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Quebec fixer takes credit for Clark ouster, 1981 PQ win

According to a CBC news report, former federal Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark's fall from power was the result of a half-million-dollar scheme run by a Quebec political organizer named Jean-Yves Lortie.

Jim Young/Reuters

In politics, money, lots of money, can make or break a political leader. In Canada, few have experienced the extent to which money can undermine a political career more than former federal Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark.

According to a CBC news report aired on Wednesday, Mr. Clark's fall from power was the result of a half-million-dollar scheme run by a brash and zealous Quebec political organizer named Jean-Yves Lortie.

More than 30 years later, the former strategist, now 80, says he became a key player in the Dump Clark Movement at the 1983 leadership review vote in Winnipeg that paved the way for Brian Mulroney's takeover of the party.

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Mr. Lortie said he had a suitcase full of cash for travel expenses, hotel costs, meals and even shopping sprees for 225 Quebec delegates who were hidden in a Winnipeg hotel and bused to the convention just in time to vote against Mr. Clark.

"I had nearly $500,000," Mr. Lortie told the CBC. "They were calling me at that time l'homme à la valise [the man with the briefcase]."

Last July, The Globe and Mail reported that foreign money was used to topple Mr. Clark. Walter Wolf, a jet-setting Canadian multimillionaire entrepreneur, contributed tens of thousands of dollars in 1983 from a Bermuda account that Mr. Lortie used to bring two planes of anti-Clark delegates from Quebec to the Winnipeg convention.

"We felt fine about it," Michel Cogger, a close Mulroney friend told The Globe and Mail last summer. "It was nothing underhanded."

Allan Gregg, at the time the party's official pollster, was on the convention floor and remembers the collective astonishment when the results came in: Mr. Clark had 67 per cent of the ballots – not enough, in his mind, to go on as leader.

"It became clearer after the fact that Michel Cogger, who was one of Brian Mulroney's right-hand guys, was up to his ears with Walter Wolf," Mr. Gregg said. "The whole story is kind of bizarre."

Among the delegates Mr. Lortie signed up were candidates and supporters he recruited during the 1981 Quebec election, in which he said the separatist Parti Québécois asked him to revive the defunct Union National party to help split the federalist vote.

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"They asked me to make a fake election for 100 candidates, so I said, 'Perfect. Me, I can.' I want to organize, I organize," Mr. Lortie said in the CBC interview. "I charge nothing. They pay for the expenses. Me, like I said, I like to organize. I didn't need the money. I did it for fun."

He said he recruited his wife, people from his office, his secretary's husband and dozens of other "phony candidates." The PQ defeated Claude Ryan's Liberals in the election.

From the late 1950s to the early 1990s, Mr. Lortie said he spent $15-million to $20-million "in cash" to help elect politicians of various political stripes.

Mr. Lortie, nicknamed the "poodle" for his permed hair and flashy fur coats, was one of the unique characters of a political system that is the subject of a public inquiry into the awarding of government contracts to Quebec construction companies.

The CBC report said Mr. Lortie testified at the Charbonneau commission behind closed doors about how political corruption evolved. The inquiry has heard that, despite the laws and regulations, corruption endures.

With a report from Kathryn Blaze Carlson

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