OTTAWA — When reports surfaced earlier this month that a stripper had been given “landed immigrant” status by Canada’s immigration minister shortly after she’d worked as a volunteer on the minister’s re-election campaign, federal Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro launched an investigation.
It’s the ethics umpire’s job to enforce the federal code of conduct for public officials, including conflict-of-interest guidelines. For Shapiro, 69, a pillar of Montreal’s Jewish community, “strippergate” was the first scandal to land in his lap since he was named to the watchdog post last April following a distinguished 40-year career as an educator and civil servant.
The outcome of the investigation will have a major impact on Shapiro’s credibility in his new position. “We’ll do it as quickly as possible,” Shapiro said. “Part of the challenge is to be timely in these kinds of judgments, not just to be appropriate.”
In one sense, “strippergate” couldn’t have erupted at a worse time. As the scandal was unfolding, his wife of 48 years, education professor Phyllis Shapiro, died following a short illness. After taking time off to sit shiva, the grieving Shapiro resumed his regular weekly commute from Montreal to Ottawa to lead the immigration probe.
“Work will be one of the things that will focus him at this very difficult time,” said Shapiro’s friend Robert Rabinovitch, who is president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and, as chair of McGill University’s board of governors, worked closely with Shapiro while he was principal of McGill from 1994 to 2002.
Shapiro wants to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Howard Wilson, who was ridiculed as a lapdog of the former prime minister. Shapiro has been given sharper teeth. Unlike Wilson, who answered directly to the prime minister and could be ousted by him, Shapiro reports to Parliament, has the power to subpoena witnesses and enjoys the independence of a judge.
With the recent extension of the code of conduct to cover not only Cabinet ministers but also members of Parliament from all parties, Shapiro has a wider mandate than his predecessor. Among the new oversight duties will be monitoring legislators’ expenses-paid junkets overseas. He acknowledged that the role “may well have a chill” on travel to Israel sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee, the country’s leading pro-Israel lobby group.
“Travel related to your duties [as a parliamentarian] is something the government can pay for,” he said. “If you’re on a committee that wants to study the Middle East… that’s related to your duties. If not, then receiving such a benefit is not entirely appropriate, as it puts you in a position of obligation.”
That leaves uncertain the legitimacy of travel to Israel by legislators who simply wish to represent their Jewish constituents more effectively. “We will be more careful now than we were previously” in scrutinizing such travel, Shapiro said. Each case will be considered as it arises, he said, and he’s “still working through the criteria.”
In this, as in other challenges, Shapiro will bring a keen and widely admired intelligence to bear. “He manages and drives by the overwhelming power of his intellect,” Rabinovitch said.
Born and bred in Montreal, Shapiro completed a doctorate in education at Harvard in 1967, then joined the faculty of Boston University and later became associate dean of its school of education. He returned to Canada in 1976 as a senior administrator at The University of Western Ontario, and then moved to Toronto as director of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
He then joined the civil service in 1986 as Ontario’s deputy minister of education before returning to Montreal to head McGill. His arrival there as principal coincided with a 25% cut in the university’s operating grant from the Quebec provincial government. “He kept the institution together and focused on excellence,” said Rabinovitch.
McGill was also able to avoid the kind of campus turmoil over Palestinian issues that besmirched neighboring Concordia University, including a riot when former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to speak there. Shapiro attributes the calmer atmosphere at McGill to luck and to its tradition of relatively conservative student politics.
But he also takes some credit: “We made an enormous effort to encourage the issues that were controversial to be discussed in the classrooms so students would have an outlet to express themselves appropriately. We made sure there were no demonstrations on campus of any kind by either side,” he said. “We took the view that the place for demonstrations is on the street, not on the campus. That was not perhaps entirely fair, but it minimized the difficulties.”
As an educator, Shapiro made Jewish education in Quebec the focus of his community volunteerism. Serving on the volunteer executive committee of the Combined Jewish Appeal Federation, the funding agency for Quebec’s Jewish social services, he recently examined the needs of Jewish day schools. “He produced a magnificent two-page document,” said CJA Federation President Sylvain Abitbol. “He can take the most complex problems, synthesize information and bring recommendations in simple terms.”
It’s no surprise that when the release of the much-awaited National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 was delayed in November 2002 by problems regarding lost data, the United Jewish Communities turned to Shapiro to lead an internal inquiry into what went wrong. Only after commissioning a second review by demographic experts did he green-light release of the data in September 2003.
The survey wasn’t at risk of collapse, he said. “After all the additional work was done, the actual results turned out to be very similar to what they looked like they would be in the first place. But it certainly needed help to put it in the appropriate perspective and to understand its limitations.”
Several months later, Shapiro was tapped for his post as ethics commissioner — an appointment that came as a surprise to him: “I make a point of never asking people why it is they want me,” he said. “They tell you how brilliant you are, and give you all sorts of wonderful reasons, none of which may have anything to do with the truth.”