Someone had defaced his Brian Mulroney poster, so Rusty Baird was out the door. An ardent Tory at 17, he knew that he’d bug people by putting it up in Mike Lajoie’s civics class, but he wasn’t going to have the prime minister treated this way. So off he went, smiling, to fetch a replacement.
There were giggles as he left, but not from the teacher, a classmate recalls: “Mr. Lajoie turned around to all of us and said, ‘Just you watch: That kid’s going to be a cabinet minister one day.’
“And we all laughed.”
In much the same way, many people smirked, or scratched their heads, almost a quarter-century later when John Baird was appointed Canada’s fifth foreign-affairs minister in as many years.
Was this not the partisan hit man so often seen scowling and pointing an accusing finger at the opposition as he delivered some scathing blast in the House of Commons?
True, the Prime Minister had turned to him time and again to act as his fixer, but now he was being handed a high-profile portfolio, as the face of Canada abroad, just at the moment that Stephen Harper’s government, finally armed with a parliamentary majority, was preparing to shed its fixation on domestic affairs.
Mr. Harper wanted to focus on charting Canada’s course through a world of economic turmoil and rapidly shifting power; the country needed someone with serious diplomatic chops. Then still a week away from turning 42 and a scrapper described by one foe as “a master of the conflict machine,” Mr. Baird seemed like no one’s first choice as a diplomat or a statesman.
Yet there are growing signs that he may pull it off. He has combined assertiveness and brash charm to begin making a mark.
His critics argue that it’s the wrong mark – one ambassador insists diplomats were quietly laughing as Mr. Baird addressed the United Nations last fall.
And he is still accused of grandstanding – an impression that he challenges. “I don’t seek out publicity – I really don’t,” he insists during a wide-ranging interview in his office at the Foreign Affairs department’s Ottawa headquarters.
“At heart, I think I’m a problem-solver ... I like to make things happen.”
Those who know him well say that he’s not the man people see on TV. They contend that the real John Baird, a workaholic with self-assurance and a shrewd ability to be effective, has been lost behind his political persona, and a little typecasting.
They also say that, in many ways, he has been preparing for an opportunity like this all his life.
After 15 months on the job, it appears that his penchant for bold steps and embracing strong leaders, his confidence in his own political compass, and the willingness he has displayed ever since high school to shrug off ridicule rather than abandon the task at hand make him the dynamic foreign minister Mr. Harper has long lacked.
And now, as he makes his first foray into one of the great conflicts of the day, travelling to Jordan to visit refugees fleeing the turmoil in Syria, Canadians have good reason to pay close attention to Mr. Baird.
The man long labelled a pitbull is changing dramatically the way his job is done and, in the process, his nation’s place in the world.
The young recruit: He caught the political bug at 14
Mr. Baird’s passion for politics wasn’t born in Mr. Lajoie’s class. Three years earlier, as one of the more heavily contested nomination battles in local memory drew to a close, Rusty could be seen in the middle of the action at the Ottawa Civic Centre. It was 3 a.m. He was 14 years old.
His family wasn’t really political, although a great uncle had once been an MP. His father, an Ottawa city employee, and mother, a real-estate agent, were divorced, but Mr. Baird had what he calls a “pretty average, middle-class” upbringing in suburban Nepean.
He’d caught the political bug in middle school from an energetic and active teacher. Kay Stanley was the sister of longtime Conservative insider Marjorie LeBreton and president of a teachers federation as well as the women’s commission of the Progressive Conservative Party. Her status gave her a perk, a telephone in her classroom. And when it rang, one student’s ears perked up – especially when the caller was the party’s leader. “John was like a radar beam – ‘She’s talking to Joe Clark,’” Ms. Stanley recalls. “After class, he just started quizzing me about things I was involved in.”
In the spring of 1984, with Mr. Mulroney now leading the Tories and poised to take power, Ms. Stanley ran for nomination in a race so heated that thousands of party faithful came out to vote. She lost on the last ballot and recalls that “down on the floor, with a Kay Stanley sign, was John Baird, who was up to his ears in my campaign.”