OTTAWA – It has been the Marjory LeBreton way for 51 years in politics and through unimaginable personal loss: don’t dwell on the past.
“I’ve never been a person who spent a lot of time worrying about things I can’t change,” she says.
So when the 73-year-old Conservative senator – lithe in a tan suit, leopard-print shirt and grinning cat pin on her left lapel – is asked about former colleague Mike Duffy, she expresses no regrets.
Even as she sort of insults him.
“When he got appointed, I was fine with it. I wasn’t jumping through hoops, but then I wasn’t unhappy either,” she says.
Seated in a corner booth at Ottawa’s Metropolitain Brasserie restaurant, slurping gazpacho seasoned with black pepper and picking at a salad she can’t finish, LeBreton carefully defends the former TV host whose residency requirements have come under scrutiny of late.
To say the least.
“Mike Duffy as the senator from Prince Edward Island was absolutely appropriate,” she says.
“Anybody that’s watched and listened to Mike Duffy for the last 20 or 25 years knows he’s a product of the island. He was born there, raised there, went to school there.
“To say now that all of a sudden he doesn’t represent Prince Edward Island is sort of revisionist history.”
Ever the partisan – she practically spits the word “Liberals” and don’t get her started on Justin Trudeau and pot – LeBreton says she is “very upset” about the scandal.
“You can’t legislate morality. I believe people are honourable. Like what could have been done to prevent this? I can’t think of anything,” she says.
“It does distress me that this has caused difficulty for the prime minister.”
She defends Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to put Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau in the Senate, but says she wasn’t involved in the appointment process.
“I wasn’t asked to be nor did I want to be, because I obviously had to work with whoever was appointed,” she says.
“Again, we’re talking hindsight here. Was it a mistake to appoint them? No it was not. They were appointed for all the right reasons.”
She admits there is a “lack of clarity” in primary and secondary housing rules and expenses, but there is absolutely no wiggle room when it comes to campaigning.
“We do not claim expenses on the public dime when you’re campaigning. Everyone understands that,” she says.
The main target for LeBreton’s angst appears to be Duffy – the former Conservative who accepted a $90,000 cheque from Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright, who has since resigned.
“There isn’t a single solitary person that I know in the Conservative party that ever thought for a moment that Mike Duffy would ever be a martyr,” says LeBreton.
“What he’s doing right now is what most of the people expected him to be.”
She doesn’t elaborate – only to suggest Duffy may be the source of stories implicating other Conservatives such as Senators Carolyn Stewart Olsen and David Tkachuk, in Duffy’s deal with Wright.
LeBreton says she doesn’t believe it “for a single moment.”
“At the time, look, we were all putting pressure – I was putting pressure on Mike Duffy to reimburse the taxpayer. In our caucus, people were saying to him, people should not be making claims to the taxpayer that they cannot justify,” she says.
“I don’t have any idea what Mike Duffy said or did about Nigel.”
But LeBreton hints at the fact that Duffy might talk – and he may just have something to say.
“He’ll become a great hero, I know, of the media, if he decides to say something about any one of us,” she says, sipping a ginger ale.
“But we’ll have to deal with it when it happens.”
The “experiment gone wrong” and other Senate tragedies
This summer was different.
Instead of preparing for the fall session and her work on influential committees such as planning and priorities and government operations, LeBreton has been packing boxes, preparing for a move from the ornate foyer to the fourth floor of the Senate.
In July, LeBreton resigned as government leader in the midst of an expense scandal that resulted in an ongoing RCMP investigation and shook the Conservative government, including Harper’s inner circle.
“I got interviewed by the RCMP, I fully cooperated, I hope everybody’s cooperating, and let them do their work,” she says.
While she intends to stay on as a senator until she retires in 2015, LeBreton was officially replaced as leader last week by fellow Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan. But he will no longer have a seat at the cabinet table, as LeBreton has for the past seven-and-a-half years.
“My successor will have more time to devote to Senate issues,” LeBreton says, although she admits some of her colleagues see it as a rebuke.
“They should quit being so thin-skinned. It’s ridiculous.”
As a former deputy chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, LeBreton says she can empathize with Wright’s decision to write a cheque for Duffy – even though she says it was a mistake.
“I don’t think there’s anything really complicated about the $90,000 story. I’ve worked in the prime minister’s office. I’ve been in that pressure cooker,” she says.
“Nigel was doing his job: he was trying to fix a problem. I think it’s as simple and basic as that.”
LeBreton says Wright saw “a political optical problem” for a government that had run on fiscal responsibility.
“That’s your job in the prime minister’s office. I was the deputy chief of staff, I spent ¾ of my time putting out fires, keeping things away from the prime minister.”
She says Wright gave Duffy the money because he was the first senator to identify improperly claimed expenses. She says it could have been “any senator.”
“Patrick Brazeau, to me he’s a tragedy,” she says.
“Here’s a person that got appointed to the Senate, could have done great work for his people. It’s just a human tragedy and an experiment gone wrong.”
She has a defence for all of them: Brazeau was a young elected aboriginal leader, Wallin was a renowned broadcaster, Duffy was a famous islander who worked on Parliament Hill for years.
“Did Jean Chretien know when he appointed (ex-Liberal senator) Mac Harb in 2003 that within three months he was going to go out and buy a derelict house in Cobden?” she asks.
Blue eyes wide and hands flailing, LeBreton betrays her annoyance when people ask her what qualifications senators have for the job.
Sometimes, working your way up is enough, she says.
“I’ve seen lots of people that on paper seem to be brilliant, and they might be brilliant, but you can be brilliant and stupid at the same time,” she says.
“And I’ve seen a lot brilliant people do some stupid things.”
The only woman in the back room
LeBreton remembers a day in the 1970s, when working for Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, she suggested an idea to the room of men, who nodded their heads nonchalantly.
“Three people later, a man basically says the same thing, same idea, and all of a sudden this is brilliant,” recalls LeBreton.
“And I swore, ‘Just an effing minute here. How is it that less than 15 minutes ago I put this very idea on the table, and you looked through me like I was a pane of glass. Now all of a sudden it’s a brilliant idea?’”
Then there was the time, while organizing a convention, she learned she was paid significantly less than her two male colleagues because, she was told, they had wives and children to feed.
Naturally, she fought back – and got a raise.
“Women really had to put their foot down. So I think maybe a few of my colleagues thought I was a little brash. Too bad,” she says.
Her strength carried her through a horrific incident that changed her and her family’s lives.
In January 1996, LeBreton’s daughter and 12-year-old grandson were killed by a drunk driver at 6:30 pm on a Sunday night on Greenbank Rd. in south Ottawa.
Her son-in-law and her other two grandchildren survived. But their lives – especially that of her other grandson, who struggles with mental health issues and now lives in a group home – were never the same.
The man who hit the family, Matt Brownlee, was a repeated drunk driver who was picked up in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in 1995.
“Three weeks later he killed my daughter and grandson,” she says.
Brownlee’s presence filters in and out of LeBreton’s life: after serving seven years, he was charged with drunk driving again in 2005 and in 2011, his father Bill Brownlee won $1.86 million at the Hull casino.
LeBreton says she has learned to cope through survival.
“It’s all part of life and you have to deal with some things you don’t necessarily wish you had to deal with,” she says.
She grew up on a farm in Ottawa and started her career in politics as John Diefenbaker’s secretary, pounding on manual typewriters, and doing speeches on old stencils. She subsequently worked for Stanfield, Joe Clark, and Mulroney, moving all the way up to deputy chief of staff.
“I naturally sought improvement and advancement. Then I’d get promoted and sit there and think, ‘Oh now you’ve done it,’” she says.
But all of sudden, she realized she had become a leader and not a follower.
“Key to that was, you make decisions and stick by them. You don’t blame someone else. If you’ve made the wrong decision, own up to it. And you take a few risks. I took many risks, but you’re not afraid to defend your own ideas.”
She now resides in an institution she knows has to change – through term limits, elections, or something yet unknown.
As she reflects on an ambiguous future, LeBreton believes this: no senator should take his or her position for granted.
“We’re just ordinary, everyday Canadians who’ve been fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to serve in public life, be part of a political structure, meet interesting people,” she says.
“We’re just regular people trying to do a good job.”
Read the Lunch with Laura series here.