Ottawa stitches Canada together. Mike Duffy did his part.

Day 10: Duffy’s first cousin testifies from P.E.I.
Duffy Trial 20150420
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Today, Mike Duffy groaned.

It happened while his cousin, David McCabe, was testifying under cross-examination remotely from Charlottetown, P.E.I.—a compact man in an argyle sweater blinking at us in real time from a wall-mounted flat-screen television, speaking at us—”yis,” he’d say by way of affirmation, in the speech of the P.E.I. hinterlands.

Donald Bayne, Sen. Duffy’s lawyer here in Courtroom 33, where Duffy faces 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, was leading McCabe through just what kind of material he’d been scanning on the computer he learned to use in a course, then sent electronically Duffy’s way.

Photos of the cousins, of their kids playing soccer, of birthdays—that kind of thing.

Duffy dropped his head into a hand, emitted a short, low groan—a petit mal rather than a grand mal, as the terms relate to that spectacular class of outburst that is the groan in open court—and he shook his head.

It was the first reaction he’s permitted himself since his trial began two weeks ago—he’s otherwise remained immobile, stoic—and you had to be watching close. He recovered well.

Now Duffy was newly alert to the proceedings, sat on his tailbone, his eyes darting.

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“When I say the cousins, I mean my daughters and my brother’s daughters and my sister’s daughters and sons,” McCabe told court during his testimony, adding of Duffy: “I thought he’d be interested, and he was.”

No doubt Duffy would have preferred McCabe to say he scanned and dispatched nothing but newspaper stories examining the issues of the moment in P.E.I. Why otherwise would Duffy have arranged for his cousin to get a cheque for $500, from his pal Gerald Donohue’s Maple Ridge Media Inc., the firm in Carp, Ont., that firm prosecutors say Duffy used to distribute cash to his friends?

This, Bayne calls parliamentary business, quite properly paid out of public funds, and Bayne successfully got McCabe to say of his scanning and emailing efforts: “I wanted Mike to be a bigger voice for the island.”

It is the story of Canadian politics, writ very small.

Canada is a loose collection of cosmic elements, thrown together, spinning out of control, little bits in the throes of powerful centrifugal forces hurtling into the abyss. Duffy was a P.E.I. satellite in Ottawa, that centre of the universe that anchors the regions and prevents them from falling away, pinned like order slips in a restaurant on the great stake of the Peace Tower.

“Ever hear the expression ‘All politics is local?’ ” Bayne asked McCabe, and McCabe was forced to reply: “No, I haven’t.”

If nothing else, the Duffy trial demonstrates the fragile but still powerful ways in which this country is stitched together, through relationships of small-town folks made good and flown away to the big centres, rituals of reciprocity like abrupt reunions at funerals, badly scanned newspaper articles dispatched in binary, and little money things—a gig to re-upholster a cousin’s love seat and chesterfield, as McCabe, an upholsterer on the side, did for Duffy.

During examination, McCabe traced Duffy’s movements as he zipped, meteoric, across the continent, journeying to the country’s inner core at Centre Block. “I think his first stop was Amherst, N.S., Halifax, Montreal, then after that, Toronto and Ottawa,” McCabe said. “Mike’s mother and my mother are sisters,” he said also, blinking. “Back in high school, Mike spinned records. So I’d see him at dances and stuff like that.”

From the distance of Charlottetown, McCabe watched Duffy. “Mike’s mother and I would follow the House,” he said of he and Lillian, the Duffy matriarch (who died in 2010, a death broached in testimony today). When they wanted more details on what was really going on in Ottawa, McCabe and Lil would ask Duffy from afar.

McCabe took to sending Duffy newspaper articles, snippets of news, and family bumph. All of it appears to have blended together, as family and community issues do in places like Prince Edward Island.

Duffy’s cousin was, in Bayne’s words, “pretty reliable eyes and ears in the region,” for the senator, and helped him out in Charlottetown on one or two occasions for intel. When Duffy ran into an old high school friend, he came away not knowing if this was his classmate or a classmate’s brother. He asked McCabe: “I ran into the brother he was talking to at church,” McCabe told court, “and he come up to me and told me he was talking to Mike.”

He said he was performing these small services for Duffy “up until a year and a half ago, I guess.”

Or, as he put it later on in the proceedings: “right up until this happened.”

This? The catastrophe of Duffy’s parliamentary life.

It had all looked so promising, in the beginning, when Duffy retained the consulting talents of Peter McQuaid, for a decade, the chief of staff for Progressive Conservative P.E.I. premier Pat Binns.

McQuaid stepped into the seat that McCabe vacated at the end of his testimony, there in that little room in Charlottetown, but his function there was similar to the cousin’s. McQuaid reminded us of the animism at the heart of all politics, and perhaps in Canadian politics more than others—here in a country where the centre barely holds, where the regions are the playground to MPs, senators and other conduits to power, and where favours are paid to good and faithful soldiers to Ottawa in the home regions, far away.

Duffy paid McQuaid, who’d hit hard times after the end of years of conservative rule in Charlottetown—and was back working the family gas station.

The senator hired him to write speeches and keep him apprised of P.E.I. issues, and paid him three times for three years of service. Twice he paid the man according to more or less proper senatorial procedure; the other time, he paid by funnelling McQuaid money through Donohue’s Maple Ridge Media outfit.

Why? “We talked about how he couldn’t do it though the Senate” due to a crunch, McQuaid said, “but he’d find another way to do it.”

He did. That is how you keep a country together: through small services rendered by a messenger from Ottawa, landed here for a moment on one of those bits hurtling into outer space.

 Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial