Nigel Wright

Nigel S. Wright, lawyer, businessman, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper 2010–14 (born 18 May 1963, in Hamilton, ON). In 2010, Nigel Wright took a leave of absence from his role as managing director at Onex, a private equity firm, to become chief of staff to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). He was a key figure in the Harper government, and a prominent witness at the fraud and bribery trial of Senator Mike Duffy. After resigning as chief of staff in 2014, he returned to Onex.

Early Life and Education

Nigel Wright is the son of the late H. Graham Wright, an engineering technician, and Maureen Wright of Hamilton, Ontario. He spent his early years in Burlington, where he attended Tecumseh Middle School and Lord Elgin High School. Wright completed his undergraduate degree in politics and economics at the University of Toronto Trinity College, where his classmates included future BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie, future Conservative politician Tony Clement and the writers Malcolm Gladwell, Patricia Pearson and Andrew Coyne.

Young Progressive Conservative Politics

As a student, Wright became involved in Young Progressive Conservative politics, working to defeat Joe Clark at the party leadership review in 1981. Taking time off from his studies at the University of Toronto law school, Wright campaigned for Brian Mulroney in his successful bid to become Progressive Conservative leader in 1983.

Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives defeated the Liberals under John Turner in 1984. Later that year, Wright again agreed to take time off from law school for a position as a speechwriter and assistant to Charles McMillan, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Mulroney.

Legal and Business Career

After two years in Ottawa, Wright went back to law school, graduating with his LLB from the University of Toronto in 1988 and later earned an LLM from Harvard University Law School. Returning to Canada, he was called to the Ontario Bar in 1990 and joined the firm now known as Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg. He was made a partner after only five years.

While working as counsel in an acquisition deal, Wright came to the attention of Gerry Schwartz, founder of Onex, a Canadian-based private-equity conglomerate with interests around the world. He joined the firm in 1997 and eventually became a managing director, specializing in mergers and acquisitions in aerospace, energy and defence.

Continued Involvement in Conservative Politics

Despite a demanding career in law and business, Wright stayed active in politics, working on the unsuccessful Mike Harris campaign in Ontario in 1990.

He also returned to Ottawa in 1993 for a short stint, helping coordinate the transition to Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s government (Campbell succeeded Brian Mulroney as prime minister and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party after the latter resigned). After Campbell’s brief time in office and the defeat of the Progressive Conservatives later that year, Wright gravitated toward the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance.

When the Alliance and the rump Progressive Conservatives merged in 2003 to form the Conservative Party, Wright supported Stephen Harper’s bid for the party leadership. Wright served as a policy adviser to Harper and other Conservative politicians, and became a founding director of the Conservative Fund Canada, the most innovative and successful party fundraising organization in national politics.

Chief of Staff in PMO

The Conservative Party won minority governments in the general elections of 2006 and 2008, with Stephen Harper as party leader and prime minister. In 2010, Harper asked Wright if he would take a leave of absence from Onex to become chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Wright succeeded Guy Giorno as chief of staff on 1 January 2011.

As chief of staff, Wright was responsible for day-to-day supervision of about 100 public servants and political aides. He also managed partisan political issues, liaisons with the Conservative caucus and overall communication strategy for the Harper government.

Senate Scandal and the Mike Duffy Affair

The Harper government was re-elected, this time with a majority, on 2 May 2011. About a year later, in June 2012, the Auditor General of Canada released audit reports of parliamentary expenses, including concerns about housing expenses claimed by senators.

The Senate administration began an internal review of senatorial expenses and, in early February 2013, announced it had started an investigation into the housing and expense claims of four senators: Conservatives Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, and Liberal Mac Harb. On 22 February, Duffy told a television interviewer in Charlottetown that he and his wife planned to pay back any of the housing expenses that were in doubt.

On 14 May, journalist Robert Fife, then of CTV News, revealed that Wright had given Duffy a cheque for more than $90,000, which Duffy used to repay the expenses. The PMO confirmed Wright’s connection to the payment the next day. On 16 May, Duffy resigned from the Conservative parliamentary caucus.

The next day, with the opposition demanding Wright’s dismissal, Harper’s communications director said Wright still had the Prime Minister’s “full confidence,” and would remain as chief of staff. Two days later, on 19 May, the PMO announced that Wright had resigned. Harper said he had accepted the resignation “with great regret.” However, only nine days later, the Prime Minister said that Wright had “agreed to resign”; and, in October, he said Wright “was dismissed.”

In July 2014, Duffy was formally charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He was charged with accepting a bribe from Wright, although Wright was not charged with offering it. According to a report by former RCMP superintendent Biagio Carrese (written in April 2014), a significant factor in the decision not to prosecute Wright was his value as a witness in the trial against Duffy. Carrese also reported that it would be very difficult to prove criminal intent, as there was no evidence of personal or “tangible” benefit for Wright. “The evidence in fact shows that Mr. Wright thought it in the public interest to repay the $90K. He did not want the taxpayer to have to pay for Senator Duffy’s expenses, which he believed the senator ought not have claimed on moral and ethical grounds.”

Wright’s payment to Duffy became a central part of the trial that began in Ottawa on 7 April 2015. By then, Wright had returned to Onex in its London office. He spent six days in the witness box, explaining his part in managing political fallout from the scandal and stating that he provided the money solely to protect the federal treasury.

A key question at the trial was Harper’s role in the affair, if any. An email written by Wright was introduced into evidence which said, “we are good to go from the PM” on the payment. However, in his testimony, Wright insisted Harper did not know where the money had come from. This accorded with the Prime Minister’s assertion that he had known nothing of the arrangement. (See also Mike Duffy Case.)

However, many Canadians believed that the Prime Minister had not told the truth about his office’s involvement in the affair. The scandal became a central issue in the 2015 election campaign, as both the Liberals and New Democrats claimed that Harper had misled Canadians. In September 2015, Harper blamed Wright almost entirely for the damage done to the PMO’s reputation. “There’s no person on my staff that I believe deceived me or acted unethically or irresponsibly… Other than Mr. Wright,” he said. Despite Harper’s attempts to distance his office and party from Wright and the Duffy scandal, the damage had been done. The Conservatives were defeated in the October 2015 federal election.

Personal Life and Charitable Involvement

From an early age, Wright has had a passionate interest in the Anglican Church, and once considered a vocation as an Anglican priest; he has been a member of St. Thomas’s in Toronto for decades. He is also deeply committed to charity work for organizations that benefit the homeless (Out of the Cold) and children with cancer (Camp Oochigeas), among others. Wright is known for his work ethic, energy and discipline. For years he has run the equivalent of a half-marathon every day before work.

Further Reading

  • Dan Leger, Duffy: Stardom to Senate to Scandal (2014, 2016).