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With Friends Like Harper: how Nigel Wright went from golden boy to fall guy

The corporate insider Nigel Wright engineered Stephen Harper’s rise to prime minister and became his closest confidant. As chief of staff, he acted as a conduit between Bay Street and the PMO—until Harper thought he could make the Senate scandal go away by cutting Wright loose

With Friends Like Harper: how Nigel Wright went from golden boy to fall guy

For well over a century, the Albany Club, a four-storey neoclassical building on King East, has served as Canada’s bastion of big-C conservatism. It’s the place where Toronto’s business crowd hobnobs with provincial and federal Tory leaders over scotch and canapés. The most anticipated event on the Albany’s social calendar is its annual Sir John A. Macdonald dinner, a black-tie affair in which several hundred of the party faithful gather to hear a candid address delivered by a prominent conservative. Past speakers have included Bill Davis, Jim Flaherty and John Baird.

This year’s event took place on a chilly evening in mid-January. The honoured guest was the employment minister, Jason Kenney, who gave a speech about Conservatism in Canada that included a spirited defence of Bay Street’s own Nigel Wright—a respected ­corporate player who, eight months earlier, had stepped down from his role as Stephen Harper’s chief of staff. Sometimes people try to do the right thing in politics, Kenney said, and it doesn’t work out the way it should. His words brought the crowd to their feet amid thunderous applause, hooting and whistling.

Wright, of course, resigned after it was revealed that he’d written a $90,000 personal cheque to Mike Duffy, to cover the senator’s inappropriate expense claims. The deed appeared, on its face, harmless enough: Wright wanted taxpayers reimbursed, and Duffy didn’t have the money to do it. At first, Harper seemed to see it that way, too. But over the following six months, he distanced himself from Wright, ultimately portraying his former right-hand man as a deceitful plotter whom he’d in fact dismissed. Kenney, who is rumoured to have his eye on the prime minister’s job, was the first MP to break ranks with his boss. Referring to Wright, he told the media, “As far as I can tell, this was an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment.”

Wright has toiled tirelessly in the backrooms of the ­Conservative party machine for 30 years. He was one of ­Harper’s biggest supporters and an unofficial advisor since the late 1990s. They were close friends who respected and trusted each other. And then Wright was thrown under the bus.

On Bay Street, Wright’s friends are legion. The list includes some of the biggest names in Canadian business—Gerald Schwartz, Peter and Anthony Munk, the Jackmans—as well as many lesser-known but no less influential corporate leaders and political organizers. Harper’s treatment of Wright—and his inept handling of the entire ordeal—has forced many of them to re-evaluate the prime minister. Not only has the crisis challenged their perception of his political infallibility, but it has made them question his judgment. As one senior Conservative said to me, “If this is going to be a contest in terms of who Bay Street values more, I don’t like Harper’s odds.”

To the public, the Senate scandal is a baffling, sometimes comical tale of greedy, hyper-partisan politicians and of backroom hacks trying desperately to protect them. But to corporate and political insiders, it’s a story of personal betrayal—and a rift that has divided the Conservative party at the highest levels.

  • 00AV

    The fish rots from the head, however from the details provided in this story it smells like the entire CPC’s body is rancid

  • Pingston

    A story well-written, but short on proofreading for facts and suffering from innuendo and implications not supported by evidence. I met Nigel Wright once, decades ago, and met Long and others mentioned more often. Some of their interplay and inter-connections has been mischaracterized. Wright wasn’t the only one doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the 2000 to 2004 period. Long’s anti-Clarkism dated to the 1976 convention that elected Clark. You missed Long’s service as President of the PC Party of Ontario. And the big role of another Ontario PC President in bridging the east and west, one who sits in Parliament today. You ignore fact Gerstein was head of the PC Canada Fund before the merger and was recognized for keeping that party afloat, financially, following 1993. There were donation rules before AdScam — the Liberals just ignored them.

    In the end, the guilt is Duffy’s, not Wright’s. Wright simply wanted it to all go away after he said it would. Gerstein saw limits to the fund’s generosity, covering up fraudulent behaviour wasn’t included. Wright’s charges may even be dropped, but he won’t be found guilty of anything. Duffy should take up residence in the crowbar motel for more reasons than he will be charged for. His immorality has been laid bare. His deceptions more and more clear.

  • I_reckon

    If conservatives don’t like it they should take measures to bring down Harper. The man is poison for the party or the country.

  • Douglas Connors

    Oh come now.

    Wright is a lawyer.

    Wright worked at Onex Corp., so he was clearly no stranger to the concept of audits.

    And we keep being told that he is a super-bright man.

    There is no universe in which a super-bring person, with a law degree, and a business background can make the “mistake” of allegedly paying a sitting legislator to NOT cooperate with an audit.

    This was a deliberate decision.

    Now either he was forced into it.. or either this was SOP procedure for Wright (and somebody should be looking into his past business affairs to see if he’s played a role in affecting audits in the business world, too).

    Either way, the Canadian voting public and the Canadian business community deserves to know: Are Wright, Harper & Gerstein above board, or are they walking-talking frauds?

    And if the latter, then the book should be thrown at them for betraying public trust and they should be banned from life from public office or any board position.

  • Douglas Connors

    One has to start to wonder if organized crime laws can apply to political parties…

  • Paul Bronfman



  • Paul Bronfman

    from comment board:
    Delusional May 18, 2013 – This article tries to make out Nigel as some
    high-achieving, polymath, intellectual, solver of problems superman or

    Nigel is nothing of sorts. He is appointed by Gerry to keep an eye on the

    I wish people would stop giving politicians so much credit. I have met enough to realize there is not much
    going on between the ears.

    As for Duffy and Wallin (and Peter Kent), they were
    newsreaders. Meaning readers of script.

    Stop giving all these people so much credit. As Winston Churchill would say, look in the

    The use of shadowy business sector personages is nothing
    more than classic Chicago School of Economics theories as perpetrated by Milton


  • Paul Bronfman

    STRANGE that in five pages there is no mention of Nigel
    Wright’s involvement in the F-35 deal.

    Wright became Harper’s chief of staff one month after he
    stepped down as director of Onex, the partner company of Lockheed Martin, the
    company given the untendered contract for the F-35s. Until Wright became chief
    of staff he was a lobbyist for the F-35s.

    So he won’t leave the PM’s side until the scandal has passed
    from Canadians’ attention and the deal is done.–wright-s-business-ties-make-him-wrong-man-for-pmo-critics-say

  • Paul Bronfman

    The Bay Street
    “Wonder Boy” Nigel Wright DOES NOT GIVE AWAY HIS OWN MONEY! Not a single dime came out of Wright’s

    It would be a simple matter of Nigel Wright INVOICING the “Conservative
    Fund of Canada” account (the Conservative Party’s – taxpayer-subsidized war
    chest – multiple times for some phoney “Financial Consultant Fees” to
    accrue back the $90K. CPC treates that
    Fund’s coffer as their private “Honey Pot.”

    OR, had the media called out Con Senator Irving Gerstein,
    they would have found it was HE who arranged for cash-under-the-table from rich
    party backers which found its way into Wright’s bank account as Gerstein could
    not hide the $90K on the CFC books.

    Are there any conversations between Conservative Senator
    Irving Gerstein (Harper’s bagman) and the PMO about Nigel getting paid back
    from the “Conservative Fund of Canada” — the federal party’s war chest Gerstein
    once chaired.

    any talks between Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein &
    PMO re Nigel getting paid back frm the “Conservative Fund of Canada”

  • Bob K

    I wonder, if and when the time comes, Wright’s loyalty to the party will be so deep that he takes the fall and accepts all the blame, or whether he’ll take his revenge. I suspect it will be the former, which is a shame. He’s clearly a man of considerable integrity and has been unfairly treated.

  • Swatty Wotherspoon

    A well written article giving one insight to what transpired in the senate scandal as regards Duffy and of key players Wright & Harper. To me it shows Wright as a deeply committed conservative, selflessly giving of his time & effort at a much reduced salary to create a better Canada. It shows him as a highly principled man of integrity who was willing to give of his own money to repay the public purse. I agree with the author “if Harper had continued to back Wright… that while Wright had made a mistake it was uncharacteristic of him and Harper accept responsibility, much of the scandal might have blown over.” Harper’s subsequent comments about Wright “made hm feel a sense of anger, betrayal, disappointment and deception” speaks more to Harper’s character then Wright’s. Because of Harper’s mishandling of this senate scandal we lost two great public servants, Nigel Wright & Hugh Segal, such a great shame.

  • ofoab

    Sorry Virginia , integrity and friends in Li’l steves world are pawns to be sacrificed . Openess and accountabilty is just double-speak , spun by the PMO and MP’s bird-cage liners . To be the fly on the wall in li’l steves office, please note the hazards of wing loss .

  • Rose Lawson Steinmeier

    My only dissent with this comment would be about Nigel’s willingness to repay. I think it has much more to do with his loyalty and commitment to the Conservatives, then his principled stand for doing the right thing by Canadians which you imply.

  • Bart

    “Well it’s not gonna be me, Nigel!” said PM Harper as he and Jenny Byrne shoved Mr. Wright under the bus. BTW, why does PM Harper enjoy the company of so many single men? Pierre Poilievre? Ray Novak? John Baird? Nigel Wright? Jason Kenney?

  • Allan Sorensen

    I haven’t read this article yet, but do I really need to?
    Right now I’m listening to Mike Bullard reviewing this article.
    His podcast is here

    He thinks Nigel is a “stellar guy”.
    So what am I missing?

    But I want to make one point about Mr. Nigel Wright.

    He solves problems?

    Let’s imagine that you and Nigel both work in the PM’s office, and you both have the same jobs.
    How do you compete with this guy when he can dip into a vast bank account to make problems go away?
    Like he did with Duffy.

    That’s “cheating”, in the problem solving department, in my view.

    Give all of Nigel Wright’s money to me – and watch how many problems that I can make disappear.

    Then Bullard will call me as “stellar” guy too.

    P.S. Mike also offers his opinion of Toronto Life magazine.

  • T. W.

    If Wright was so ethical, why would he hitch his star to such a mean spirited, relentlessly hyper partisan man like Harper?
    Brilliance of mind does not automatically translate to brilliance of soul, and Harper is infamous for cold blooded ruthlessness and throwing loyalists under the bus when it became politically expedient and without a backward glance. Wright obviously knew who he was working with, and would’ve known certain CPC policies – such as building more prisons to reduce crime – was lunacy.
    But he was happy to be on top making the decisions and never thought it would happen to him. So long as it didn’t effect him, what did he care?
    Well sorry Nigel you deserved all this blowback, you’re obviously very smart and driven and we need people like that in government, but I have zero sympathy for you. You sold your soul in my opinion.