When Bernard Roy left the Prime Minister’s office in 1988, after four gruelling years as Brian Mulroney’s right-hand man, no one in Ottawa would have been surprised to see him land a plum appointment. Mr. Mulroney’s best friend since law school, the mild-mannered Mr. Roy had put his earning power and aversion to politics on hold to run the PMO during what turned out to be a raucous first Tory term.
Sure enough, Mr. Mulroney gave him the pick of a judgeship, an embassy in any G7 country or a seat in the Senate. Mr. Roy did not respond for weeks, and when he did, he did so by mail.
“Thank you enormously, but I am going to decline your generous offer,” Mr. Roy wrote. “In accepting your invitation to become the prime minister’s chief of staff, it was to help you and serve Canada. I did my best.”
It was only after the death of his “best friend for 53 years” that Mr. Mulroney that shared this revealing anecdote. He did so last month during a memorial service for Mr. Roy, who died on March 13, five days after his 73rd birthday. The cause of death was severe multiple myeloma, or cancer of the plasma cells.
Though almost anyone else with such a choice would have immediately been on a plane for Washington or Paris, Mr. Roy preferred to resume the simpler life he had left behind in 1983, returning to the Montreal firm of Ogilvy Renault (now Norton Rose), where he and Mr. Mulroney had begun as young lawyers almost two decades earlier. Though he would later become a director of some of Montreal’s most important charities and corporations, and take a star turn as the lead counsel for the Gomery inquiry, Mr. Roy’s life and career were defined by his relationship with Canada’s 18th prime minister.
Polar opposites in almost every way, Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Roy formed an Odd Couple from the moment they struck up a friendship at Laval University’s law school in the early 1960s. One was straight-laced and fastidious; the other garrulous and freewheeling. But together, they engineered the Tory comeback that handed Mr. Mulroney 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats in the 1984 election.
In the PMO, Mr. Roy played a pivotal role in the negotiation of the 1987 Meech Lake constitutional accord and in helping to elect another Laval classmate, Lucien Bouchard, to the House of Commons in a 1988 by-election. Both events were fleeting political triumphs that planted the seeds of Tory demise. Instead of souring their friendship, their bitter legacy only drew Mr. Roy and Mr. Mulroney closer.
“He was a friend for all seasons,” Mr. Mulroney said in his eulogy at Saint-Léon de Westmount Roman Catholic Church. “He stood with his friends when times were good and was steadfast and true when times were not.”
Bernard André Roy was born in Quebec City on March 8, 1940, the youngest of hardware merchant Joseph Roy and his wife Kathleen Coote’s three sons. A decade separated Bernard from his older brothers, earning him favoured treatment from his fawning parents. Bernard learned some English from his mother, who had Irish lineage but he became fluently bilingual by working as a Quebec City tour guide in summer.
Though his maternal great uncle, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, had been Quebec’s long-serving Liberal premier until 1936, Bernard grew up middle-class and apolitical. Like his brothers, who played junior league hockey in Quebec and Ontario, his true passion was sports. A natural athlete, he continued to play garage league hockey and don in-line skates well into his 60s.
At Laval, Mr. Roy became the part of the Mulroney clique that included Mr. Bouchard, Michel Cogger, Peter White, Michael Meighen and Jean Bazin, all of whom would remain part of Mr. Mulroney’s inner circle before and during his time at 24 Sussex. Mr. Roy was the outlier among his rowdier friends, lecturing them to buckle down and study because, as he saw it, none had a future in politics.
When it came time to prepare for the Quebec bar exams, Mr. Roy and Mr. Mulroney holed up in the Roy family cottage north of Quebec City. Mr. Roy berated his friend for his poor dishwashing and bed-making skills. But before long, Mr. Mulroney had gotten with the Roy regimen. When both men got their first jobs at Ogilvy Renault, they shared an apartment in Montreal until Mr. Mulroney married 19-year-old Mila Pivnicki in 1973. Mr. Roy served as best man at their wedding.
A decade later, as Mr. Mulroney made his second run at the Progressive Conservative leadership, Mr. Roy joined the fight out of loyalty. He expected his political involvement to last no longer than the 1984 election. But having watched Mr. Roy masterfully execute the Tory campaign in Quebec, Mr. Mulroney asked him to join him in Ottawa as the prime minister’s principal secretary and chief of staff. Mr. Roy immediately said no, prompting Mr. Mulroney to pay a personal visit to Mr. Roy’s mother – by then in a Quebec City nursing home – to get her to persuade her son to change his mind.
With comparatively little political experience and no background in government, Mr. Roy endured a baptism by fire in Ottawa. Disgruntled English-Canadian members of the massive Tory caucus resented the chief of staff’s Quebec-centrism.
As the Mulroney government was beset by one scandal after another, media reports cast doubt on Mr. Roy’s own integrity. Like his boss, Mr. Roy made the mistake of reading everything written about him and the Mulroney government. It wore him down and took a toll on his family life, eventually leading to his divorce from his first wife, Madeleine Marien.
When a Quebec businessman later used a rare legal procedure to have fraud charges laid against Mr. Roy, Mr. Mulroney wrote in his diary: “If Bernard ever did anything wrong, let alone ‘criminal’ in his entire life, I’ll jump tomorrow from the CN Tower.” The charges against Mr. Roy were soon dropped.
In early 1987, Mr. Roy ceded his chief of staff title to Derek Burney, a career diplomat who immediately imposed strict discipline on the unruly PMO. Mr. Roy remained as principal secretary and shifted his focus to Mr. Mulroney’s risky gambit to have Quebec sign the 1982 Constitution. The effort culminated in the Meech Lake Accord, unanimously agreed to by all premiers, granting Quebec constitutional recognition as a ‘distinct society’ within Canada.
“Watching those premiers, against all expectations, putting aside their own interests to help bring Quebec into the Constitution was an experience that marked me,” Mr. Roy told The Globe and Mail in 1988.
Three days after helping secure Mr. Bouchard’s come-from-behind victory in a Quebec by-election in 1988, Mr. Roy announced his resignation. “A good and decent man will be leaving Ottawa shortly,” Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote at the time, “his integrity intact, his head held high, but his psyche suffering from some of the indignities of public life.”
By 1990, the high notes of Mr. Roy’s PMO stint had come back to haunt him and Mr. Mulroney. Meech died in June after the Newfoundland legislature failed to ratify it in time. By then, Mr. Bouchard had already quit the Tories, and severed his friendship with his former Laval chums over what he considered an attempt to water down Meech’s provisions. Mr. Bouchard would soon be leading the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois that helped lead to the Tories’ decimation in the 1993 election.
After leaving Ottawa, Mr. Roy occasionally took on high-profile assignments, including serving as Ottawa’s lead negotiator during the 1990 Oka crisis and as lead counsel to 1996 Poitras commission investigating corruption within the Quebec provincial police force.
His highly praised performance at the Poitras hearings led Mr. Justice John Gomery to hire Mr. Roy as lead counsel for his 2005 inquiry into an alleged Liberal kickback scheme tied to advertising contracts awarded by Jean Chrétien’s government. The appointment raised eyebrows, given Mr. Roy’s relationship to Mr. Mulroney. Both men worked at the same law firm, as did Mr. Gomery’s daughter.
In 2010, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that the inquiry showed a “reasonable apprehension of bias” to Mr. Chrétien and set aside Judge Gomery’s findings of blame toward the former Liberal prime minister. However, the judge in the case also ruled that “professional career and the political allegiances of Mr. Roy are of no use in the analysis of Commissioner Gomery’s conduct.”
Mr. Roy is survived by his second wife, Marianne Ignacz, also a partner at Norton Rose, his son Philippe Roy and his brother Claude Roy, a Montreal doctor.