Slicing through the fog of Airbus

The man who grilled Mulroney has a history of finding the truth

090522t_wolsonThe contrasts between Brian Mulroney and Richard Wolson, the lawyer who questioned the former prime minister at the public inquiry into his dealings with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, could hardly have been starker. Mulroney was a portrait of weary, wounded dignity. Every complex, equivocal sentence he uttered threatened to lead the proceedings by a winding route to a dead end. Wolson was a study in tenacity and focus. His blunt questions came with minimal preamble, and, although courteous in a curt way, he didn’t hesitate to cut short a lugubrious Mulroney digression with an abrupt, “Stop there.”

Beyond their verbal styles, the two men’s physical presence offered striking juxtapositions, too. Mulroney, 70, sometimes looked drained. But his baritone still resonates with the rich undertones of irony and sarcasm that once made him such a riveting Parliament Hill orator. Wolson, 61, carries himself with a coiled energy. Aside from his distinctive coiffure—less a head of hair than a back-swept crest of quills—the closest he comes to a theatrical quality is when his patience runs thin and his voice upshifts from dogged to insistent.

The two men have humble roots in common. Mulroney famously rose from his upbringing as a Baie-Comeau, Que., electrician’s son, through Laval University law school, to 24 Sussex Dr., and post-politics friendships with corporate titans. Wolson grew up in Winnipeg’s hardscrabble North End. His parent split up when he was a young teenager. He says his mother, a store clerk, gave him “great guidance” but no luxuries. “We never owned a home or anything like that,” he told Maclean’s. “But there was food on the table.”

Wolson graduated from the University of Manitoba law school in 1972. His climb to prominence in Winnipeg as a defence lawyer led to four stints working on public inquiries. His hometown profile peaked when he was the lead lawyer on a 2001 inquiry into the wrongful conviction of Thomas Sophonow, who spent 45 months in jail for a murder he did not commit. Wolson’s Sophonow commission work led directly to Justice Jeffrey Oliphant, of Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench, recruiting him for his inquiry into Mulroney’s relationship with Schreiber.

Oliphant hadn’t yet been publicly named to head the commission when he called Wolson last June. When the judge told him what he was proposing, Wolson recalls being “flabbergasted and overwhelmed.” The federal commission was bound to attract far more national scrutiny than any city trial or provincial inquiry. With three senior and four junior lawyers working for him (including his daughter Sarah), Wolson spent months cramming for this spring’s hearings. At issue: were three cash payments Schreiber gave Mulroney soon after he stepped down as prime minister in 1993 and 1994 improper? “Every question, every answer,” Wolson says, “is in the spotlight.”

In fact, Wolson and Mulroney seem to share a certain distaste for the media’s unblinking stare. In a telling exchange, Wolson prefaced a question on some old newspaper articles about Mulroney’s ties with Schreiber with a rare personal aside. “You know,” he said, “I don’t have an affinity for the media myself . . .” And Mulroney broke in, “I’m sorry to hear that—I love ’em, and it’s reciprocated.” Asked about that moment, Wolson said he respects the press. But his Winnipeg law partner, Jeffery Ginin, said he suspects Wolson was expressing the typical defence lawyer’s jaded view, shaped by long frustration over superficial news accounts of complicated criminal trials.

Wolson’s trial-honed edge broke through only now and then during the inquiry hearings. He grew visibly annoyed by Mulroney’s refusal to admit that he was less than truthful back in 1996, when he told federal lawyers that his relationship with Schreiber amounted to “a couple of cups of coffee.” Mulroney insisted he didn’t mention the cash then because a pointed question about his deal with Schreiber “never came.” Wolson finally snapped that the question “never came because no one knew about it.”

He stresses, however, that his job at the inquiry is not “adversarial”—not to bring Mulroney down. “My job is to probe the issues,” he says, “to get to the truth of matters.” If he’s judged to have succeeded, then Wolson’s name will go down as more than a footnote in the history of one of Canada’s longest-running political scandals.