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Expelled from the Tory caucus, Helena Guergis campaigns as an independent in her Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey on April 7 2011. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Expelled from the Tory caucus, Helena Guergis campaigns as an independent in her Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey on April 7 2011. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Profile

Helena Guergis running with redemption on her mind Add to ...

She is a one-time Miss Huronia, a local girl made good in federal politics for whom things turned unthinkably bad. She's been labelled a diva, a fraud and a lightweight, kicked out of political caucus, stripped of her party designation and forced to fend off unspecified allegations.

Now Independent candidate Helena Guergis faced the microphones of media outlets in Collingwood, Ont., intent on redemption.

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She revealed the fruits of an access-to-information request she'd filed last year, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper ejected the former Minister of State for the Status of Women from cabinet and the Conservative caucus based on knowledge of "serious allegations" against her. The RCMP sent her a reply on March 21 - but Ms. Guergis waited until Friday, in the middle of her re-election campaign, to go public with it.

She confirmed what media reportage had already laid bare: that Mr. Harper canned her after Arthur Hamilton, a Conservative Party lawyer, passed along information reported by private investigator Derrick Snowdy, alleging that Ms. Guergis and her husband, ex-Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, had been involved in fraud, extortion and prostitution. But there was no supporting evidence, she said.

"The details of this report are extremely disturbing," Ms. Guergis said. "It has demonstrated that there was a concerted effort to perpetrate lies and smear my good name."

She was tearful. She took questions. She paraded out her three-month-old son.

By some accounts, Ms. Guergis is losing support in the race for Simcoe-Grey. Would her appearance win support for the local woman who says she was betrayed by the head of government himself? Or would residents view it as a desperate attempt to turn the political tide, and seize the chance to move on from an MP who has brought negative attention to their quiet riding?

In a race that is critical for Mr. Harper - both to save face and because he can't afford to lose a Tory riding if he hopes to win a majority - Ms. Guergis expresses confidence she will prevail. She is a three-time incumbent and the last officeholder of the Guergis political family, a dynasty once grandly - some would say absurdly - compared to the Kennedys by Simcoe Life magazine. Her father puts up lawn signs for her.

In the previous election, she said, "half the time people would give him the finger and the other times they'd give him the thumbs up. This time it's all the time the thumbs up."

'It's embarrassing'

Angus, where Ms. Guergis grew up, is a small town west of Barrie, a sanctuary that offers only pleasant reminders of her past. A photo of her with teased hair and a sash from her beauty-pageant days on the mantel of her childhood home. Another framed shot at her parliamentary swearing-in ceremony in 2004.

She has a house in Ottawa and, at the end of last year, decided to move in with her father in Angus, bringing Mr. Jaffer and their son, Zavier. Before he lost his seat in 2008, Mr. Jaffer served 11 years as MP for Edmonton-Strathcona. He answers the door in the worn black jogging pants and grey T-shirt of a stay-at-home dad. Although Zavier is still breastfeeding, much of the time, Mr. Jaffer feeds the infant milk that Ms. Guergis has pumped before running off to work - or, in recent weeks, to campaign.

Lounging on a sofa, Ms. Guergis looks more relaxed than she appears on the Hill. When in town, she makes nachos and has pyjama parties with her sister, her only sibling. On her nightstand is a self-help book, though she also sheepishly admits to a weakness for the likes of Shania Twain biographies and celebrity gossip magazines. "You just get lost in something silly for a change instead of always reading a policy document," she said.

Ms. Guergis can use the distraction. After months of fertility treatments, two promising pregnancies ended in painful miscarriages. Politically, she has been forced to defend herself from the scandal du jour. First, it was an alleged "freakout" in the Charlottetown airport. Later, the Liberal Party exposed her staff for writing laudatory letters to the press about her, without stating their relationship. She was tarred, along with her husband, when he was charged with drunk driving and cocaine possession - charges that were later dropped. And then there were the "serious allegations" to which Mr. Harper pinned her dismissal.

Her neighbours started turning on her too, writing letters to newspapers, saying the Guergis political era had run its course. "Do you remember that television show? It was on years and years ago… those hillbillies that struck oil on their property?" joked Wayne Hutchinson, a former member of the local riding association. "[They have]more ego than intellect. It's embarrassing."

A local dynasty

Ms. Guergis's political roots reach back to her Assyrian grandfather, who immigrated to Simcoe County from the Iraq-Turkey region as a boy and launched several businesses, including a successful furniture store. He was also elected reeve of Essa township and his son later became deputy reeve. The political life called to Ms. Guergis in her teen years, but her father quashed those early ambitions. "As a young woman I was told my whole role in life was to get married and have kids," Ms. Guergis recalled.

When she was 24, she wanted to run for a seat on local council in the township of Essa. Her father said he'd be supporting her cousin David, who was also running. Later, her cousins Tony and David became mayors of local townships and her sister, Christine, became a local councillor. All three were defeated in last October's election.

Now, the family's stake in politics rests solely with Ms. Guergis.

After a few years holding administrative jobs with the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, she won her father's support. Now he pounds the stakes on her lawn signs, which have caused a stir this year: They're jarringly similar to those of her chief opponent, Kellie Leitch, who won the Conservative nomination last month. It turns out Ms. Guergis reused her signs from last election, but had her team crudely paint over the logo and stencil "Independent" on the Tory blue background.

Although Ms. Leitch is a political neophyte, she's already impressed some on-the-fence voters, as Ms. Guergis learned in one uncomfortable encounter in the town of Everett. When she handed a flyer to Philip Bosch, a retired reservist, he stared at his shoes and stammered. "I've been, uh, going along with Kellie lately. I voted for her at the thing. And, you know, she's been asking for my support too…"

Ms. Leitch, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, splits her time between her home in Creemore, clinics around Ontario, and Toronto, where she practices at the Hospital for Sick Children. "The community does not take kindly to being told they're going to have to suffer from someone who's not from the riding," Ms. Guergis said. Ms. Leitch's team swiped back at Ms. Guergis on Friday, with a press release that accused her of "emotional outbursts and vicious attacks."

But Ms. Guergis isn't just facing off against Ms. Leitch - she's fighting the big blue machine, which has lavished unprecedented attention on this key riding and brought such big-name Tories as Peter MacKay, Hugh Segal and Julian Fantino to campaign. Mr. Harper wouldn't even call Ms. Guergis by name on Friday when he said the party had no desire to see her back in caucus.

Ms. Guergis says what put the nail on the coffin was her relationship with Mr. Jaffer, because Mr. Harper frowned upon romances in caucus. When asked what she'll do if she loses the election, she was quick to respond - to her supporters, admirably defiant; to her detractors, delusional.

"I haven't thought about it," she said.

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