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Separatism And Scandal: Maxime Bernier's Unlikely Road To Redemption

05/19/2017 07:16 EDT | Updated 05/19/2017 08:46 EDT
Tom Hanson/CP

Maxime Bernier is unloading his baggage.

“I was separatist, I must have voted yes. Write I voted ‘yes,’ I have no problems with that,” he tells HuffPost Canada.

He supported sovereigntists during the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence. Now, he wants to lead a national party and be Canada’s next prime minister.

Admitting that he may have voted to split the country apart is perhaps Bernier’s latest display that he is the candid leader that some Canadians crave.

 

Among the crowded field of 13 Conservative leadership candidates, the Quebec MP from Beauce is already notorious because of a scandal that rocked his second year in federal politics and got him dumped from cabinet.

“The official thing is I forgot my document, but the non-official [version] is, maybe, she took it,” Bernier says about ex-girlfriend Julie Couillard’s revelation that he left secret documents at her home. (Bernier maintains he never took the papers out of his briefcase, and Couillard refused to participate in a government investigation into the incident.)

“In life, people are entitled to make mistakes,” says Jay Hill, the former Conservative whip who now supports Bernier. “He made them. He never tried to cover them up or excuse his mistakes. He has matured.”

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Maxime Bernier speaks at a debate on Feb. 13, 2017 in Montreal. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Martin Masse, Bernier’s closest adviser, compares supporting sovereignty to being a communist in university and then changing your mind.

“Obviously, I can understand that some people in English Canada will believe that we are some kind of traitors because we do not believe all our whole life in Canada, but … we just grew up in an environment where it was normal to be in favour of separation,” he says.

Over tea, Bernier tells HuffPost those controversies — new and old — are behind him.

“You know, it’s back [then],” he says. “It’s not important any more.”

Except, in some ways, it is.

maxime bernier Maxime Bernier applauds Stephen Harper at a campaign rally in Quebec City on Oct. 12, 2008. (Photo: Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Canadians who peripherally follow politics might best remember the 54-year-old as the debonaire Quebecer who brought Couillard, wearing a low-cut dress, to his swearing-in as foreign affairs minister in August 2007. Less than a year later, Couillard’s ties to biker gangs had been revealed and she told the press Bernier had been careless with confidential briefing notes.

In Bernier’s telling of his story, he might not be running for the Conservative leadership were it not for this incident. Had he not spent time in the political doghouse and been free to roam across Canada preaching the values of freedom and a laissez-faire state, he might not have discovered an audience that liked his authentic voice and his message of “no compromises” on conservative principles.

He might not have been emboldened to run for the leadership.

maxime bernier Maxime Bernier arrives at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall with Julie Couillard on Aug. 14, 2007. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

In Couillard’s telling of Bernier's story, offered in scintillating detail in her 2008 book My Story, she says Bernier confided that he believed then-prime minister Stephen Harper would not last a full term in office and that he envisaged himself running to replace him.

On the walls of Bernier’s office on Parliament Hill, several framed news clippings are proudly displayed. There is Bernier on the cover of Wireless Telecom magazine. A 2006 article from L’Actualité titled: “The Albertan From Quebec.”

And a 2007 piece that stands out: “Maxime Bernier, Heir Apparent to Stephen Harper?” In it, La Presse journalist Joël-Denis Bellavance argued that Harper’s dream of transforming the Conservatives into the natural governing party of the 21st century would be assured only if the alliance between Quebec nationalists and Western conservatives remained — and could be best-maintained if the next leader came from Quebec.

A framed La Presse article from 2007 hangs in Maxime Bernier’s office.

(Photo: Maxime Bernier)

The article quoted several of Bernier’s caucus colleagues expressing surprise and admiration that a Quebecer is as unflinching in his support for free-market ideas. “MPs have already let him know that they would support him if he decided one day to succeed Stephen Harper,” Bellavance wrote.

Now, 10 years later, Bernier finds himself vying to replace Harper, but with little caucus support. Only seven MPs have endorsed him.

Still, if public opinion surveys are correct, Bernier is headed to the helm of the party. The Quebec MP was already a top-tier candidate when his primary rival, businessman and reality television personality Kevin O’Leary dropped out of the contest last month and endorsed him.

 

The two had viciously gone after each other. O’Leary’s camp alleged Bernier’s campaign fraudulently purchased thousands of memberships. Bernier declared war and in turn, alleged that O’Leary’s camp was involved in illegal sign-ups. An investigation found improprieties and 2,729 members were removed from party rolls. No particular campaign was blamed, however, since the memberships were purchased anonymously from the party’s website.

Two weeks before the bombshell announcement, O’Leary called Bernier, asking him to withdraw from the race.

“If you resign, you’ll be my number 2. With you, I can win in Quebec, you’ll be my lieutenant,” Bernier recalls. He says he laughed and said, nope.

After that call, Bernier says he suspected O’Leary would quit. Two days before the final candidates’ debate, O’Leary sent him a text message asking if the two could chat.

When they met, just before midnight in a private condominium downtown, O’Leary offered to endorse Bernier.

O’Leary and Bernier are now all smiles. They are campaigning together, with Bernier musing he plans to encourage the TV celebrity to run for him in 2019.

 

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Bernier’s entrance into politics is owed in no small part to his father — much as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can thank his dad for helping pave the way.

The Conservatives originally approached Gilles Bernier to return to politics in 2005. He was a well-known radio announcer who won successive elections during Brian Mulroney’s tenure in 1984 and 1988. In 1993, he won again as an independent after then-Tory leader Kim Campbell refused to let him run under the Progressive Conservative banner owing to allegations of fraud and breach of trust.

maxime bernier Maxime Bernier speaks with his father Gilles Bernier at an event in St-Georges, Que. on June 25, 2008. (Photo: Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

In 1990, Gilles Bernier and former MP Richard Grisé were charged by the RCMP and accused of hiring each other's children — Maxime and his brother Gilles Jr., and Grisé’s son, Bruno — to perform fictitious work in their offices. House of Commons rules forbid politicians from hiring their spouses or children but not their colleagues’ family members.

The case dragged in court for years, as Bernier’s father tried to have the charges quashed. http://collections.banq.qc.ca:81/lapresse/src/cahiers/1991/10/24/02/82812_1991102402.pdf In 1994, Ontario judge Maria Linhares de Sousa ruled during a preliminary hearing that it was “clear” a fraud had taken place, but she eventually aquitted Gilles Bernier.

According to news reports at the time, she said she believed he had actually participated in the offences but felt that the Crown had presented no evidence that would lead a jury to convict him. Grisé, however, pleaded guilty to two counts of breach of trust and was fined $5,000.

“I remember this at the time,” Bernier says about his dad’s case. “The judge blasted the Crown attorney because there were no proofs at all.” His voice rises. “It was never brought to trial … This was was about people in politics who wanted to hurt my father.”

maxime bernier Maxime Bernier and his father, Gilles.

Gilles Bernier’s constituents didn’t seem to care about the allegations. Neither did Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, who decided about 1997 that he wanted to win the seat in Beauce but couldn’t do it if the popular MP were still around. So Chrétien made Gilles an offer he couldn’t refuse: an

https://www.britannica.com/place/Haiti-Year-In-Review-1997” target=”_blank”>ambassadorship to sunny, albeit chaotic, Haiti.

“But [Chrétien said] ‘One condition: I don’t want you to do politics during the campaign and I want to be sure that my guy will win’,” Bernier recounts. “My dad said: ‘I won’t be able to. I’ll be in Haiti!’”

The Reform Party complained that Gilles Bernier lacked the necessary experience — at the time, his most impressive responsibility had been a two-year stint as chair of the official languages committee — but the appointment went through and a Liberal MP was elected in Beauce that June.

When Harper approached Gilles to run for office again, four years after the end of his ambassadorship, the 70-year-old was flattered, Bernier says, but suggested that the new Conservative leader speak to his son instead.

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Maxime Bernier at age 8.

Maxime, who was born on Jan. 18, 1963, in Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, the capital of the region, had not demonstrated a keen interest in party politics. As a youngster, he talked of becoming an entrepreneur.

He is the second oldest of Gilles’s and Doris’ four children. The eldest, Brigitte, is two years older than Bernier. His sister, Caroline, and brother, Gilles Jr., followed.

In high school, a tall and lean Bernier had been the safety on the football team. He loved sports and in 1980, helped his AA team, the Condors of the Cégep Beauce-Appalaches, win the provincial championship at the Olympic stadium. “That was a very big event for me.”

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Maxime Bernier's high school football team won a provincial championship.

Bernier describes himself as not the best student in class, but not the worst. “I was a little bit above the average.”

“I was very bad in English,” he admits.

“I still need to work on it,” he adds, laughing.

At 18, he headed to the Université du Québec à Montréal to pursue a bachelor's degree in administration, with a concentration in economics. After graduating in 1985, he entered the University of Ottawa to study civil law.

It was there, during the 1987-88 free trade talks with the United States, that Bernier first caught the political bug. He was living with his father, sharing an apartment with the then-first term MP. Gilles was an involved dad during his childhood, driving him to hockey and football, but now they developed a closer relationship.

“He was always there to listen to me. When I was young, I would go see him for advice. And now, he continues to give me political advice. He is my eyes and ears for what’s going on in Beauce.”

"I never dreamt of being prime minister. But I liked public policy."

As the free trade debate exploded on campus and on the campaign trail, Bernier read the text of the deal, memorized all the clauses, and drafted his father’s election speeches defending the pact.

“I never dreamt of being a member of Parliament. I never dreamt of being prime minister. But I liked public policy,” he says.

Bernier read all he could about the deal and liked to challenge his opponents. “I was a maniac.”

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Maxime Bernier completed his law degree at the University of Ottawa.

In 1990, Bernier was called to the Quebec bar and he began a two-year stint working for the Clarkson Tétreault (now McCarthy Tétrault) law firm in Montreal, where he had been a summer student. While he articled, he realized he wanted to pursue commercial law, but that section functioned mostly in English and Bernier felt ill-equipped to compete with fully bilingual McGill graduates. Instead, Bernier worked closely with the labour law group, which comprised mostly francophones.

“I didn’t like it,” he says about his work at the firm, still not touching the Earl Grey tea he ordered when we first sat down at the Farmteam Cookhouse and Cellar, a restaurant two blocks from his Hill office. (They didn’t have his first choice of peppermint.)

Bernier’s sensitivity about his English skills is evident when he notes proudly that his daughters speak with no accent. (They attended private English school in Montreal, an allowance under Quebec's language laws because his ex-wife’s father studied in English prior to the adoption of Bill 101.)

Starting a family

Bernier is still close to his former wife, Caroline Chauvin. They met at an art opening. She was there with her girlfriends and he was attending with a group of young lawyers. “The boys” took “the girls” out for drinks, he recalls.

“We had fun and I did a follow-up and it went very well,” he says, laughing. “So I was with her for 13 years.”

Bernier and Chauvin were married in 1991 in a Roman Catholic church ceremony. She is the mother of his two daughters, Charlotte, 18, and Megan, 15.

The marriage didn’t work out, and their divorce was finalized on Sept. 14, 2005 — their wedding anniversary.

“We didn’t succeed in our marriage, but we succeeded in our divorce, and now she is my best friend and we have a very good relationship. Sometimes we have dinner at my girlfriend’s and her boyfriend together, and so it’s a good relationship. I’m very happy, very proud of that.”

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Maxime Bernier and his current partner Catherine Letarte.

Bernier is still a lawyer — he pays his law society dues every year. “I could practice civil law in Quebec, if I ever leave politics.”

But his heart did not lie with law. Bernier left the law firm to become the director of commercial accounts at a National Bank branch in Montreal’s South Shore in 1992, helping small companies expand their businesses. Eventually, he became the branch director.

In 1996, a friend from Bernier’s articling days approached him about a new gig.

“ target=”_blank”>Daniel Audet was the chief of staff for Bernard Landry, the deputy leader of the Parti Québécois and new provincial finance minister.

Audet wondered if Bernier would be interested in working in the minister’s office on legislative reforms to the financial sector.

“I followed politics. I liked politics, and I knew Bernard Landry because I had met him during the 1988 debate on free trade,” he says.

bernard landry Former Quebec premier Bernard Landry speaks in Gatineau, Que. in 2003. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Bernier had actually invited Landry to the University of Ottawa to speak at a conference.

“At the time, I was a nationalist,” Bernier says, listing the sovereigntist friends he hung out with on campus. Bernier wants me to use the labels “nationalist” or “very nationalist.” He thinks “sovereigntist” or “separatist” might scare anglophone Conservatives.

But Landry has already outed Bernier as a sovereigntist. In a 2010 interview, the former premier of Quebec said that in order to work in his office staff members had to be separatists. “That’s what [Bernier] told me he was, and I believed it, and I still believe it,” he told The Canadian Press.

Bernier doesn’t deny his past leanings. I asked him how he voted during the 1995 referendum. He changes the topic. I bring it back.

Story continues after slideshow:

FLASHBACK: The 1995 Quebec Referendum

 

Story continues after slideshow:

In Photos: Maxime Bernier

Many of the proposals Bernier champions are found in the Reform Party’s 1996-1997 policies and principles statement, known as the Blue Book, which was co-written by Harper. https://www.poltext.org/sites/poltext.org/files/plateformes/can1996r_plt_en_12072011_124840.pdf

“Ending corporate welfare, it was in the Blue Book. Ending regional development agencies, it was in the Blue Book. Revisit equalization, it was in the Blue Book. Respect the Constitution, it was in the Blue Book. Free trade across Canada, it was in the Blue Book,” says Bernier.

“So the English in Western Canada must recognize themselves in my platform, it’s ideal platform that Stephen Harper wrote for Reform at the time.”

‘The Reform party leader from Quebec’

The similarities are coincidental, Bernier says, noting that they were recently pointed out to him during a trip out west.

It may not be entirely by chance. After all, Masse is a former Reform party member. After giving up on sovereignty in the mid-1990s, Masse decided a decentralized federation could be achieved by uniting with like-minded individuals across Canada. He got a job with the Reform party’s Quebec office and ran as a candidate in a 1996 byelection. He won less than one per cent of the vote. http://www.leblogueduql.org/2010/09/pourquoi-ne-pas-sinspirer-du-parti-r%C3%A9formiste.html

“[Bernier] is like the Reform party leader, from Quebec,” Masse says. “It’s like the perfect combination.”

In Masse’s mind, the story of Maxime Bernier is not a comeback tale, but the far-fetched narrative of a Quebecer from a typically socialist province, a former separatist, and a player in one of the biggest political scandals of recent years, who rises to become the new Reform party leader.

“[He is] the ideal leader that they should have had 20 years earlier to win, but didn’t,” Masse says. Reform had to merge and disappear. Now, he says, Bernier can bring it back.

“That to me is the miracle,” Masse says. “It’s just totally implausible.”

Implausible, perhaps, to everyone but Maxime Bernier.

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PHOTOS:

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Former prime minister Stephen Harper and Maxime Bernier play pétanque in St-Joseph-de-Beauce, Que. on June 24, 2006. (Photo: Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier is sworn into cabinet as Stephen Harper and former governor general Michaelle Jean look on on Feb. 6, 2006. (Photo: Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

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Former public works minister Michael Fortier and Maxime Bernier tour a LAV III military vehicle in Trenton, Ont. on June 29, 2006. (Photo: Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier walks by a display of antique phones in Otttawa on Dec. 11, 2006. (Photo: Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier visits with a girl at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan on Oct. 6, 2007. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier offers soldiers Jos. Louis cakes in the Zhari District, Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2007. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier rides a LAV, light armoured vehicle, while visiting Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar on Oct. 7, 2007. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier receives a standing ovation from Tory MPs in the House of Commons on May 8, 2008. (Photo: Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier arrives to Rideau Hall in Ottawa with Julie Couillard on Aug. 14, 2007. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier speaks in St-Georges, Que. on June 25, 2008. (Photo: Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier speaks with his father Gilles Bernier at an event in St-Georges, Que. on June 25, 2008. (Photo: Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier applauds Stephen Harper at a campaign rally in Quebec City on Oct. 12, 2008. (Photo: Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

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Julie Couillard poses with the French version of her book "Mon Histoire" (My Story) on Oct. 1, 2008. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier is sworn in as minister of state for small business and tourism at Rideau Hall in May 18, 2011. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier speaks to media in the foyer of the House of Commons on Jan. 30, 2012. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier arrives to the offices of the Conservative Party of Canada to officially launch his leadership bid on April 7, 2016. (Photo: Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier speaks at the 2016 Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto on June 7, 2016. (Photo: Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier leaves the Conservative leadership candidates' bilingual debate in Moncton, N.B. on Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier speaks at a debate on Feb. 13, 2017 in Montreal. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier receives the endorsement of Alberta Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt in Calgary, Alta., on Feb. 27, 2017. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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A supporter takes a selfie with Maxime Bernier at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, on April 3, 2017. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier looks on as Kevin O'Leary addresses a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday. (Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier speaks during the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in Toronto on April 26, 2017. (Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

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Maxime Bernier is shown in his Ottawa office. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost Canada)

TWEETS:

Meme -- you like milk cartels?

His girlfriend and daughters:

Birthdates just in case

Charlotte (Feb. 27, 1999) and Megan (April 16, 2002)

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