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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."

From there, he grew into politics quickly. At 15, he was a convention delegate for Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry, a Red Tory, in his bid to become provincial leader. He ran for youth wing posts, and won. At 17, he got a job answering phones at night in the office of Defence Minister Perrin Beatty. He stayed on the staff, part-time and then full time, for six years, including a six-month stint in the ministry he now runs. He became president of the provincial Tories' youth wing.

At Queen's University, he was a well-known, sociable preppy, moving philosophically farther to the right, and happily disturbing those on the left. He led a campaign to oppose a student-union resolution against the Gulf War and was arrested for hectoring then-premier David Peterson, a Liberal, during a visit to a Kingston shopping mall.

His many years in politics have equipped Mr. Baird with a vast network of friends and acquaintances. He was just 16 when he first crossed paths with his current boss. A close friend had married the son of the Alberta MP for whom the youthful Mr. Harper happened to be working. And who was the friend? Alison Redford, now Alberta's premier, he says: "Small world, eh?"

Guy Giorno, who ran one of his youth-wing races, went on to become chief of staff to Mr. Harper and last year served as the PM's campaign manager. Ms. Stanley, his former teacher and mentor, was on hand at Rideau Hall in 2006, when he was first sworn in as a federal minister, because her sister, as government leader in the Senate, was also taking the oath. Mrs. LeBreton says she's still tempted to call him Rusty during cabinet meetings.

But he found his chief political hero abroad: Britain's Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady's right-wing measures sparked social conflict, but she set a bold course and steered straight ahead. "A conviction politician," he says approvingly.

A product of her times, she came along when Britain was "on its knees," he says, which is where he felt Ontario was headed when he first ran for public office in 1995 – the province "required that kind of leadership."

By then he was a dedicated follower of Mike Harris, and about to play a prominent role in implementing what many consider a radical reduction in the size of Ontario's government. But he'd first been drawn to Mr. Harris five years earlier by the future premier's bold approach to what mattered more to Mr. Baird at the time – the party's machinery.

In 1990, he was president of the provincial youth wing and leaning toward Red Tory leadership candidate Diane Cunningham, when Mr. Harris won him over. "The party was in bad shape ... it needed to be blown up," he recalls, adding that his new champion "said quite decisively what needed to be done."

Mr. Harris defeated New Democrat Bob Rae and came to power with 26-year-old John Baird as one of his new MPPs – and a true believer in his Common Sense Revolution.

"It was beyond ideology – it was a plan to make something happen. He was completely into that," says John Snobelen, a member of the Harris cabinet. "He liked the idea of changing direction for the province. He was a revolutionary in the broadest sense of the word, at that time.

"He always struck me as someone who was looking for the bold things to do."

Mr. Harris also liked what he saw and four years later made Mr. Lajoie's civics-class prophesy come true: At 30, Mr. Baird became community and social services minister, and proved to be an eager beaver. "I think he had a list of 300 priority items in his ministry," says Mr. Snobelen, who sat next to him in cabinet, but he also has "a sense of humour about everything, including about himself."

Not everyone found him funny. The Harris government slashed welfare payments, targeted teachers and fought pitched battles with unions. It was a little Ontario echo of Mrs. Thatcher's Britain and, having earned a reputation as an attack dog while a backbencher, Mr. Baird gave critics the impression he was an angry, overgrown frat boy.

Too quick to shoot and unconcerned about hitting bystanders, he employed showy wedge politics that sometimes shocked. Having called for those on social assistance to work for their money and be tested for illegal drugs, he appeared at a news conference with a box of syringes to "stop people from shooting their welfare cheque up their arm, and to help them shoot up the ladder of success."

"That, for me, was a very clear indication of the immaturity, the inexperience, he brought to public life – this hard-edged-certainty view of the world," recalls David McGuinty, a Liberal MP from Ottawa who, along with his brother Dalton, now Ontario's premier, has sparred with Mr. Baird for years.

Mr. McGuinty says he was part of a "conflict machine," a new style of politics that relied on provocation to motivate supporters and win headlines: "John was always very, very good at generating conflict."

Too good, at times. In the 2002 race to succeed Mr. Harris, he ran the campaign of friend and future federal finance minister Jim Flaherty with gusto, portraying frontrunner Ernie Eves as wishy-washy – even going so far as to dress up someone as a waffle to lampoon him.

He still maintains he was right – "I don't know anybody who said that was actually inaccurate" – but paid a price: Upon winning, Mr. Eves promptly handed Mr. Baird a demotion to associate minister of francophone affairs or, he recalls ruefully, "associate minister of F.A., as the premier-designate called it."

Mr. Baird was devastated. Mr. Eves later bumped him back to a full cabinet post, but he soon concluded his party was just playing out the string. The following year it was back in opposition, which may seem an appealing prospect to a political jouster, but "I didn't like it at all. I found it very negative. It just wasn't very fulfilling."

And by then, he had a new cause: Before the election, he'd become the first of his province's ministers to endorse Stephen Harper as leader of the new, merged Conservative Party. A true prize for the former Reformer and Canadian Alliance leader, who needed support in crucial Ontario, Mr. Baird became his campaign co-chair, first for the leadership and then for the 2004 election campaign.

The following year, when another federal campaign began, he quit provincial politics to run with Mr. Harper, and soon was a cabinet minister once again, in his home town.

Mr. Foreign Affairs: a sense of humour, except about the job

Six years have gone by, and finds today's John Baird a traditionalist with a strain of Ottawa Valley old loyalist Tory – he insists that a portrait of the Queen hang in the Foreign Affairs department's lobby. An art lover, he also asked for a Cornelius Krieghoff canvas to adorn his office and, ever the prankster, does an impression of Jean Chrétien when explaining that the former PM had the same Krieghoff on his wall at 24 Sussex.

During caucus meetings, he has been known to stand, grin and wave when his name is mentioned. But as foreign minister, he has been serious about asserting his presence.

He made his first trip abroad after a month on the job, visiting a war zone in eastern Libya and urging the rebels to keep fighting. Four months later, he was back, this time with corporate executives looking to do business with the triumphant new regime.

At multinational meetings, he has stubbornly blocked summit communiqués that cut references to rights issues he held dear, and gave himself an exemption from sanctions against Myanmar so he could fly there to encourage nascent reforms. In February, he used his close relationship with China's foreign minister to seal a deal to sell that country uranium.

He's not only willing to trumpet unabashedly-Tory rhetoric on the world stage, to play up the fighter-bombers of the Royal Canadian Air Force, back Israel to the hilt and blast Iran. He's also prepared to look uncouth to prod Canadian business deals abroad, because hard-boiled economic interests are job one.

He has loudly claimed that Ottawa bases foreign policy on Canadian values, but what's really new is that it's not the honest-broker, peacekeeper values of Pearsonian tradition. Even stranger, he admits that part of his government's policy is to ask what's in it for Canada. He doesn't mind if others think he's too coarse for diplomatic sensitivities. Sometimes, he revels in it.

Still he has enough confidence to bring nuance and flexibility to a party agenda sometimes laden with muscular bluster. He opened the door to engaging with Myanmar, once hated by Harper Tories, and followed through as reforms there materialized. He played point in Ottawa's shift toward sharp criticism of Sri Lanka's human-rights record, to the delight of Canada's politically weighty Tamil community.

The current trip – today he leaves Beirut for Jordan where he will visit Syrians who have fled the violence in their homeland – underlines another characteristic: He's a bundle of energy, travelling the world and often running his department from the road.

At home, he is one of Mr. Harper's more adept political performers – perhaps his first foreign minister to be firing on all cylinders and unmatched in the degree of confidence the Prime Minister has in him.

In his early days in office, Mr. Harper's focus on domestic affairs meant that he kept Peter Mackay, his initial choice, on a tight rein. Mr. Mackay was followed by Maxime Bernier, who crashed, David Emerson, who soon left, and Lawrence Cannon, who brought stability for 21/2 years, but had neither the drive nor the sympatico with the PM to make a big mark.

Now, however, Foreign Affairs is led by a player, and has influence. Other governments pay attention.

One visiting European official said that, because his country now believes Canada finally has a foreign minister with the ear of the prime minister, it wants to do business with him. Sweden's globetrotting foreign minister, Carl Bildt, remarked during his mid-May stop in Ottawa that he has already run across Mr. Baird many times in capitals around the world. "That indicates an ambitious approach," he said.

Foreign ministers such as Britain's William Hague, Hillary Clinton of the U.S., and Mexico's Patricia Espinoza get along with Mr. Baird, apparently charmed by his irreverent wit. "He does a very lousy Australian accent," jokes Australia's foreign minister (and former PM), Kevin Rudd.

"In the business of diplomacy, being personable is a decided advantage. Often people get caught up in the formality of their positions," Mr. Rudd says from Canberra. "One of his great strengths is to walk into a room and to befriend people very quickly."

The lingering doubts: His combative nature still on view

Many Canadians still conjure an image of John Baird as the glaring hit man, firing at opponents, but a closer look reveals that the scowl usually breaks into a smirk. "He's got a shtick now," says friend Jaime Watt, once a key strategist for Mike Harris.

The old Baird persona still flares up in the Commons at times, but his demeanour outside Parliament can be surprisingly friendly – one New Democrat MP calls him "Jekyll and Hyde." (If he seems affected by the heat of the Commons battle, aides have been known to put a picture of his late cat, Thatcher, in his briefing book to calm him down.)

Mr. Watt says people tend to overlook Mr. Baird's political talent: He doesn't need the crib sheets other ministers rely on. Each question gets a different answer. "He's a master of assessing the situation, and figuring out the needed response," Mr. Watt says. It's probably why he often serves as the PM's stand-in when Mr. Harper is not in the Commons.

He also has personal drive. Single, with reading and spending time with friends his only hobbies, he considers politics his life. Aides have to keep up with his hours – and his discipline. In 1996, a fast-food habit saw him bloat to 240 pounds, he says. "If you'd slit my wrists, the Swiss Chalet sauce would have come out." So he became a "pescatarian" – a fish-eating vegetarian – and lost 50 pounds in three months. "I'm very focused."

Which may be why Mr. Harper repeatedly turns to Mr. Baird to get a job done, initially making him treasury board minister to stickhandle the Conservatives' first legislation, the Accountability Act – a high-profile election commitment – and rewire its campaign promises to free the government from the more onerous of transparency requirements.

Ten months later, when the Liberals geared up to campaign on climate change, Mr. Baird became environment minister – tasked with reducing the government's weakness on the issue. He attacked then-leader Stéphane Dion's carbon-tax proposals as costly and ineffective, and floated the Conservatives' own tough proposals for regulating emissions – since abandoned.

When economic stimulus was the issue in 2008, he was put in charge of infrastructure. Then he served as house leader for Mr. Harper's tumultuous last six months in minority.

Although his relationship with the PM is mostly business, Mr. Baird has become a friend of Mr. Harper's wife, Laureen, squiring her to events and parties and sharing a fondness for felines. Having not had a cat since 2009, when Thatcher died at 16, he was about to adopt Stanley, a stray Mrs. Harper had taken in, after last year's election. But she suggested that might not be such a great idea, given all the travel in his future – the first hint of the task that lay ahead

Finally enjoying a majority mandate, the Conservatives not only could afford to look abroad; a sputtering global economy and a power shift made doing so imperative.

So after five years of Mr. Harper touting that Canada was "back" on the world stage, it has fallen to Mr. Baird to flesh out what that really means: opinionated, pro-military and, while still close to such old allies as Britain, Australia and the U.S., actively seeking relationships with China, India and many other emerging powers to further Canada's fast-shifting economic interests.

He has gone so far as to compare the "honest-broker" label, a tenet of Pearson-era diplomacy, to moral weakness, an inability to choose between right and wrong.

"I was always offended by the notion that Canada shouldn't defend anyone, shouldn't stand on its own two feet and say what we think, that we have to be super-sensitive to what everyone thinks and not say anything of our own," says Senator LeBreton, who started her career working for John Diefenbaker and then Brian Mulroney. "We count. People may not always agree with us, but we're there."

To that end, she says, Mr. Baird is "overseeing quite a culture change" at Foreign Affairs. "They're going to know where he stands."

From his first trips abroad, he has demonstrated that he is in charge and not worried about make a misstep. He hasn't shied from picking sides, or soliciting business.

"We didn't go to Libya with the expectation of getting anything – we went to do what was right, to protect the civilian population," Mr. Baird insists. "After the war was over, you bet we want Canadian business to be fairly treated ...

"I think others would have thought, 'Well, that would be gauche for Canada to do that.' Well, I'll tell ya, [then French president Nicolas] Sarkozy was right in there."

The potential conflict between simultaneously pursuing values as well as trade with nations that don't necessarily share those values is so apparent that many seasoned observers are surprised that Mr. Baird makes no attempt to disguise what he's doing.

"He's not the first foreign minister who likes to talk about values," says a former senior official in Foreign Affairs. "But it's very hard to get a foreign minister to say, 'We are pursuing an interest-based foreign policy,' because it sounds too commercial."

In fact, Mr. Baird is so focused on economic ties that it's easy to overlook the fact that Ed Fast is Canada's trade minister – something his itinerary has made clear.

"I have a pretty good relationship with Hillary Clinton. I value my relationship with William Hague in the United Kingdom," he says. "Having said that, I made my first [official] trip to Beijing. I think that signalled the importance with which you court that relationship."

He began by referring to China as an "ally," and has kept at it. In July, he made yet another swing through Asia, visiting China for the fourth time in a year. He has assiduously developed a relationship with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, arriving a day ahead of a visit by Mr. Harper in February to meet him and help settle a uranium deal expected to provide a shot in the arm for Saskatchewan's Cameco Corp.

Just as important, he has shown interest in other emerging markets Canada has overlooked. On the way back from his first trip to Beijing he stopped in long-neglected Indonesia, returning to Southeast Asia last month. He also ordered a foreign-policy review that adds several potential partners (Turkey is another example) to the list of countries Canada could cultivate.

"I'd give him high marks for understanding the basic architecture of the global power shift, and where Canada's interests lie," says Peter Harder, a former deputy foreign affairs minister. "He's thinking, 'Where's the puck going?'"

Mr. Harder feels Mr. Baird has much of what it takes to do the job: He's willing to travel for days on end, has the backing of the PM, is bright and quick enough to absorb briefings rapidly and confident enough to be able to make a timely decision. "He's not afraid of downtown, or what will others think. He has a good grounding, of how to decide and what to decide."

Still, the blustery rhetoric he often chooses doesn't win universal approval. A senior diplomat from one major country describes a favourite Baird line, that Canada will no longer "go along just to get along," as a bit "too simple," while others say he's quick to pick on small pariahs, but not bigger powers.

One ambassador says Mr. Baird's speech to the General Assembly last fall, in which he castigated North Korea, Syria and Iran, attacked opponents of Israel, and promised Canada would not "sit idly" and watch the UN decline, was seen by many diplomats more as grandstanding than serious policy. "People were laughing."

And there is tension within his own department.

The Tories came to power suspicious of the diplomats at Foreign Affairs, whom they viewed as mushy lefties, spoiled elitists or patronizing traditionalists. In return, the diplomats have bristled at times when they feel important nuances are being lost.

Mr. Baird downplays any friction and says he has a good relationship with his deputy minister – however, Morris Rosenberg, as a former deputy in justice and health, is seen as an outsider as well.

Those who fear that the government has lurched to one side point to Mr. Baird's staunchly pro-Israel views and the fact he spent five days there in January, but cancelled a half-day stop in neighbouring Jordan.

"There's no doubt," he replies with a shrug, "that on a number of files we're taking a different foreign-policy stance than has been traditionally. But that's ... why we have an elected government.

"I think the Prime Minister has brought a different way of doing things, and I'm certainly in sync with that."

But the tension between the minister and his diplomats goes beyond policy. He has shown a whiff of relish in clipping their lifestyle, consigning them to smaller residences and less entertaining. He has ordered embassies to stop serving alcohol except at official functions. When he visited Paris, Canada's ambassador to France, Marc Lortie – a Baird fan – had to buy him a glass of wine.

Older diplomats are said to be especially piqued when Mr. Baird sets aside traditional Canadian positions, but some younger ones appear to like a minister who knows what he wants.

Someone close to him says Mr. Baird is mystified by officials who keep making proposals that he has already rejected. "He'll say, 'I've told them 17 times, I'm not doing this.' ... They'll say, 'Minister, people won't like this.' And he'll say, 'That's the point.'"

Australia's Mr. Rudd says foreign ministers can expect such push-back because diplomats feel they're paid to protect relationships. "Often the temptation, driven by the advice of professional foreign ministries, is if it's going to cause offence to any other government, then give up and run away.

"I don't think that's ever been my approach, and I don't think it's ever been John's approach either."

As for dealing with his peers, Mr. Rudd says he has yet to see Mr. Baird pick a fight, but he will press a point. At last September's meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers, chaired by Mr. Rudd, Mr. Baird pressed for sections on gay rights and blocked a draft statement because a section opposing forced marriage for young girls had been cut.

"John was forthright, clear, concise in explaining his view, but ... many of the African foreign ministers had a different view," Mr. Rudd recalls. "To advance an argument, which sometimes needed to be advanced sharply, you need somebody who's got the policy and the personality predisposition to do it. He has that."

Mr. Baird admits that most of his colleagues would be happier if he'd "just shut up," such as when he pushed to have the Commonwealth look into Sri Lanka's record on human rights.

"Sometimes it's a bit uncouth ... a bit unpleasant, to say, 'There are these charges of war crimes, should we look into it?' Some people would say, 'Well, maybe do it quietly.' Well – no."

Mr. Rudd praises his Canadian counterpart as the kind of foreign minister who saves diplomacy from "evaporating into a sea of grey" caused by grinding bureaucracy. "You do need people that stand out. And I believe John fits into that category."

The road ahead: Concern that he's not in for the long haul

But does he really fit in and, if so, for how long?

Just as he seems to be finding his comfort zone, some of Mr. Baird's political friends fear that Mr. Harper will soon tap him to "fix" another portfolio. According to one, this job is the "pinnacle" for a career politician who has no economic background and shown no sign he'd ever run for the party's leadership. And if he has any plans for life after politics, Mr. Baird declines to discuss them.

In a strange way, he seems to have come full circle.

Down the hall, one of his aides now has the office he occupied almost 20 years ago – a fake nameplate reads "Rusty Baird" – and by sheer coincidence the main telephone number is the same one he answered at 17 when he started working for Perrin Beatty in defence.

Rusty's old mentor certainly feels he has found a good fit.

Kay Stanley stays in touch, sending kudos by e-mail – except when he goes over the top. She says she doesn't recognize the more partisan, aggressive John Baird, and wasn't always crazy about the Harris government, which she feels knocked her former student a little off centre.

After she left teaching, Ms. Stanley had a remarkable second career as a senior federal bureaucrat. So she knows ministers, and says that, when young, Mr. Baird was curious, quick and "always a happy warrior," all valuable qualities for a foreign minister, especially required to be an agent of change.

"He can walk into a hostile room and still treat people with respect."As far as she is concerned, he has not only matured; "he's in the right place now."