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The Top 100: The unusual suspects

By Ally Foster      

Not everyone who influences government is in government. From shipbuilding tycoons, to comedians, to the lead singer of a Canadian rock band, sometimes, power comes from people rather than just positions.

Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie—who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year—has been using his platform to call on the Canadian government to fulfill its promise of better-supporting indigenous Canadians. Here, he emotionally embraces Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a concert during the band's final tour. Photograph courtesy of David Bastedo

When discussing who has the most sway in politics and government, one lobbyist—who spoke on background—said there are those who may not fit into tidy categories, or be considered a “usual suspect,” but still wield a great deal of power.

One way to gauge influence, the insider said, is to hypothesize: if the person in question were to telephone the PMO, and ask to speak to the prime minister on a matter of urgency, what are the chances he would personally take the call?

There are some who the government simply could not afford to ignore, say insiders. These heavy-hitters include names like Jim Irving, who owns the Canadian conglomerate, J. D. Irving Limited. This New Brunswick-based giant has its corporate fingers in everything from forestry, pulp and paper, newspaper and media, construction and building supplies, food, transportation, and— perhaps most relevant to the Canadian government—shipping, transportation, and ship building.

Irving’s net worth sits at $5.4-billion, making him the fourth-richest businessperson in Canada. But his wealth isn’t the only thing that would put him on Trudeau’s Rolodex; as one insider points out, he managed to secure the contract to build the new Canadian Surface Combatants as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. His ties to this government are close enough that Trudeau’s right-hand-man Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc has an ethics screen in place to prevent a conflict, as Irving is a close friend of his.

“Not only did [Irving] secure the largest single procurement contract in Canadian history, but he also convinced the government to allow him to decide who the subcontractors should be,” said one insider, who added that as such, Irving holds power, wealth, and a long-term contract that transcends whoever the current leader in Ottawa is. When Irving picks up the phone and calls, “the government has to answer—they don’t have a choice. That’s power,” said the insider.

Another powerful and respected businessperson in this category, according to those who work closely with the government, is Tobias Lütke, founder and CEO of tech startup darling Shopify, a favourite government example of Canadian innovation at its best—and one that has, so far, remained in Canada.

Lütke is the brains behind the e-commerce giant Shopify, which has gone public and saw its stocks surge 67 per cent in 2016 and
is now a multi-billion-dollar company. Lütke also fits the Trudeau brand to a T; he’s young, immigrated to Canada, rides his bike to work, and expounds the importance of investing into small-and-medium sized businesses, innovation, and young people learning coding and other digital skills.

And then there are those who are finding ways to help the Canadian government capitalize on success stories like Shopify. John Ruffolo, Chief Executive Officer of OMERS Ventures, is one such example. In the current climate, where innovation is key, Ruffolo is one of the kings.

He manages a pool of $470-million in venture capital and his bread and butter is to search-out the ‘next big thing’ in the tech world, so he can give it a lift to go global. In the past, he’s invested into now-household names, including Shopify and Hootsuite. As one tech expert said, Ruffolo doesn’t just grasp innovation, he intuitively understands how to commercialize it; something this government is desperate to do.

Something else this government is desperate to do is create jobs, and Jim Smith, CEO of Thomson Reuters, is doing just that. In the fall of 2016, Thomson Reuters Corp announced that it would be opening a brand-new technology hub in Toronto, hiring hundreds of Canadians over the coming years, and having Smith operate out of the financial capital, Toronto.

The data, information, and news service head has met several times with Trudeau, and told The Globe and Mail, that the Toronto centre would involve “development jobs, software engineers designing and building products”—all good news in terms of Trudeau’s economic and job-creation commitments.

Outside of the economy, there are a number of people who hover on the outskirts of the traditional political bubble, either bringing policy developments and current affairs to the electorate, like entertainer and political satirist Rick Mercer, and then those who measure the public’s understanding of the issues du jour, and what affects that has on their political preferences, like pollster Nik Nanos. In a time when public opinion can make or break a political narrative, these two are well-placed to make an impact.

Despite increasing claims that political polls are notoriously inaccurate, Nanos Research is still a trusted source of information on political trends. In 2006, Nanos Research took the Canadian record for making the most accurate election call ever recorded in Canada when it predicted the result to a tenth of a percentage point, and Nanos continues to publish numbers and studies that provide a snapshot of Canada’s moods and misgivings on everything from the U.S. election, to the cabinet shuffle, to the future of 24 Sussex, to the economy.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. (P&I photograph by Jake Wright)

One issue that Trudeau is keen to make progress on in 2017 is indigenous relations and reconciliation. It’s a complex and emotional topic, and one that requires advisers from within First Nations groups, or at least, ones who are close to the subject.

As one lobbyist—who spoke on condition of anonymity—pointed out, there are those who are respected within indigenous communities who are expected to hold the government accountable to its promises. It’s on this front that the next two influencers hold their sway, although they have very different ‘day jobs.’

Both Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and the Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie have thrust the issue of indigenous action into the spotlight, and maintained pressure on the Canadian government to make reconciliation a priority.

Bellegarde, who represents and advocates on behalf of 634 First Nation communities is an outspoken and articulate communicator, who doesn’t mince words and knows how to give a sound byte with a punch.

For his part, Downie—who was diagnosed last year with terminal brain cancer—used the stage on the last legs of his final tour with the iconic band to call on Canadians to hold the government accountable to its promise to better-support indigenous communities, particularly in the North.

And, considering that one-third of Canadians—more than 11 million people—tuned in to watch the Tragically Hip’s final concert, the government knows that a significant number of voters heard the message loud and clear.

Although Downie has arguably shaped Canadian culture and identity through his music and lyrics throughout decades—and 14 studio albums—as an artist, he chose to use his platform to be remembered another way: as an advocate for indigenous and First Nations Canadians.

Sophie Grégoire—Trudeau. Photograph courtesy of Pete Souza.

Lastly, there are those who are influential because they play a large role in the life of the prime minister. One is obvious—his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, who has taken a good amount of criticism in the last year around the pair’s perceived entitlement but who remains a high-profile companion and partner to Trudeau, travelling often with him, while also staying actively involved in her own advocacy issues.

The other is Bruce Anderson, who one insider describes as having “his hands in everything.” Chairman of Abacus Data and Summa Communications, Anderson has advised governments of several political stripes on political and communications strategy, as well as some of the most recognizable names in business, such as Enbridge, and TELUS.

He also happens to be the father of Kate Purchase, a trusted member of Trudeau’s inner circle, and his director of communications. Anderson is a popular and sought-after political pundit, and well-known Ottawa philanthropist and culinary scene aficionado.

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