuries, but who backed the Western powers against Turkey after the First World War and found themselves facing the wrath of a genocidal regime. Refugee George Guergis’s family would become a political dynasty in Simcoe County; he served as reeve of the township of Essa from 1971-74, his son Edward was a councillor there, and three of his grandchildren (including Helena’s sister Christine Brayford) are mayors or town councillors in Simcoe today.

As a minister of the Crown, Helena Guergis stands as the most accomplished of the clan despite an initial lack of encouragement from its old-fashioned patriarchs. With her latest Simcoe-Grey victory secure on the evening of the 2008 election, Guergis hopped a plane to Edmonton to be at the side of her boyfriend, whose close race was still undecided into the late hours of vote-counting. The demoralizing effects of Jaffer’s defeat had been compounded by the televising of a premature declaration of victory at his headquarters, so when Guergis arrived, she found him in low spirits and suggested that the pair elope. The next day, without telling either set of parents, they were married in the Edmonton home of Ian McClelland, an ex-Reform MP and Alberta MLA who had played a crucial role in bringing Jaffer into politics. McClelland officiated at the ceremony.

Jaffer initially expressed hopes of running again for the Conservatives in Strathcona. His constituency board offered him time to make the decision, but the coalition crisis of early 2009 and the sudden rise of Michael Ignatieff created the possibility of an early election, and the board had to set a firm date for the nomination before Jaffer was ready. He stood down, calling the board’s haste a “blessing in disguise” and declaring himself ready to start a family with his new bride. By all accounts, the pair are sincerely smitten. One friend says admiringly that Jaffer exercises a “calming influence” on his sometimes-brittle wife and suggests that her airport meltdown might never have happened if he had been present.

A power couple
Photograph by John Major/The Ottawa Citizen

Guergis appears determined to withstand Liberal charges that her Charlottetown freak-out constituted “disorderly conduct that could have put passenger safety at risk.” She is reputed in Ottawa to be a difficult boss and was near the top of the “Biggest Scrooge” category in the Hill Times’ most recent yearbook-style vote—the same one that, in the past, hung a “Laziest MP” label on Jaffer. But the Prime Minister may not feel compelled to move her. “She can be a little of a Pierre Poilievre in a skirt,” remarks one Conservative strategist: “Harper likes to have people around like that who are unflinching in their desire to savage all opponents.” The real power to dispose of Guergis’s career rests with the voters of Simcoe-Grey.

Jaffer’s path is less clear. In late 2008, he and a long-time friend, Patrick Glémaud, launched a company called Green Power Generation Corp. The privately held firm is based in Ottawa and acts as a developer for green power projects. Glémaud, a former environmental lawyer with the Department of Justice who worked on the Kyoto accord, says that Ontario’s Green Energy Act, which came into effect last year, has created attractive business opportunities by offering to pay top dollar for power created through solar and other green technologies.

He is short on specifics, but he says GPG has a couple of projects on the go, including plans to build a solar farm on 800 acres of land owned by himself and his wife near Bancroft, Ont., a town of about 4,000. (The solar farm is news to Bancroft’s mayor, Lloyd Churchill, who told Maclean’s he wasn’t aware of the project.) Glémaud says the company is also trying to set up projects in China using so-called “Dragon Power” technologies that harness kinetic energy from cars travelling over roadways or bridges. “Mr. Jaffer was in China three weeks ago discussing this matter, looking for potential investors and sites for development,” he says.

Jaffer brings business savvy and a politician’s people skills to the enterprise, according to Glémaud. “When you talk about renewable or any green technology, the problem isn’t the technology, the problem is having someone with a business mind who is able to execute the project and get them in the marketplace,” he says. “And that’s where Mr. Jaffer comes in. He is someone with a lot of business contacts within Canada and outside of Canada, and who had a business himself.” That business background may be somewhat limited, given that Jaffer has spent most of his adult life in politics. Although he is still associated indelibly with his old coffee shop, he and another business partner lost their Timothy’s franchise in 2004. Nonetheless, Glémaud regards his pal as a natural entrepreneur.

“In some ways, I think it was kind of a blessing that he was not re-elected, because I think he has more potential in the business sector than politics,” says Glémaud. “The business sector is based on merit. You work hard and you succeed. In politics, you can work hard and get nothing out of it, or you get attacked by the media and everything you do is looked at through a big magnifying glass.”