Times Colonist

Couillard’s only crime was rising above her past

- JANET BAGNALL

An adventures­s. A “selfmade” woman. Or, most cutting of all, “Not the kind of woman a high-level politician would have as a wife.”

These over-heated labels have been plastered all over Julie Couillard since her relationsh­ip with former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier hit the news. Much of the fury seemed to be directed at the low-cut dress she wore to a stuffy event in a stuffy town: The kind of woman who wears that dress had no business being at a government ceremony. Victorian-era social snobbery was alive and well in Canada, 2008.

It was Bernier’s fault that Couillard was headline news. He was the one who left NATO briefing books at Couillard’s home for five weeks. He compounded his error by leaving her hanging in the breeze when the going got tough.

Yet she is made out to be the real villain of the piece, her life pawed through and put out on display — her biker-mobster-loan-shark boyfriends, her unpaid bills, her tidy little house in a rough neighbourh­ood in Laval. This weekend, she was described in the Globe and Mail as having “clawed her way up from humble roots into the inner circles of power in Ottawa.”

This is familiar terrain — to anyone in 19th-century Paris. The voluptuous woman who emerges from the demimonde angling for social prestige through a judicious choice of lover was a wellknown stock character.

She shows up in literature as, for example, La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas. In an analysis by U.S. academic Courtney Sullivan, Dumas gives literary expression to a real and widespread anxiety about where 19thcentur­y French society was headed. Would money and sex trump class? Had it become possible to climb the social ladder using sexual power? The very foundation­s of polite society shook.

In the coverage of Couillard these themes creak back to life, more than a century and a half later. She is portrayed as an arriviste, clawing her way into high Ottawa society, her louche past ready to betray her.

Bernier’s right to entertain pretension­s to haute société, Ottawa-style, seems to be taken for granted, although happily his ineptness for his actual job is not. Here, at least, relevant questions were asked about his suitabilit­y as a minister. By the time Couillard had become an object of internatio­nal inquiry, Bernier had already made serious missteps as the country’s foreign affairs minister.

On May 21, he promised to provide a C-17 to transport helicopter­s so the World Food Program could deliver relief supplies to Burma. There were no C-17s available.

He also publicly wondered during a visit to Afghanista­n whether the governor of Kandahar should be removed, neatly undoing months of secret Canadian diplomacy to precisely that end.

It is Couillard’s problem that she got involved with men in organized crime. But it was Bernier who chose to make her problem the nation’s, leaving classified briefing books where he shouldn’t have and doing nothing about it for weeks.

Here is a man who seemed to like life on the edge. When he showed up for his swearing-in as a minister of the Crown, he didn’t bring along just arm candy, he brought a woman whose previous lovers included men in organized crime.

That day, Bernier crossed the Victorian divide. He took a woman out of the shadows, the parallel world that exists for many Canadians only in intermitte­nt flashes of headlines announcing the deadly toll of the biker wars.

The thing was Couillard didn’t think of herself that way. She’s a good-looking woman who might have been hoping for a nicer life than she had. But she acted without reckoning on the Victorian divide, which, we now know, still exists.

The divide means that you can’t reinvent yourself. There are no second chances, especially if you don’t even pretend you’re sorry about your past.

I don’t know what the moral is. Once you’ve dated a mobster, a biker and a loan shark, you’ve pretty much done yourself in?

Or, there are stupid, lazy men in every field, whether crime or politics, and, really, dating them is not a good idea?

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