Wearing a navy pinstripe suit, a blue check shirt, and a vibrant yellow and lime-green striped tie, Rahim Jaffer cut a dapper figure in a courtroom in Orangeville, Ont., a sleepy town of 27,000 northwest of Toronto. The former politician, his hair gelled neatly in place, sat near the back of the gallery on the morning of March 9 while the court dealt with its quotidian diet of scandal: a domestic dispute, a 17-year-old arrested for marijuana possession, a woman caught skimming from her employer. For his part, Jaffer, 38, looked confident. With good reason.
Jaffer would shortly plead guilty to a charge of careless driving, and promise to pay a fine of $500; the court was told he had already made a charitable donation of an equivalent amount. As part of the plea deal, the Crown had agreed to drop two more serious charges against Jaffer—drunk driving and possession of cocaine—but did not offer much in the way of explanation. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2009, Jaffer had been pulled over by police for speeding through the village of Palgrave. The OPP officer detaining him was said to have smelled alcohol on his breath; the ex-politician was reported by the OPP to have failed multiple breathalyzer tests, and when he was arrested and searched, an unspecified quantity of cocaine was allegedly found “on his person.” Nonetheless, there were “significant legal issues” surrounding those charges, Crown attorney Marie Balogh told the court, and she foresaw no reasonable chance of conviction. She refused to answer questions from reporters after the trial. Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the attorney general of Ontario, stated later that “there were issues related to the evidence that led the Crown to determine that the most appropriate way to proceed was with the plea resolution.”
Justice Douglas Maund wrapped up the proceedings, telling the accused: “I’m sure you can recognize a break when you see one.” Outside the courthouse, Jaffer did not respond to the judge’s remark or to any questions about the dropped charges. “I know that I should have been more careful,” he said. “I once again apologize for that and I take full responsibility for my careless driving. And that’s really all I have to say this morning.”
His lawyer also refused to say why the Crown agreed not to proceed with the drunk driving and cocaine possession charges. “I think it’s very important to note that there has never been an allegation that Mr. Jaffer was driving while impaired or while driving under the influence of any substance, alcohol or otherwise,” said Howard Rubel—although a criminal charge would seem to qualify, practically by definition, as an allegation. “Second, the charges—driving over the legal limit and possession of any illegal substance—has always been refuted and I think the withdrawal of those charges vindicates that refutation today.” Jaffer then climbed into a waiting SUV and sped off.
Back in Ottawa, Liberal MP Anita Neville boldly flung questions in the House of Commons about why a tough-on-crime Conservative government had so little to say about “a $500 slap on the wrist” for “one of their own.” It was the same Anita Neville who had been in the papers on Feb. 26 calling for the resignation of Jaffer’s wife, federal Minister of State for the Status of Women Helena Guergis. So goes the bizarre drama in which the parallel troubles of the most attractive couple in Canadian politics—a pair for whom, not so long ago, the sky must have seemed the limit—have suddenly culminated. It’s a Shakespearean drama, with immaturity as the protagonists’ shared tragic flaw.
On Feb. 19, Guergis, according to an anonymous account provided to Liberal MP Wayne Easter, had thrown a spectacular tantrum in the Charlottetown airport. Arriving five minutes before flight time with aide Emily Goucher, Guergis is said to have berated a staffer who told the pair their carry-ons were too large, warning him that she “knew [P.E.I. transportation minister] Ron MacKinley.” While preparing to pass through the metal detector, Guergis initially refused to remove her boots, but was obliged to do so when the metal in them tripped the alarm. Slamming the footwear into a bin, she barked “Happy fucking birthday to me! I guess I’m stuck in this hellhole!” (Feb. 19 was the minister’s 41st birthday.) If the anonymous letter is true—Guergis later apologized for her behaviour and admitted to having spoken “emotionally” to Air Canada employees—the minister proceeded to try forcing her way through a locked door onto the tarmac, and on being told that she would have to wait, began “screaming and hammering” at the window in an effort to get the attention of airside staff.
The Guergis story almost seems designed to express every loathsome quality one associates with politicians: feelings of grandeur and entitlement, contempt for the “little people,” do-you-know-who-I-am posturing, impatience with the delays that the authorities impose on civilians as a matter of course. Yet in assessing the fate of a political couple sometimes called “golden” before their troubles, one notices that Guergis’s apology and her tacit acceptance of the facts on record at least served to put an end to the story—if not the teasing. The clock has been started on the process of forgiving and forgetting.
It is less clear that this is true for Rahim Jaffer. Exonerated legally from every sin but “careless driving,” he refuses to provide an alternative account of the events of Sept. 11. His decision to treat the matter as closed and to avoid the outstanding questions would seem to make a political comeback nearly unthinkable for a man who, during the Canadian Alliance leadership contest of 2002, was deputy leader of Canada’s official Opposition and brieﬂy led it in the House of Commons.