How Helena Guergis went, so quickly, from promise to pariah

Shooting down a star
Aaron Wherry with Chris Sorensen
Helena Guergis,
Sean Kilpatrick / CP

As Parliament resumed on Monday, seat No. 46 in the House of Commons—the spot immediately visible to television viewers over Stephen Harper’s right shoulder when the Prime Minister rises to speak—was no longer assigned to Helena Guergis, the photogenic Conservative for Simcoe-Grey. The former minister of state for the status of women had been officially banished to seat No. 153, a spot about as far as one can get from the Prime Minister without leaving the House. In her place sat Denis Lebel, the generally unremarkable minister of state for economic development in Quebec.

“She was one of the breakthrough MPs in 2004,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist. “Remember the history of the Conservative party. The argument was: when the party was united we’d win more seats, we’d win more seats in areas like her riding. She won a seat, she was a loyal performer for the Prime Minister, she was hard-working, at least it appeared in the early days. Certainly, she fit a demographic and gender profile that accelerated her chances of getting into cabinet. So she had some opportunities and she took advantage of them, until she lost sight of who she was.”

Seven months after her husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, was charged with drunk driving and drug possession, Guergis is now the subject of allegations serious enough to be referred to the RCMP. Whenever she next appears in the House, she will sit as an unwanted independent MP, unceremoniously ostracized from her party. And whatever else comes of the charges against her, she would seem now to personify the very antithesis of everything Conservatives hope to represent. “I think they truly became, in that old Reform term, ‘Ottawashed,’ ” Powers says of Jaffer and Guergis. “That they were given a lot of opportunities at a young age and they believed they were somewhat invincible.”

As an attractive, young, female Conservative from Ontario—a former pageant queen who had worked at Queen’s Park as a ministerial aide—she was an interesting prospect in a city often lacking in glamour. But when the Hill Times last surveyed Parliament Hill she was, in addition to being voted one of the best-dressed female MPs, among the top vote-getters as “biggest Scrooge,” a nod to her reputation as a difficult boss. And as secretary of state for foreign affairs in 2007 and 2008, she became the public face for what some saw as government inaction in the case of Brenda Martin, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in Mexico—famously attending a cocktail reception in that country and not seeing Martin during an official visit.

After the Conservatives won re-election in the fall of 2008, she was named minister of state for the status of women. And though she remained a favourite target of opposition critics and was perhaps not thought of as a future cabinet star, she was also not an obvious liability. “Hindsight’s 20/20, but I think it’s very safe to say that nobody saw this coming,” says Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister’s former director of communications.

Jaffer’s arrest in September was embarrassing—to him, his wife and a party that loudly touts its “tough on crime” agenda—but it might have become merely an unfortunate footnote, if not for everything that followed. In late February, Guergis was compelled to apologize after an anonymous account circulated of a profane tantrum at the Charlottetown airport. A month later, an assistant was found to have written supportive letters, under a different name, to local newspapers. Questioned about the matter, Guergis assured the House the assistant had apologized and would not do it again. But hours later, another assistant was found to have written an effusive letter to the editor, this one to Maclean’s. The next morning, the Liberals announced the discovery of still more letters from still more associates of Guergis. In the meantime, Jaffer had been allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of careless driving and pay a $500 fine, a controversial result that again conflicted with the party brand.

Prominent party figures had lamented her behaviour after Charlottetown, but now Conservative MPs, and even members of the Prime Minister’s Office were reportedly eager to see Guergis remove herself from cabinet. And then came the news of last Thursday morning. Complete with references to “busty hookers” and an expensive dinner at an upscale steakhouse, the Toronto Star reported on the questionable events and associations that preluded Jaffer’s arrest on a highway north of Toronto. Jaffer was apparently involved in some fashion with Nazim Gillani, a Toronto businessman charged with fraud in connection with a $1.5-million scheme. And the former MP was allegedly touting his access to the Prime Minister’s Office. Harper’s office refuted that suggestion as “absurd” and the Conservative party ordered Jaffer to remove the party’s logo from his website, but the revelations—related and tangential—began to multiply.

Jaffer was using a parliamentary email address and a BlackBerry provided by Guergis’s office. He had once squabbled with Conservative MPs over the caucus petty-cash account. Guergis was apparently trying to claim socks and other personal items as election expenses. Still, as late as that afternoon, the Prime Minister’s spokesman was telling reporters that Guergis maintained the confidence of the Prime Minister. Guergis’s office deemed Jaffer a “private citizen” and the Star story as a “personal matter.”

Whatever brought about Guergis’s resignation, it was discovered only that night, when a third party, by the government’s account, stepped forward with new information. The next day, after attending and addressing Vimy Ridge Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial, Harper summoned reporters to Parliament Hill and announced his office had become aware the night before of “serious allegations” concerning Guergis. The allegations had been referred to the RCMP and the ethics commissioner and Guergis had tendered her resignation. For the time being, she would be removed from the Conservative caucus.

The substance of the pivotal allegations remains a mystery. In her letter of resignation, Guergis referred only to “baseless allegations and unfounded assertions made about my family.”
Gillani has issued a statement casting doubt on the Star’s reporting, but otherwise refusing to comment until a court hearing on April 21. His spokesman, Brian Kilgore, says there were no business dealings between Gillani and Jaffer that involved government relations. Nor, Kilgore tells Maclean’s, were busty hookers present at the dinner in question. Kilgore says Gillani and Guergis met once, during a dinner in Toronto last September.

Patrick Glémaud, Jaffer’s friend and business partner at Green Power Generation, an Ottawa-based firm that advises companies on renewable energy projects, says neither he nor Jaffer had any inkling of Gillani’s trouble with the law when Jaffer went to meet him about a prospective business deal last year. “Rahim met Nazim for the first time either at the end of August or the first week of September,” he told Maclean’s, adding that Jaffer was introduced to Gillani and his associates by Gillani’s cousin, whom he declined to name, but described as “a respectable person.” Gillani was portrayed to GPG as a “market promoter” who was working with someone in the waste management business, according to Glémaud.

Glémaud, a former environmental lawyer for the federal government who worked on the Kyoto accord and once ran as a Conservative candidate, says GPG never entered into any business arrangements with Gillani or his associates: “Not a penny has been exchanged between our two companies.” He disputes many of the allegations in the newspaper article, including the suggestion that Jaffer was handing out his former MP business cards during the meetings and promised access to the Prime Minister’s Office. “Rahim would never do such a thing,” he says. Late Tuesday, the Liberals accused Jaffer and Glémaud of violating the Lobbying Act through their interaction with a Conservative MP. Glémaud denied lobbying anyone.

Guergis, meanwhile, languishes in purgatory, or perhaps outright exile. The mood among Conservatives last Friday night, after her resignation, was said to be a combination of relief, sadness, anger and uncertainty. Her future, especially with the allegations against her unknown, is at best unclear. She may have trouble regaining the Conservative nomination in her riding of Simcoe-Grey. The ethics commissioner has declined to investigate the allegations forwarded by the Prime Minister’s Office, but even if Guergis is exonerated by the RCMP, her political career may be forever limited. Her husband reportedly laments the lack of support he has received and few, if any, Conservatives seem to be rallying to her defence—even the grassroots are said to be unhappy. Indeed, the last week may have demonstrated how Conservatives react when one of their own threatens to undermine the cause.

“I think when the serious allegations came forward,” says Tim Powers, “the Prime Minister was thorough and decisive and recognized in acting the way he did that he had to be. Because he, unlike Helena, understood the damage the story of the dynamic duo could do to the party and all the things the party stood for and the rationale for why the party was successful with the electorate. Because it was the party that was grounded in the aspirations of everyday people, not distant, aloof, ‘Ottawashed’ politicians.”

And so does the pleasant face on the party become a pariah.