Skip to main content

Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, out for an early morning run on April 4, 2013 in Ottawa. On most mornings, we wakes up at 4 a.m. and, before heading to the office, goes for a 20-kilometre run. On his 50th birthday, Mr. Wright will be spending it in the spotlight, just days after footing the $90,000 bill for Senator Mike Duffy’s improper housing expenses.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Nigel Wright has been parachuted in to lead high-profile talks on the trans-Pacific free-trade zone. He was instrumental in drafting the policy to limit foreign investment in the oil sands. He is a key strategist on job-skills training arrangements with the provinces. But this week, Stephen Harper's chief of staff – who is described by one official as "almost like a deputy prime minister," has known his boss for decades and commands his respect as few others – also became a $90,172.24 liability.

That's the amount of the personal cheque Mr. Wright wrote so that Senator Mike Duffy, a Harper appointee and Conservative Party campaigner, could repay government expenses he had claimed in error.

Mr. Duffy resigned from the Tory caucus on Thursday night. And federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson will be investigating Mr. Wright's gift. But the Prime Minister says he is standing by him.

Which may make many Canadians wonder: How has the reclusive Mr. Wright become such a force in Ottawa? And why is Mr. Harper so steadfast in defending someone who has put his office at the centre of a scandal?

If the public has heard of Mr. Wright at all, it's as a money man – one comfortable handling sums much larger than $90,000.

Until he joined the Prime Minister's Office more than two years ago, he was a universally respected broker of multimillion-dollar deals for Onex Corp., the private-equity giant said to be Canada's biggest private-sector employer.

That made him an ideal aide for Mr. Harper – who at that time was saddled with a minority government struggling to balance its books in the wake of the global economic meltdown and needed a chief of staff skilled at business as well as politics.

Onex agreed to do without Mr. Wright's services as a managing director for up to two years and he officially took command of the PMO on Jan. 1, 2011.

His appointment sparked a media crossfire, pitting detractors suspicious of his big-business background against boosters who at times bordered on fawning: "A genuinely nice guy," one columnist enthused. "Liked by everyone who knows him."

Since then, Mr. Wright has become indispensable, sitting with the Prime Minister at the apex of Canada's political system.

As well as running the PMO, he meets weekly with cabinet members' chiefs of staff to ensure that they understand government policy – and at times even fills in for their bosses. When he started on the trans-Pacific trade file, he took over for International Trade Minister Ed Fast.

Regarding his work on limiting foreign investment in the oil sands, one insider says: "Nigel had a more sophisticated understanding than [the Department of] Industry about the effects the restrictions would have."

But Mr. Wright's influence goes deeper than the here and now. As one senior Conservative puts it, he has "a long history as a political operative." A close look at his background shows that he has quietly been active at every stage in the evolution of the modern Conservative Party – and is at least partly responsible for making Stephen Harper what he is today.

The son of an engineering technician, Mr. Wright was born in Hamilton 50 years ago this Saturday, and raised in neighbouring Burlington – not far from the Toronto suburb where Mr. Harper grew up.

Having spent some of his formative years living in England, young Nigel did not have an especially high profile in high school. Teachers and classmates recall his name, and little else.

But Globe and Mail readers who spotted an April 10, 1980, letter to the editor from one Nigel Wright of Burlington would have had an inkling of what was to come: Liberal minister Herb Gray, he wrote, "should live up to his pre-election promise to resign."

That fall, Mr. Wright arrived at the University of Toronto's Trinity College – and soon hit his stride.

It was at "Trin" – which still carries out such "Oxbridge" traditions as donning gowns for some evening meals – that Mr. Wright encountered an array of remarkable contemporaries. These included Jim Balsillie, future co-founder of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone; writer and thinker Malcolm Gladwell, and political analyst Andrew Coyne.

Even in that peer group, Mr. Balsillie remembers Mr. Wright as special: "He was clean-cut, well-dressed and very composed. … I remember thinking, 'I have to seriously up my inspiration levels if I am going to keep up with this kid.' "

Classmate John Duffy, now a political rival as a Liberal Party strategist, agrees: "Back in the day, the question was: 'Will Nigel be on the Supreme Court or be prime minister?' He worked harder than anybody and he was pretty much the smartest guy in the room."

Mr. Gladwell recalls him as "an exceedingly decent, sweet and good-natured person," who appeared more mature and directed than his peers. "He just seemed like he had a much clearer sense of who he was than the rest of us."

And clearly he was a conservative, at a time when the political pendulum was swinging in that direction. A year earlier, Margaret Thatcher had settled into 10 Downing Street, and Republican Ronald Reagan was soon to occupy the White House. In Canada, Joe Clark had (briefly) interrupted 16 years of Liberal rule, and the Brian Mulroney era was on the horizon.

"The neo-conservative revival was hitting Canadian campuses – University of Toronto, in particular – and he was in the thick of it," Mr. Duffy says.

Mr. Gladwell recalls that, "at the time, it felt very subversive to be a right-winger."

What proved to be a flirtation for Mr. Gladwell was anything but for "Nige," who had embraced the Young Progressive Conservatives back in Burlington, and arrived at Trinity with big plans.

His career goal was the law, Mr. Balsillie says, but as well he "wanted to be involved, massively, in the conservative political apparatus, both federally and provincially."

And so, being a champion of free enterprise and no fan of Red Tory centrists, Mr. Wright rallied youth votes against Mr. Clark when the party held its 1981 federal leadership review.

Two years later, with the leadership formally up for grabs, he struck again, joining fellow Campus Conservative Tom Long to corral student delegates and help to crown Mr. Mulroney, says Peter White, later principal secretary in the Mulroney PMO.

Closer to home, Mr. Wright spread the gospel by starting the University of Toronto Magazine in 1984 with Tony Clement, a friend and classmate now head of the federal Treasury Board in the Harper cabinet.

Mr. Wright, the editor, quickly emerged a Thatcher diehard, echoing the Iron Lady's contrarian view that foreign investment could somehow be a "liberalizing force" in apartheid-era South Africa and accusing her trade-union nemesis, miners' leader Arthur Scargill, of "shameless bullying."

And Mr. Wright remains within the Trinity College orbit. The $4-million home he bought in 2007 sits among fraternity houses in the Annex, the upscale neighbourhood that is just off campus. A few blocks south is Saint Thomas's, the 139-year-old Anglican church he has attended since his student days. The Ottawa job was supposed to be a sabbatical.

After the 1983 federal leadership vote, Mr. Wright entered law school at the U of T, only to take a hiatus the following year – Mr. Mulroney had swept the Liberals from power and there was a job available working with Mr. White in the PMO.

Although young, Mr. Wright was never afraid to challenge prevailing views, Mr. White recalls, but "he was also a very good soldier and, once a decision was made, he'd step into line."

And he was diligent. "He's a workaholic," Mr. White adds.

Returning to school in 1986, Mr. Wright flirted with a career in academics, prompting Robert Prichard, then the U of T's law dean, to recommend further study. So after graduating in 1988, he went on to a master's degree at Harvard.

But early in 1990, after Mr. Mulroney had proposed the Meech Lake accord to bring Quebec into the Constitution, he appeared with two fellow Canadians on The Globe's comment page, extolling the accord's virtues and accusing critics of "soulless universalism and insular parochialism."

Called to the bar the same year, Mr. Wright came back to Toronto, but abandoned the ivory tower in favour of a job where he had articled as a student. Known today as Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, "it was like a New York law firm in Toronto – crushing demands on time but, at the other end, lucrative," a former classmate recalls.

Still, there was time for politics. He worked on the provincial PCs' campaign in 1990 – the election that famously brought the New Democrats led by future Liberal Bob Rae to power – and three years later, with the departure of Mr. Mulroney, and worked on policy for Kim Campbell's federal leadership campaign.

Meanwhile, his law career was taking off. He had been thrown into one of the more complicated projects in Canadian history – the billion-dollar public and private partnership that produced the 12.9-kilometre Confederation Bridge that connects Prince Edward Island to the mainland.

"We went to war for about four years to get that done," says Bill Ainley, a senior partner at Davies, which worked for the developers. "It is … probably the most difficult project I ever did, and I couldn't have done it without Nigel."

His firm made Mr. Wright a partner in just five years, the minimum then allowed. And yet, just two years later, he was gone.

Working on an acquisition deal for Onex Corp. had brought him to the attention of its chief executive officer, Gerald Schwartz, who was impressed even though a leading Liberal fundraiser at the time. "He has excellent judgment," the billionaire Onex chieftain has said. "He has the right amount of caution; caution exceeding enthusiasm."

Plus, as Mr. Schwartz puts it, "People like him. He's very easy to work with, and that's very important in our business."

One of his first assignments came with Mr. Schwartz's bold attempt in 1999 to buy Canada's two biggest airlines and combine them. The plan was hellishly complicated, sparked allegations of government collusion and eventually failed, but set Mr. Wright on a path to becoming a lead player in Onex's many subsequent dealings in the aircraft business.

He was also at the point man for a spectacular near-miss that came in 2007 when Onex joined a group that came within a whisker of buying Qantas, the Australian airline. Soon afterward, the financial crisis struck, punishing share prices and slashing air travel. The group had bid about $11-billion (Australian) – and today Qantas is worth barely one-third of that.

Worse was the joint Onex/Goldman Sachs acquisition of business-jet maker Hawker Beechcraft Corp., whose orders evaporated with the financial crisis. Eventually, the company filed for creditor protection, essentially wiping out Onex's $212-million investment.

Still, deals such as the one for Spirit Aerosystems more than made up for such losses. Onex invested $108-million to buy Spirit from Boeing in 2005, betting it could make assembly plants that had supplied the aircraft giant more efficient. Mr. Wright led negotiations with Spirit's four unions that helped to seal a deal, and allowed Onex to collect $756-million, and retain shares worth another $100-million.

Yet the allure of politics refused to fade, so Mr. Schwartz was not really surprised when Mr. Wright decided to go to Ottawa. He is said to have left behind annual compensation worth seven figures (and has let slip that he once gave more to charity in a year than he now earns).

Part of the draw was Stephen Harper himself. As Mr. Wright told a Commons committee just before taking the job, the PM's "values align with mine in every single way" – a sentiment that makes perfect sense considering that he played an active role in making his future boss party leader as well as Prime Minister.

The two first met after the party's collapse in the wake of the Mulroney era.

Mr. Wright helped to turn Kim Campbell into her party's first woman leader and Canada's first woman prime minister. But four months later, she was reduced at the polls to just two seats, and the cause he had served since high school was in ruins.

A regional and ideological rift had split its ranks in two, allowing Reform, the controversial western splinter group led by Preston Manning, to soar to 52 MPs – including Mr. Harper, then a rookie from Calgary West.

Impressed with Mr. Harper, and looking for the ideal person to heal the rift among conservatives, Mr. Wright contacted an old friend.

"Nigel called me about him," recalls Tom Long, a key player in helping Mike Harris bring his Common Sense Revolution to Ontario in 1995. "He said, 'He's young, he's smart and he's bilingual, and I think he's somebody who has a big future in terms of trying to put the conservative movement back together.' "

But their candidate thought otherwise, both then and when asked again in 1998 after Ms. Campbell's successor, Jean Charest, stepped down. By then he had left politics to be deputy leader of the National Citizens' Coalition, a conservative lobby group.

But to hard-core economic conservatives, the situation was pressing: After five years in the political wilderness, the federal party had rebounded to 20 seats, but then handed the reins back to their old Red Tory nemesis, Joe Clark. So, in January, 2000, both Mr. Long and Mr. Wright were in Ottawa for the birth of the Canadian Alliance – a bid by Reform to reinvent itself and reconcile with federal Tories to "unite the right."

"We were all thinking about attractive candidates for the leadership of the new party," Mr. Long recalls. "We needed somebody that everybody could gravitate toward."

Finally, with the Alliance leadership of Stockwell Day under siege, the lobbying paid off and Mr. Harper had a change of heart, agreeing to throw his hat into the ring, with fundraising and recruitment assistance from Mr. Wright. He won on the first ballot.

The following year, Peter MacKay succeeded Mr. Clark as Tory leader and, despite having signed a promise not to do so, soon agreed to negotiate the long-awaited merger. Early in 2004, the reborn Conservative Party of Canada endorsed Mr. Harper as leader and, with the right finally united, he moved into 24 Sussex Drive less than two years later.

By then, the party had created Conservative Fund Canada to manage its money, and appointed three founding directors: People's Jewellers magnate Irving Gerstein (now a senator), Giant Tiger discount chain founder Gordon Reid (father of Conservative MP Scott Reid) – and Nigel Wright.

As well, Mr. Harper's old mentor, Preston Manning, had launched a conservative think tank in Calgary. Among its directors: Nigel Wright.

He later gave up both positions – just before moving into the PMO.

On most mornings, be it January or July, Stephen Harper's right hand man wakes up at 4 a.m. and, before heading to the office, goes for a run – 20 kilometres through downtown Ottawa. People train months before attempting the gruelling half-marathon that Mr. Wright has been doing almost daily for decades.

On one hand, his job is utterly consuming – Sir John A. Macdonald famously warned an aide, "Remember, I shall require all of your time" – but for the 90 minutes the run takes, his time is his own.

However, the ritual says something more profound about him.

Clearly, his fitness level helps him withstand the rigours of a high burnout job that Derek Burney, chief aide to Brian Mulroney, recalls as exhilarating but more strenuous than "anything else I did in the public or private sector."

"He's a machine," one Conservative cabinet minister says of Mr. Wright.

Sports psychologists who study marathoners might also note how much control it takes to run the way Mr. Wright does. Hard-core runners are known for their self-discipline and planning. But sports psychologist Peter Jensen says that running a half-marathon every day also suggests an "unbelievably strong" sense of control. "The people who are able to do this have phenomenal self-discipline – they are not in any way, shape or form impulsive," explains Dr. Jensen, who teaches at the Queen's University business school.

"Anything that he's ever done that appeared impulsive, he planned."

Since his arrival, much has been made of how Mr. Wright differs from his immediate predecessor, the peppery Guy Giorno. But the two are more alike than they may seem. Both, for example, are devout churchgoers.

A small photo of Pope John Paul II leans against the fax machine on the credenza in Mr. Wright's office in the Langevin Block across from Parliament Hill. Karol Józef Wojtyła was a hero to many conservatives because he is widely credited with helping to end communist rule.

But the portrait is also a nod to Mr. Wright's own faith. He is a member of the Anglo-Catholic movement, which asserts the Catholic identity of Anglicanism more than its Protestant roots. Its adherents want to celebrate older rituals and traditions ("smells and bells" to detractors), if not reunite with the Catholic Church.

After arriving from Toronto, where he served Saint Thomas's as both a sub-deacon and a warden, Mr. Wright bought a high-end downtown condo for $710,000 and began attending St. Barnabas, billed as "the Anglo-Catholic Parish in the Diocese of Ottawa." Rev. Stewart Murray, the parish priest, says lovers of tradition also cherish the right to debate such subjects as same-sex marriage. "They want to retain the freedom of conscience on things like that."

Mr. Wright also is known for his charitable efforts. He has pulled back from active participation while in the PMO but still makes private donations and even asks staff members who travel to collect shampoo bottles provided by hotels for use in a women's shelter.

And how much did he donate that year if it really is more than he now earns? The PMO refuses to disclose what the chief of staff is paid, but his salary should be roughly comparable to that of a deputy minister, who can make as much as $320,000 a year.

As well as money, he has given his time, over the years volunteering at Saint Thomas's with Out of the Cold, the winter shelter program for the homeless. As a young lawyer, he was especially active in Camp Oochigeas, which provides respite and recreation for children with cancer. A long-time camp counsellor, he also served four years as Oochigeas's board chair.

The PMO, of course, is no charity: Respect is earned, not given. Staff decide if their chief commands the full backing of the Prime Minister and acts accordingly.

Mr. Wright quickly impressed the troops with his hard work and efficiency. Even running 20 kilometres before dawn rarely keeps him from being first to arrive at the office and last to leave. He is also there on weekends.

This dedication, coupled with his unbridled faith, has some in the PMO now in the habit of asking, "What would Nigel do?" when faced with a predicament.

Each of Mr. Harper's top aides has faced a different set of challenges.

The first, former university professor Ian Brodie, found senior bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office, the central agency that services the PMO, trying to sidestep the political staff and communicate directly with Mr. Harper. He left not long after a leak embarrassed the government.

Mr. Giorno arrived with experience as chief of staff for Mike Harris, and exerted greater political control over the bureaucracy. Now memos from the PCO wouldn't go to the Prime Minister unless bearing a PMO staff recommendation.

When Mr. Giorno left after two years, Mr. Wright was content to leave the structure he had created in place. However, there was a distinct change of focus. A minority government has little time for long-term planning, while a majority administration can't ignore it – especially when economic times are tough.

Mr. Wright's business acumen also includes seven years on the board of the Conservative Fund, which supervises party financing. During his tenure, it generated enough money to underwrite three election campaigns, pay off the accumulated debts of both predecessor parties, revamp its grassroots fundraising approach and overhaul its computer systems.

So, the PMO became even more businesslike after he took charge. The morning meeting of senior staff, which also includes his deputy, Joanne McNamara, and principal secretary Ray Novak, as well as as half-dozen other department heads, used to go on for hours, sometimes until noon. "Everyone was yapping; there'd be people running in and out." Now it wraps up by 10 a.m. "Nigel keeps people on task," one staffer says. "He holds people to deadlines."

He also provides a steadying influence. "Anyone in his job has to constantly be putting out fires and dealing with flared tempers. He brings … a kind of grounded maturity to all of those flareups."

The same savvy helps in resolving differences of opinion. "He will either hear both sides of the argument and he will synthesize it into a consensus position, or he will come in with his own position and bring in a group of people who agree with him to project it outward," one source says.

He is also known to employ canny management techniques. To minimize discord and get the consensus ruling he wants, an insider says, he lines up supporters in advance. "He doesn't just rely on his power and sheer force of argument to win the day. He also relies on orchestrating situations."

Mr. Wright still faces constant suspicion from the opposition that, with his background in big business and a lifetime of service to free-enterprise ideology, he is just too close to the private sector.

Before starting the job, he and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson negotiated an "ethical wall" designed to insulate him from both his holdings (his leave-of-absence agreement ensured he wouldn't forfeit savings and stock options that "took many years for me to earn") and his old friends in high finance.

The wall didn't seem enough to ease some concerns. "You can't even order pizza for the PMO, from what I can see here – Onex owned CiCi's Pizza Parlor," the NDP's Pat Martin complained during the hearings. "Every move you make, every breath you take puts you in a conflict of interest."

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Mr. Wright conceded the point: "Mr. Chair, there are certain states in the United States where, if I order pizza, I probably shouldn't do it from CiCi's."

Mr. Wright's critics remained vigilant for signs of conflict – complaining to the commissioner again last summer when he appeared to have been lobbied on behalf of gold czar Peter Munk, an old friend, and his son, Anthony Munk, a former colleague. Yet the Prime Minister has come to rely increasingly on his top aide, and has broadened his role.

Peter White of the Mulroney PMO feels the fact that Mr. Wright is unafraid to express his opinion is appreciated by his boss. "The danger with any prime minister – and in my view it's a particularly danger with Stephen Harper – is you surround yourself with yes men, and nobody dares to speak truth to power," he explains.

"Harper's a very smart guy, and I think realizes this danger. He wouldn't want too many Nigels – but one good Nigel is probably enough."

Insiders confirm that Mr. Wright can be frank but caution that he also takes care not to go overboard. "The PM takes Nigel seriously," says one. "He respects Nigel's intelligence because it's not ostentatious."

All of which is further evidence that, as at least one old friend thinks, he is right where he wants to be – "involved, massively, in the conservative political apparatus."

People on Bay Street who still talk to Mr. Wright report that he has found the job exhausting, even for someone with his stamina, but was energized by the challenge. What effect the current controversy will have on his longevity is an open question.

Although in public, Conservatives defend Mr. Wright's decision to bail out Mr. Duffy, some privately acknowledge that it was a terrible lapse in judgment.

Mr. Harper, said to have been kept in the dark about Mr. Wright's generosity, has yet to address the situation. But as one Tory asks: "How can you get rid of a guy who gives up $90,000 of his own money to help the government? You don't."

As well, with a cabinet shuffle on the immediate horizon, followed by a pivotal Throne Speech in the fall, there is much work to be done – especially because the smooth sailing seen during the first half of the majority mandate may be over.

Betting on the second coming of Trudeaumania has the Liberals now surging in the polls while Thomas Mulcair, the tough-minded Quebecker leading the New Democrats, has bolstered the party's fiscal credibility by casting off the "socialist" label seen as toxic to centrist voters.

So Mr. Harper may have a fight on his hands when he seeks re-election in 2015. Does his chief of staff even want stick around that long?

Don't ask Mr. Schwartz when to expect his protégé, and potential successor, back making mega-deals in Toronto. "I don't know the answer," he insists.

After nearly 13 years at Onex, money is clearly not an issue.

"I doubt any job in the rest of his life will be a tenth as interesting …," Mr. Balsillie says, "because you're shaping the country – you're shaping the world."

Providing you can weather the storm.

This article was written with reporting assistance from Boyd Erman in Report on Business.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe