Who knows what Harper is really thinking? Ray Novak

From the archives: He used to live above Stephen Harper’s garage. Now he’s Harper’s No. 1 man

by Aaron Wherry

From the Maclean’s archives: A profile of Ray Novak by Aaron Wherry first published in 2010. Novak takes over as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff in the wake of Nigel Wright’s resignation:

The class was Political Science 230, an overview of Canadian politics for second-year honours students at the University of Western Ontario, and the professor had just misstated the results of the 1997 federal election, accidentally transposing the seat counts of the Progressive Conservatives (20) and New Democrats (21). One student in the class of 125 interjected to note the mistake. “It’s gutsy to correct a prof,” the professor recalls now, “and I appreciated being called out.” Within a decade, both the professor, Ian Brodie, and the student, Ray Novak, would be members of the Prime Minister’s Office as senior aides to the new prime minister, Stephen Harper.

From that fateful interjection does a minor legend follow. More than a decade after, Novak is one of the most intriguing players in Ottawa, as widely praised by those around the Harper government as he is little known to the public. “If you were building a perfect political aide, you would end up with Ray Novak,” says Jim Armour, a former Harper aide himself. “He’s perhaps a perfect combination of trusted loyalist, strategist, interpreter, and maybe even horse whisperer.” What’s more is how integral he has become to the life and business of Stephen Harper.

Four and a half years into Harper’s reign, Novak has risen to the rank of principal secretary in the PMO, outranked by just the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and maybe then only in the technical sense. Two weeks ago, as Harper took his place on the world stage at the G8 and G20 summits, Novak was at his side, as he has been for nearly a decade. A week ago, when Harper announced the appointment of a new governor general, it was the culmination of a selection process overseen by the 33-year-old aide. “Ray is effectively the Prime Minister’s closest confidant,” enthuses one government official. “Not only as a member of his staff, but as a personal and intimate member of the Prime Minister’s life.”

There is effusive praise when Novak, who declined to speak with Maclean’s for this story, is the subject of discussion, but this particular bit is not mere conjecture. For nearly four years while Harper was opposition leader, Novak, then with the title of executive assistant, lived in a small loft above the detached garage at Stornoway—the opposition leader’s official residence—eating meals with the family and growing close to Harper’s two young children. This is the detail that has come to define an aide who, by some tellings, knows Harper better than all but the Prime Minister’s wife and mother. “Ray was with him more than anybody else for years and years and years,” says Brodie, who served as Harper’s chief of staff for three years. “They were literally hardly ever apart.”

Originally from the Ottawa Valley, Novak was president of the campus Reform club at Western.
Preoccupied with student fees, he staged an impressive, if unsuccessful, campaign for student council president. He rode the Reform youth bus during the 1997 election, then interned with Preston Manning’s office in the summer of 1998 and Reform MP Rob Anders’s office in 1999. During his post-graduate years at the University of Calgary, he met, among other key players, Tom Flanagan, another professor who would serve as chief of staff to Harper and who led Harper’s Canadian Alliance leadership campaign. Novak was a finalist in Magna’s “If I Were Prime Minister” essay contest in 2000—his submission called for pension and health care reform—then worked as a researcher for the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group then led by Harper. When Harper returned to federal politics in 2001 to pursue the Alliance leadership, he tabbed Novak as his assistant.

The job of executive assistant is mostly associated with menial labour—carrying the briefcase, ensuring the politician is properly watered and fed—but Novak seemingly exceeded the title, both as close counsel and trusted manager. In addition to living with the Harper family at Stornoway, he oversaw Harper’s tour operations, coordinated with his security detail and served as the Prime Minister’s envoy to the families of the Air India bombing. “Ray will get it done,” says a former member of the PMO. “And he will do so with total discretion.” Novak served in that role through another leadership race, two federal elections and 2½ years in the PMO. When Guy Giorno, Harper’s current chief of staff, succeeded Brodie in July 2008, Novak was named principal secretary. He is now the longest-serving member of Harper’s inner circle.

His influence is said to spread from the operations of the PMO to foreign and domestic policy. As principal secretary, Novak travels with the Prime Minister abroad, oversees the speech writing department and coordinates the visits of other heads of state and dignitaries (for organizing the recent royal visit, the Queen made him a lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order, an honour bestowed for service to Her Majesty). During the G8 and G20 summits, he listened in on the leaders’ meetings and sat in on Harper’s bilateral discussions with individual leaders. For the last several weeks, he has ensured the committee charged with advising the Prime Minister on the next governor general was able to go about its quiet work. He toils, by one account, from about 5 a.m. to midnight.

He is described as a populist, a monarchist and a libertarian with a sharp anti-Communist streak, the latter perhaps attributable to the influence of his late father, who fled Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Soviet Union-led invasion. He is not noted as an overbearing partisan. “Ray is the common sense around the table,” says one government official. Adds a former ministerial aide: “He’s one of the least obnoxious people you will ever meet in Ottawa.”

Indeed, the adjectives used to describe Novak by those in and around this government are uniformly fawning: trusted, selfless, rational, efficient, smart, thoughtful, polite, patient. “It will sound to you like I am gushing, but I think you would have to look very, very, very hard to find anyone who will say a negative thing about him,” says that ministerial aide. Adds Dimitri Soudas, the PM’s director of communications and a close friend: “Ray is one of the very few truly genuine people you will encounter in the world of politics.”

He would seem to personify the Prime Minister’s preferred ideals: loyalty, discretion and an ability to, in the favoured parlance of this government, get things done. He is willing and able to serve quietly, an important prerequisite for most prime ministers, especially one, such as Harper, who so values the control of information. And not to be discounted are his roots in the Reform party. “There is a sort of programmatic, political point to be made that still drives folks from that group forward,” Brodie says. The result is an unrivalled history. “Their relationship is close enough that the PM, I think, feels he can speak freely and as plainly as possible to Ray and have Ray understand exactly what he is driving at and to pass along his views to others as a result,” Brodie says. “That’s actually trickier than it sounds. Because he understands the PM’s thinking very intimately, he understands the historic roots of the PM’s evolution of his thinking and evolution of his relationships and evolution of his political history in a way that lets him understand immediately what the PM’s talking about.”

All of which may come back to a common theme in the testimonials to Novak’s place in Harper’s world: calm. During the coalition crisis of December 2008, Novak is said to have been a “beacon of stability.” Even in less dramatic times, that is antithetical to the atmosphere in deepest Ottawa. “It’s a macho business,” says that former member of the PMO. “It’s a field where you’re allowed to be bombastic on the public stage and that tends to result in people being bombastic privately within offices. It’s very useful to have somebody who is a calming influence, a stabilizing influence and a focused influence who simply is there to get the job done and to carry things through to completion.”

In the middle of it all, ensuring the numbers add up, is Ray Novak. “In some respects,” the former member of the PMO says, “he’s the youngest old wise man in Canadian politics.”




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Who knows what Harper is really thinking? Ray Novak

  1. Great article Aaron.

  2. Indeed. Wish your blog was at this level more often. Well done.

  3. Great puff piece there, Aaron. When Novak becomes Chief of Staff, I'm sure he'll return your calls.

    • LOL interesting comment!

      • and now Novak is Chief of staff……….interesting indeed

  4. A good column on obviously someone who is loyal and trusted by the PM.
    However I suspect before the day ends the anti Harper crowd will be on here calling him names and insulting the PM.

  5. This is by far the most interesting and informative Wherry piece I've seen. I had no idea there was such a persona in Harper's inner circle, and not just "inner circle" but by the sounds of it almost the other half of Harper's brain.

    Very interesting. Well done.

  6. "This is by far the most interesting and informative Wherry piece I've seen"

    as in – this is the first one that does not upset your partisan view of the world

  7. I've met Novak through non-political circles, and I'm always surprised he manages to stay in the shadows when the likes of Soudas and The Sparrow are always in the spotlight.

    • Because Soudas and Sparrow's jobs are in communications, therefore, necessarily involves talking to the media, and the public, a little.

      Novak's job doesn't involve any of that.

  8. My comment seems to have been lost, so I'll repost.

    Well done Aaron. This was informative. Wish that your blog was at this level more often.

  9. I'm glad to be able to read more about the enigmatic Mr. Novak.

    He was always a sweetheart and a gentleman when I encountered him – I couldn't say anything bad about him if I were hard pressed.

  10. Soudas and Sparrow were the "communicators" so they had to be in the light. That being said, I get your point.

  11. Wherry nails it with this article on Ray Novak. Ray is not only the the nicest guy you will ever meet in politics, he is also the most competent.

    • Weren’t we told exactly the same thing about Wright before he resigned? We were also told Duffy exhibited great leadership by your kind too.
      I’m not sure anything the far right have to say at this point is worth anything and as you were too far gone for even the BC Cons that speaks volumes

  12. It's rare for such a one-sided piece to be accurate but in this case it is. Novak really is all that. As a follow-up, Macleans should look at the roots of his passion for politics – I remember him as a grade school student delivering passionate speeches at The Canadian Legion on topics like Canadian Unity.

    • Yep, sounds like Ray all right :) He works so hard he doesn't even want to talk to MacLeans to be in the limelight, that tells you something. I'm grateful to have met and known Ray in high school. He is loyal, kind, very smart, humble (doesn't hit you with his smart-ness!), insightful, conscientious, ambitious. I wish you all the best Ray!

  13. I was startled to read that he regularly works 19-hour days. His photo shows him holding a Blackberry, carrying a coffee, and with dark circles under his eyes. I don't think I would want to swap lives with him.

    I hope that Mr. Harper does not reward his effort and loyalty by wearing him out and then discarding him.

  14. It's interesting how prevalent the "BARACK OBAMA IS A COMMIE!" types have become that I groaned at first when I read the anti-communist bit.

    I'm sure he's a very personable, well behaved fellow.

  15. I remember Kory Tenycke looking like that when he worked for Harper.

    So this guy lived above the garage at Stornoway and ate meals with the Harpers? This a taxpayer expense?

    • Weak sauce…

      • You describing anything as weak after blocking any opposing view from your eyes in areas you can control is pretty hilarious.

  16. He is not noted as an overbearing partisan. “Ray is the common sense around the table,” says one government official. Adds a former ministerial aide: “He's one of the least obnoxious people you will ever meet in Ottawa.”

    Does not really compute, but I guess it's to be expected: partisans like other partisans. Maybe I'm biased because partisans are the bane of my existence.

    • Damn it, never mind.
      I can't read today it would seem!

  17. - “Ray is effectively the Prime Minister's closest confidant,” enthuses one government official. “Not only as a member of his staff, but as a personal and intimate member of the Prime Minister's life.”

    - “Ray is the common sense around the table,” says one government official. Adds a former ministerial aide: “He's one of the least obnoxious people you will ever meet in Ottawa.”

    -“Ray will get it done,” says a former member of the PMO. “And he will do so with total discretion.”

    Wherry – I read your article last week and thought it was interesting. Had never heard of Novak before your column.

    But I was wondering about Maclean's, or yours, policy on granting anonymity to people to provide quotes. I can partly understand why msm protects people's identity if they have something negative to say and they might get in trouble for saying it but I think it is absurd to allow people to go off record to say Novak is the best bloke ever and that he walks on water.

  18. I was kind of gaining a respect for this fellow, until I read that he's good friends with Dimitri Soudas.

    • Even worse, found out he hangs around Harper.

  19. "Indeed, the adjectives used to describe Novak by those in and around this government are uniformly fawning: trusted, selfless, rational, efficient, smart, thoughtful, polite, patient."

    In other words, opposites attract?

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/

  20. True story: I worked on the Hill years ago – for the Liberals – and I recall walking up to Centre Block from a meeting at Wellington and Metcalfe one day. Chretien and his entourage were just arriving in their vehicles, and I spotted Ray Novak, youthful and bespectacled, standing outside as well. I caught the look on his face as he watched Chretien and other assorted PMO mucky-mucks make their way inside. It was a bit of envy mixed with determination, maybe a bit of longing. But I remembered the look of determination. When I got to my office, I mentioned this to one of my Liberal coworkers. The look on Novak's face, I told him, said that he was going to get his guy elected PM. My buddy laughed, and said it could never, ever happen. A Canadian Alliance MP as PM? Get real!

    I don't work on the hill anymore.

    • Good story.

  21. This is from the print edition. I always find Wherry's stuff that makes it into the magazine to be much less partisan and more informative than the blog stuff.

  22. thats pretty twisted logic…in your world view competency and loyalty only matters when it supports your political ideals.

  23. Harper isn't Canadian Alliance anymore however.

    • He still is a Reformer. He morphed it into the Canadian Alliance, after stabbing Manning in the back the then went after the PC brand because NO ONE save the sycophants who worship the fool, would vote for him. He stacked the PC election process in order to complete his hostile takeover of them and it’s main purpose was to get his hands on their brand because his stunk.

      Harper is neither Conservative nor conservative, not in any way, shape or form.

    • Yep, just a plain old fascist now..

  24. So basically all you're saying is you can't think for yourself.
    We need more people like you.

  25. Saw Chretien with his hand around the throat of Justin Trudeau.

    Old habits die hard!

    • Garage Trolls make good house pets.. :)

  26. Interesting that one man should have so much political influence without ever having to face the electorate.

  27. This comment was deleted.

    • Could explain why Harper’s security costs doubled one year a few years ago…

  28. So we have Ray Novak to blame for the jerk we have in the Prime Minister’s office then.

  29. well, when you look at Harper’s policies – whether it is marijuana, natives, medical marijuana, crude oil, EI – the trend is obvious: he wants to inflict more suffering onto more canadians than anyone in history, while simultaneously getting more wealth and power for himself and his cronies. and it is working. and we deserve it. he campaigned on a promise to do that. he cheated his way into power with a rigged election, and now he plans to punish everyone who was not completely loyal.

    I mean, look at the cancer caused by the oil sands. look at his new bans on marijuana (mandatory minimum jail sentences for passing a joint near a school)…. look at his decision to take away peoples’ LEGAL medical marijuana gardens. look how he treats the natives.

    he is insane. a sick and twisted punishment fetishist.

    Frankly, what it looks like Harper is doing – to me – is attempted mass murder. I think he is trying to kill as many poor people as he can, as fast as he can, with cancer, jail, and poverty. That is how it looks, anyway.

    because he isn’t stupid. we know that. and we also know that he is compulsively vindictive and manipulative and malevolent…. his FANS admit this about him and claim they admire him for it.

    So yeah….. i think that is his long game: kill lots of Canadians.

  30. Sounds creepy to me.

  31. At least Novak doesn’t need to live on top of his lovers garage anymore;
    he can step right in the bedroom now that Laureen is gone!

  32. Harper’s boy toy who lived for years in the family backyard… a lover/admin asst as CofS? ).

    BHAH HWHHHA HA HAH AHH AHAH HAHAH HHAH HAH H A HHBHH AH HAHH AHAH HA AH H AHH AHH A H AH HAH H A

  33. It’s reassuring to learn that, according to these myriad, mostly anonymous sources, Novak is endowed with such noble, honorable, and virtuous traits. I hope these admirable qualities rub off on the many Cons around him who demonstrably have none of them.

  34. ” Ray is effectively the PM’s closest confidant.” It would be reasonable to assume then that much of what we have seen form Harper in the past is, at least in part, the result of that relationship. That is hardly comforting. And a past aid to Rob Anders as well. Comfort diminishes. Lived over the garage at Stornaway for four years to be closer to his man. Comfort disappears.

  35. here goes the Alliance Party of Alberta’s spin machine.. “Novak is such a dedicated , level headed, thoughtful, wise, stabilizing, young man.” All the buttons are being pushed but little is actually known about this man, except what we’re fed. Clearly he’s joined at the hip to Harper so he can’t be too far off program can he now? I don’t buy the revisionism, hopefully no one else does.

    • Maybe joined to the hips in more ways then previously thought.

  36. As we speak, Ray is being outfitted for Lederhosen. Harper’s proteges need to dress smart if they are to work in the Conservative Short Pants Brigade.

    How does a young bimbo with no meaningful employment get to be the chief of staff of the PM of Canada?

    From garage dweller in the Harper home to Chief of Staff. That’s some promotion.

  37. I strongly suggest Ray Novak give Michael Sona a call before he signs the contract. Unless he enjoys being used and thrown in the trash.

  38. Great recommendation from Soudras, apparently the person mainly responsible for speaking to the Canadian peasants on behalf of their Leader. Does this other guy help produce the moronic talking points?

    • Soudas comments that Ray Novak is one of the “very few genuine people in politics”. He would know, considering he is marrying Eve Adams, one of the fakest people in politics.

  39. He’s an anti-communist? Who does he define as a communist? Harper’s Chinese friends? Or does he just go round feeling really angry at Cuba?

  40. I guess it always pays to have a handy ‘garage troll’… ha,ha..

  41. Harper is sleeping with him since his wife took off to hotel in Ottawa, got sick of baird? harper conservative trade secret, can’t get sued for telling half truths, one part is real, the other may or may not be real.. nothing to EVER get called into court for, too embrassing LOL

  42. Sounds like this guy needs some of the limelight he is resisting. Maybe some new information can come to light.

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