Beryl Wajsman is many things to many people: well-connected gadfly, perpetually angry newspaper columnist, silver-tongued orator with a weakness for Robert Kennedy quotations. To the Liberal Party of Canada, he was persona non grata, one of 10 people “banned for life” by former prime minister Paul Martin for being linked to the sponsorship scandal. It may seem strange, then, that Wajsman is once again in the party, as an organizer charged with bringing a variety of social groups and unions back into the Liberal fold. He has even consulted on policy issues and speechwriting for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
“He’s an influential guy, and has been very helpful in re-cementing some of those old ties, within the Montreal Jewish community but also with labour and community leaders,” said a senior Ignatieff strategist for Quebec. “He is one of many organizers and opinion influencers who Michael has successfully wooed back and is helping get it back together.”
Wajsman’s tenure as a party organizer came to an abrupt end in 2005, following the testimony of the disgraced president of ad firm Groupaction, Jean Brault, at the Gomery commission. Wajsman, Brault alleged, was present at a lunch where he left an envelope stuffed with $5,000 in cash for Liberal fundraiser Joe Morselli.
Wajsman vigorously denied any involvement, and was never charged with wrongdoing. Nevertheless, then-Liberal Quebec lieutenant Jean Lapierre, at Martin’s behest, removed Wajsman, along with nine others, from the party. What this actually means, however, is a matter of debate—particularly since Wajsman wasn’t (and isn’t) a member of the Liberal party. Until December 2006, when it was amended, the party’s constitution didn’t even allow for such bans.
Liberal spokesperson Dan Lauzon said he couldn’t comment on the status of the banned members, including Morselli and former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano. “It was political payback,” Wajsman says now. “I was tagged because I opposed Martin and Lapierre, or because I made fun of the Gomery commission, or because I defended Joe Morselli so much. Take your pick.”
The party’s Quebec wing, which suffered the most fallout from the sponsorship scandal, concurs. The Liberals were badly beaten in Quebec in the last election in part because of the continued infighting between the entrenched Chrétien and Martin camps. “I think I was the only one who wasn’t speaking to the press,” says board member Brigitte Garceau of the many embarrassing leaks during and after Stéphane Dion’s campaign.
All things considered, Ignatieff is off to a good start in the province. He has polled well and is popular among its Liberal MPs, thanks largely to his 2006 motion recognizing Quebec as a nation. Yet his supporters concede the party is still divided. “It’s fragile, and it’s still a work in progress,” said the senior Ignatieff source, of the truce between the Chrétien and Martin camps. Bringing back people like Wajsman serves its purpose.
Wajsman, whose world view teeters from the cynical to the outright misanthropic, is positively effusive about Ignatieff. Calling him “the most independent Liberal leader in the last 20 years,” Wajsman believes Ignatieff “can restore the Liberal party to small ‘L’ liberalism, put an end to tribalism and bring a new national vision for the country.”
But he still bumps up against old ghosts. Lapierre himself was at Montreal’s city hall in January while Wajsman was accepting the Martin Luther King Legacy Award for community service work. Wajsman saw him, cursed and proceeded with his acceptance speech. Lapierre sat and listened, clapped politely and quickly left the room before the applause was over.