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Trudeau adviser Mathieu Bouchard more than just PMO’s ‘Quebec guy’

Mathieu Bouchard is a relative newcomer to Trudeau’s inner circle.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

As he staffed the Prime Minister's Office, Justin Trudeau surrounded himself with Day 1 supporters and Liberal lifers – as well as Mathieu Bouchard.

The Montreal lawyer is one of the top officials in Mr. Trudeau's inner circle, yet he wasn't a member of the Liberal Party of Canada during the 2013 leadership race. Mr. Bouchard carried a free "supporter" card that gave him a right to vote, but still allowed him to express his lingering doubts about the party, and Mr. Trudeau himself.

"It was gradual," he said in an interview. "At the start, I had some reservations, I wanted to be convinced before jumping in. I became a full-time member after the leadership race."

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Today, the 39-year-old embodies the Trudeau government's efforts to attract a new generation of top talent from outside the worlds of government and politics. As the most senior Quebecker in the PMO, Mr. Bouchard has no ties to the Liberal Party's recent past in the province, marked by the sponsorship scandal of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Instead, before going into federal politics, Mr. Bouchard was an emerging star at  a Montreal law firm with a strong corporate practice, but also a large pro-bono caseload defending sexual and religious minorities.

One of three senior advisers in the PMO, Mr. Bouchard acts as the liaison with federal lawyers in the Privy Council Office, and oversees issues involving the Trudeau household, including the official residence and the agenda of Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

Most importantly, however, is Mr. Bouchard's job as the top Quebec adviser in the PMO. Mr. Trudeau has a large caucus of 40 MPs from the province, but it's Mr. Bouchard's role to make sure Quebec gets adequately represented in all of the government's decisions.

"We have to keep the Quebec difference in mind whenever we make a decision," he said. "The worst crises are often caused because someone forgot this. It can sound good in English and for the rest of the country, but sometimes people don't think of the consequences or how it would be perceived in Quebec."

Still, PMO principal secretary Gerald Butts said Mr. Bouchard's influence goes well beyond his home province.

"He is a deeply grounded Quebec francophone with a national perspective," Mr. Butts said. "I would never slot him in that spot, to say he is our Quebec guy, because he is way more than that. [Chief of staff Katie Telford] and I talk to him about everything."

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Born in Quebec City in a middle-class family, Mr. Bouchard has evolved from a staunch sovereigntist into a federal official with a global worldview. He has law degrees from McGill and Cambridge, ties to Australia from a student exchange program, and a coast-to-coast legal network through his work with the Canadian Bar Association.

Mr. Bouchard slowly drifted away from the Quebec sovereignty movement after the 1995 referendum, when Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau, in his defeat speech, contrasted Quebeckers of French origin and other residents of the province.

"I was home after having counted votes at a polling station, and my reaction was one of discouragement, but also disgust," he said.

The roots of his foray in federal politics go back to 2002, when he was articling at a Montreal law firm along with another young student, Mélanie Joly, who is now the Heritage Minister. Five years after they met and became friends, Ms. Joly launched a think tank for Quebeckers under 35, called Génération d'idées. She enlisted Mr. Bouchard to write about issues such as cities.

"We wanted to reform the political system, we were frustrated with what was happening," Ms. Joly said, explaining she was inspired by groups that opened the door to Quebec's Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. "We were political, but not partisan."

When Ms. Joly launched a bid to become mayor of Montreal in 2013, she again called on Mr. Bouchard to run the team that built her platform. He was there to provide policy advice, not develop political tactics.

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"He wasn't involved in the partisan politics, but rather in the broader issues," campaign manager François LeBlanc said. "There is a lot of depth to his political analysis."

Ms. Joly finished in second place, and continued working with the Trudeau team as an adviser. When she decided to seek a Liberal nomination in Montreal in 2015, her move created a hole in the party's organization in Quebec. Asked to find potential replacements, she organized a supper in downtown Montreal between Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Butts, one of Mr. Trudeau's best friends.

Mr. Bouchard quickly clicked with the Trudeau gang, saying he felt energized as the inner circle of thirty- and fortysomethings debated policy in the months leading to the election. He said he had come to feel that Stephen Harper's government, and its disconnect with Quebec, were "putting the country's existence at risk."

"If Quebeckers don't feel represented by the government for a period of time, unlike in other provinces, it becomes a question of national unity," Mr. Bouchard said. "We always have to be conscious of the fact."

The affinities with the Trudeau team were natural. As part of his pro-bono practice, Mr. Bouchard was a staunch defender of Charter and minority rights, having worked with members of the LGBT community and a Muslim woman who was asked to remove her hijab.

Mr. Bouchard was particularly impressed when Mr. Trudeau talked about gay rights at a Commonwealth meeting in Malta last year, in front of leaders and delegations from African and Asian countries that discriminate against homosexuals.

"It is one of the most refreshing things about him," said Mr. Bouchard. "He wasn't afraid to speak openly and directly about this issue, which showed he is not faking it."

During the election, Mr. Bouchard worked on debate prep, pretending to be a reporter grilling Mr. Trudeau during rehearsals for the French-language battles. He was also one of the two people in charge of the rapid-response team, finding ways to defend against attacks and push out the daily Liberal message.

At the time, he thought he would be on a short break from his work at Montreal law firm Irving Mitchell Kalichman. But the other partners at the firm did not see it that way when Mr. Bouchard told them in 2015 that he would take a leave of absence for the election.

"I had breakfast with him the next day, and I told him that it was obvious to me that if they got elected, they would recognize his talents and offer him a job. I said, 'You'll have a tough time not taking it,'" IMK co-founder Doug Mitchell said.

Mr. Mitchell said the outcome was a blow for the firm, calling Mr. Bouchard the "cornerstone of the future," but a great get for the government.

"He is very lively, but he is also very calm," said Mr. Butts. "The best thing about politics is that tasks accrue to competence really quickly. You find someone you can rely on, and you give him more and more and more to do. No matter what Mathieu was asked to do, he did it exquisitely well."

Two months into the job, Mr. Bouchard keeps an even keel about his arrival in the world of politics. For starters, he acknowledges what some MPs and Liberal veterans are saying privately, namely that he remains an unknown entity whose political antennas are developing and who still needs to build a political network.

"I told myself that I don't have a lot of experience, I don't know the Prime Minister intimately, but that I would do it with humility," he said of getting a full-time job in the PMO. "I'm learning."

As the top Quebec adviser, he talks nearly daily with the chief of staff of the province's premier, Philippe Couillard. He keeps a close watch on files such as the coming physician-assisted death bill, which could clash with Quebec's legislation, and the promised revamp of Canada's anti-terrorism laws.

Most importantly these days, he is in charge of Bombardier's request for federal cash. The firm is a pillar of Quebec Inc., but also trading below $1 on the stock exchange and increasingly dependent on a bailout that – depending on the government's final decision – stands to create waves across the country.

He is also the top Liberal staffer in charge of the Trudeau household, dealing with issues such as staffing at the official residence. While other aides are involved, he is also in regular contact with Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau, who has developed a high-level of trust with Mr. Bouchard as she develops her public personality.

As a rookie political operative, Mr. Bouchard is learning through hard work.

"I thought I was really busy in my law practice, but the level of intensity is what has surprised me," Mr. Bouchard said, who spends weekends in Montreal with his partner but lives in Ottawa the rest of the week.

"Oftentimes, I'm the one closing the lights in the office at the end of the day."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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