“Fin des voies rapides,” a street sign said beside the Autoroute Robert-Cliche south of Quebec City on the way to Saint-Georges de Beauce. End of the fast lane.
Boy, ain’t that the truth. Maxime Bernier may yet have a brilliant political future ahead of him — Jean Charest got fired from cabinet once too, everyone hits a speed bump now and then — but after the whole I-forgot-my-briefing-book-at-the-biker-black-widow-who-had-been-trolling-for-real-estate-contracts’-house thing, there are no more fast lanes for Bernier. From now on, the comeback trail is going to be a milk run.
Tonight it stops at the Hôtel-Centre-de-Congrès-Centre-détente-santé Le Georgesville, across the street from the city hall of Saint-Georges de Beauce. “Maxime Bernier Parlera aux Beaucerons,” posters all over town have said for two weeks. “A snack will be served,” a note at the bottom of the posters adds helpfully.
“What’s the celebration here?” an American at the checkin desk asked (Maine is only 50 km south of here). “It’s the Minister Bernier”s conference,” the clerk replied gamely. “The what conference?” “The minister Bernier. The minister of national defence. Well, he was a minister.” Indeed, although not of that. “Oh,” the hotel guest replied, mystified and unconcerned.
That makes one of him. The locals are already rolling in, including Bernier’s father, the former Tory minister, independent MP, and Chrétien-appointed ambassador Gilles Bernier. In the Beauce-Centre ballroom on the main floor, snacks are indeed ready. Potato chips, two flavours, plus pretzels, on each of 15 tables adorned with white tablecloths. I have tested the BBQ chips. They’re definitely up to snuff. ”
Just yesterday I was gathering new intelligence about Bernier in Ottawa. The danger for him is not his shaky taste in Rideau Hall dates, it is that when things went sideways the buzz on him very quickly shifted from rising-star-laid-low to he-was-overrated-anyway. “You were generous,” somebody who used to work with Bernier on Industry files said to me, referring to my Bernier cover profile of a few issues back.
Bernier brought a kind of kindergarten enthusiasm to his born-again libertarian shtick, this person said. He refused to wear seatbelts and would arrive in Ottawa from a weekend in the riding clutching a handful of speeding tickets, having adjudged the traffic police the illegitimate cutting edge of the jackboot state. He was traumatized to learn his portfolio made him responsible for Statistics Canada, which, as he saw it, asks nosy questions and uses the answers to design nosy programs like speed limits and seatbelt laws.
But here in the Beauce he’s a star, baby. The lady from CTV told me she stopped at a local shop to ask about tonight’s festivities and the clerk there said, “Yes, I’ll be there. M. Bernier telephoned to ask me to attend.” In person? “Yes, it was M. Bernier calling.”
“Have you seen the event room?” The lady from CTV asked. I hadn’t. “It’s very…Beauce.” That turns out to mean blue spotlights which can rotate, and probably will at strategic moments, to give the room a Disco Night ambience. At the front of the room, a podium with Quebec and Canadian flags. On the tables, yummy chips. Cash bar.
Gilles Bernier scrummed a few minutes ago. My son will come back, he said.
For now there is only milling.
Milling and scrumming. “He’s an excellent minister for Quebec,” a man whose top shirt buttons are open to reveal an astrological-themed chest tattoo tells a Radio-Canada reporter.
“But he’s not a minister any more,” she corrects him.
“He will be again one day,” Star-Chest Man insists.
The school buses have started arriving. From Ste Marie, a few kilometres up the road, apparently.
Downstairs the Relaxarium spa (“An Incomparable Sensory Experience”) is getting no extra business from the crowd. Neither is the Point-Virgule resto-lounge (“Quite Simply…Different”), which advertises happy hour with a picture of a smiling waitress pouring an absolutely honking shot of rum.
The ballroom has a capacity of 500 and with not quite a half hour to go before… whatever’s going to happen… happens, it’s quite full. So am I. Too many chips.
Ladies and gentlemen, I can announce the end of In-and-Out. No, not the Conservative campaign-finance shuttling scheme, which is perfectly legitimate and the Liberals did it too and what’s Elections Canada’s problem? No, I mean I have stopped moving in and out of the Beauce-Centre ballroom, as I am afraid the fire department might ban further entry soon. So I’m squatting my place. In principle, Max Bernier will show up in 10 minutes. But can a man who refuses to be bound by seatbelts, speed limits and the standard protocols of briefing-book management allow himself to be enslaved to mere clocks? I think you know the answer to that.
Steven Blainey is here. The excitement is almost unbearable.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon, president of the Conseil du Patronat du Québec, is here to warm up the crowd. He calls Bernier “one of the best, if not the best Industry Ministers of the last 30 years,” quoting the same chapter of How Ottawa Spends that everyone quotes when they say so. “I love Beaucerons,” Kelly-Gagnon says. “And that’s not cheap flattery.”
ITQ’s Kady wants to know if it’s as blue here as it is on TV, because on TV “it’s throbbingly blue.” No, no, I’d say it’s not that blue. It’s more soothingly blue.
The evening’s emcee, whose name escapes but in whose mouth butter would surely not melt, notes the presence of several federal and provincial politicians, without naming them. Emcee guy says Maxime will be replying to “a certain sensationalist press which prefers rumour to fact,” which tickles me because the paper that’s led the coverage of this affair for the last two months is that noted rag Le Devoir.
Bernier arrives, to the strains of tromb one-heavy fight-night disco music. The blue lights are — I called it!!! — rotating. The applause is not, I must say, passionate.
Bernier is taking some time to get to the stage, so they’ve started the Trombone Fight Night theme song from the start again.
He’s tanned and, you will be shocked to hear, in blue.
“This is a night I’ve waited for with impatience,” he says. “I’ve lived through difficult times.”
“We’re here with you,” a guy shouts.
Bernier seems genuinely emotional. His voice not quite catching as he says many many thanks.
“I thought, as you know, it would be good to withdraw for some time to …reflect on my future.”
But…”Today my engagement to the people of the Beauce still has all its meaning.”
He wants to defend Beauceron values in Ottawa: “Freedom, the spirit of enterprise…integrity.” Not only Beauceron values, “but universal values.”
“My personal responsibility in this affair, I bear it entirely.”
He quotes from his resignation letter on the circumstances of the briefing book leave-behind.
“I can respond to certain” questions, he says. “But I will always refuse to put my private life before the public.”
Did “Mme Couillard” tell him about her former biker associates? “No.” He only heard “rumours” about her past on April 28, a few weeks before they became public, “and at that point I was no longer seeing her.”
The missing briefing books were indeed NATO Bucarest preppers. Not numbered and logged, because not important enough, so their disappearance wasn’t noticed. He had no memory of leaving them behind.
The only time he was in her home with the books was April 4.
He told all of this to DFAIT investigators last Monday “and by the way, the results of their investigation will be made public.” Sorry, Wajid Khan.
He says sorry to his family, his voice again thickening with emotion. But at every point he kept his integrity, he says.
Resumé-reciting: he was great in Industry, great at Foreign Affairs (he spends more time on this, sensitive no doubt to accusations that his second portfolio was his weaker one).
What do Beaucerons do when dealt a setback? “We roll up our sleeves, and we get back to work.”
He can’t promise he’ll be perfect. “But I believe I’ve learned enough from this to become a better person.”
Together we’ll all be more prosperous. Thank you very much. And he’s off, to the sound of Trombone Fight Theme and the glare of rotating blue disco lights.
A voice warns everyone not to leave. They’re serving the snacks! Hot snacks, on trays, largely of the pastry-pocket variety. How could I ever have doubted it?
Well, that’s probably my cue to call it a night. I’m heading back toward Ottawa… may file an update later. Wasn’t this fun?