Rahim Jaffer was ‘The life of the party’

He was an immigrant success, a political star. What happened?

‘The life of the party’Last week, an email began making the rounds of the Tory BlackBerry circuit. Titled “Laugh of the day,” it consisted of two sentences pulled from an Edmonton Journal story detailing the arrest, on Sept. 11, of former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, whom police have charged with drunk driving and cocaine possession: “Edmonton MLA Thomas Lukaszuk knew Jaffer well and said he never saw him intoxicated in any way,” ran the excerpt. “ ‘I knew him to be a religious person,’ Lukaszuk said.”

The email’s recipients considered the quote droll because Jaffer, though almost universally loved among parliamentarians of all political stripes, is known to enjoy a drink. “He’s very hard not to like, although everyone acknowledges his shortcomings,” says another. “I think many people would say Rahim was the life of the party,” says Calgary Tory MP Rob Anders, a long-time colleague.

Indeed, Jaffer wasn’t just the life of any old party; irrepressible, occasionally irresponsible, he was the life of the Conservative party. In 1997, his sociability, infectious sense of fun and unthreatening good looks converged to create a peculiarly Canadian fable: the immigrant-boy-made-good runs successfully for a party, Reform, hitherto seen as unwelcoming to new Canadians; he becomes Canada’s first Muslim MP, a visible minority who stretches the definition of his party; in the process, he helps shape Alberta’s conservative movement into a viable national brand.

“I saw in him the embodiment of the future of the country—the royal jelly,” early Reformer Ian McClelland told a reporter then. News of his criminal charges has changed all that. “I’m surprised, I’m sorry and I’m disappointed, and I’m not going to comment further,” McClelland told Maclean’s. “You get older, you’re supposed to be smarter,” fellow Edmonton Reformer Deborah Grey told the CBC. “It’s one of those sad stories of a young guy who achieved a lot early, played hard, lived hard—and it caught up to him,” a Tory insider says.

The 37-year-old has seen worse. Jaffer was born in Kampala to Ismaili Muslim parents forced to flee Idi Amin’s Uganda when he was just a baby. His father Nizar, a successful Kampala businessman, and mother Razia had little more than a diaper bag and $10 in cash when they arrived in Canada. Nizar, who had owned a plastics factory, took a job supervising a plastics warehouse. But the couple’s son, with his grin and pudgy appeal, thrived. While still in high school in Edmonton, Jaffer, a natural entrepreneur, organized ski trips to Banff for his classmates, raking in $1,500 in profits. At 21, while studying political science, in French, at the University of Ottawa, he identified a trend toward Starbucks-style gourmet coffee and convinced his father to partner with him on a café. In the early days of his political success, he credited his ease on the hustings with his experience handling customers from behind the counter at Grabba­jabba, located on hip Whyte Avenue.

In Ottawa, securing a gig as an aide to Liberal MP Dennis Mills, Jaffer impressed. “He was bright, he had phenomenal interpersonal skills,” Mills says. Despite his experience working in the Liberal camp, and his parents’ Pierre Trudeau nostalgias, Jaffer in the mid-’90s turned to Preston Manning’s Reform party, which still enjoyed a tenuous relationship with new Canadians. Ezra Levant, a rising conservative wunderkind, convinced him he’d find a home there. Indeed, Jaffer was exactly the kind of candidate Levant was seeking. “How do you call a man like that a bigot?” he asked a reporter at the time.

In 1997, the new poster boy for western conservative tolerance won the Reform nomination for Edmonton-Strathcona, even after the head of the nominating committee suggested he should be tested for “exotic foreign diseases” and run in a riding where other ethnics lived. Jaffer was only 24.

Once in Ottawa as an MP, he carved out a reputation as a lothario and long-distance hedonist. Columnists marvelled at his frat-boy stamina (“Despite all-night partying that started at a Toronto fundraiser and ended just three hours before a morning meeting on Parliament Hill . . .” an admiring Don Martin wrote in a piece for Southam). Jaffer worked hard to keep under wraps an affair with a parliamentary page. His hijinks could reach Duddy Kravitz proportions. In 2001, he was forced to admit that, yes, Matthew Johnston, his aide, had impersonated him on a radio show in Vancouver (Jaffer had been too busy opening a new café to make the appearance). He accepted Johnston’s resignation and made a tearful apology in the House.

Yet the charm that had always governed his life persisted still. A year later, interim Canadian Alliance leader John Reynolds named him his deputy. Jaffer’s golden status grew more golden when he lured Helena Guergis, Conservative MP for Simcoe-Grey, into his orbit. Previously engaged to broadcast reporter turned political operative Scott Brownrigg—he’d managed her successful rookie electoral bid in 2004—Guergis is the 1992 winner of the Miss Huronia pageant and a minor cabinet minister with a reputation on the Hill for being hard on her staff. She and Jaffer rose to the thin ranks of Parliament’s beautiful people.

Then, abruptly, Jaffer’s carriage turned gourd. The NDP captured Edmonton-Strathcona by a little more than 400 votes. Conservative insiders say Jaffer lost the unlosable through sheer laziness. “The story was, and everybody in Edmonton knew it, that Rahim spent too much time having fun and not enough with his constituents,” says one. A few months later, Jaffer asked the Conservative party to stretch a nomination deadline; he was rebuffed. “Why would you give the guy another shot when he had all the opportunity in the world?” one Tory asks.

It’s a question Jaffer doesn’t appear to have asked himself. Though he recently launched Green Power Generation, an alternative energy outfit, with his friend Patrick Glémaud, his affiliation with his party has remained his calling card. His personal website still carries the Conservative logo, and looks strikingly similar to a candidate’s standard online screed. “It just kind of shows how he has not figured out who the hell he is now that he’s not a politician anymore,” says a Conservative. Others believe Jaffer had every intention of getting back into the game. “He still had lots of energy, lots of future and lots of potential left,” says his old boss, Mills. “It was just presumed that there would be another moment.”

That moment now seems far away. Before Jaffer spreads the vast wilderness beyond the Hill. Says Monte Solberg, the former Medicine Hat Tory who retired from public life last fall after 15 years in the House, and a close friend of Jaffer’s: “You’re going from a life where you’re going a hundred miles an hour and you have all the trappings of the job—fly anywhere you want in the country, doors open for you—and all of a sudden you’re doing all these things on your own, it’s coming out of your pocket, people don’t necessarily pick up the phone and call you.”

Perhaps Jaffer, who achieved so much so early, has been at loose ends. Yet there’s another view among some Tories. “It’s the perpetual challenge that Rahim and others have,” says an old pro. “There’s a lot of people who love the guy here, but it’s knowing when you go from frat boy to family man. That was one of the inner demons he was trying to shake.” It was near the end of Ramadan that a Caledon OPP officer spotted a grey Ford Escape speeding through Palgrave, Ont., an hour’s drive from Guergis’s hometown. The officer pulled the SUV over and allegedly smelled alcohol. Later, police say, an officer found cocaine on Jaffer’s person.

Jaffer has returned from scandal before. “Rahim always had, and does still have, that public demeanour of a duck with water going off its back,” says Conservative operative Tim Powers, VP of Ottawa-based Summa Communications. Jaffer released a statement saying he’ll fight the charges. Glémaud says he is doing well and has the support of his wife and family: “This incident showed Rahim the people that are his true friends, that he has some people outside of politics, and some inside, that will stand by his side.” He believes the charges will not stand. “A couple of months from now,” he says, “this thing will be a non-story.” Yet a non-story may also mean the end of the fable.