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Byelection scandal: For the first time, Thibeault opens up about the scandal that cost him his job

Looking back at the byelection scandal, Glenn Thibeault says he has survivor's guilt for the damage inflicted on those around him: 'I'm definitely not worth the BS that everyone had to go through'
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thibeault, glenn  2016
Former Sudbury MPP Glenn Thibeault. (File)

As we put a bow on this week's reflections on the Sudbury byelection scandal, the man at the centre of it all is still coming to grips with the consequences of his decision to cross party lines.

With the Oct. 4 release of 'Let 'Em Howl,' a memoir by former Liberal Party campaign chair Patricia Sorbara, Glenn Thibeault agreed to talk about the lingering effects of the scandal. The 2017 criminal trial ended Sorbara's political career and did lasting damage to the reputation of Sudbury businessman Gerry Lougheed Jr.

“I look at it now and think, lots of good people had their reputations tarnished because of this,” Thibeault said on a recent sunny afternoon, as we sat in a downtown coffee shop. “I think about Gerry, I think about Patricia, I think about (Premier Kathleen Wynne).

“I'm not worth that – like, I'm definitely not worth the BS that everyone had to go through. I call that survivor's guilt. I had tons of that and I still do, really.”

When Andrew Olivier held his December 2014 news conference, revealing that a star candidate had emerged to run in the Sudbury byelection and the party was trying to get him to step aside, it ignited a political fury that burned much hotter than Thibeault or anyone in the Liberal Party expected.

“I knew there was going to be problems,” Sorbara said in an interview Oct. 3. “But I knew that with Glenn, we could likely withstand just about anything. That's why in the end, we tried to stay focused and just win the byelection. Because the worst thing that could have happened on top of everything else was actually losing the byelection.”

While some local figures get a rough ride in Let 'Em Howl, Thibeault does not. She writes he was motivated to leave the federal NDP for several reasons, all of them good. He believed in Kathleen Wynne and her progressive approach. He was a Jack Layton guy, and Layton was gone.

The House of Commons schedule is particularly punishing for someone like Thibeault with young children. While he loved his constituency work, he wasn't sure staying in Ottawa and missing his family was worth staying with a party he no longer believed in.

When Joe Cimino suddenly resigned, Thibeault was thinking about leaving anyway. Sorbara said initially, the party expected Olivier would be the candidate, “and we were fine with that.

“Frankly, had it been anyone other than Glenn Thibeault, I think we would have said we're just not going to go there,” she said. “We were preparing for Andrew to be our candidate, but then, as I say in Let 'Em Howl, out of the blue comes this outstanding opportunity that you don't get very often.”

He was a “unicorn,” a term that came out during the trial that refers to a perfect star candidate suddenly emerging in a riding. How does Thibeault feel about his unicorn status?

“It was funny,” he said. “I got a very nice note from from the Liberal Party afterwards, with a glass unicorn and a card saying 'Please remember, no matter what you hear in the media or from the naysayers, please remember this is always how we think of you.'

“I still have that up on my desk because it is a nice reminder that, with all of the BS that happened, I was doing this to try and help my community. It's a bit humbling to think that I was a star candidate. I never thought of myself that way. I just thought of myself as a hard worker and hopefully that would pay off.”

A big part of the anger was the history of the party he abandoned. The New Democrats have deep ties to organized labour, and in the labour movement, switching sides is a terrible betrayal. The fact the party stood to lose two seats in Sudbury in one fell swoop didn't help either.

Thibeault said he was attracted to provincial politics because it dealt with issues closer to residents – health care, social assistance and, of course, hydro – that he wanted to be involved in. And he would be home more often with his family.

“I wouldn't change anything, and the reason why I say that is my intentions were legit,” he said. “My intentions, why I did this, it's because (the Liberals) matched my values. I felt I could make a difference. And I had more time with my family — you know, all of that was there.”

“I did not fit with the Ontario NDP, and I didn't fit anymore with the NDP as a party,” he said, on why he didn't just join the provincial wing. “Should I just have retired? Because that's where I was going. But you know, at that time I still had lots to give in terms of wanting to help my community.”

Even after winning the vote in February 2015, the NDP and Conservatives hammered them in the Legislature, Thibeault said. More significant issues were being set aside as the parties asked question after question about the scandal.

With the matter in the courts, the Liberals weren't allowed to respond, so it became a daily litany of one-sided attacks.

“I think we waited too long to start punching back,” Thibeault said. “You know, if I use the Rocky analogy, Clubber Lang is punching away at you, you're in the corner and, at some point, the music's got to come on and you got to start punching back, right? Well the music never came on and we didn't start punching back until it was too late.”

Much worse were the vicious attacks he endured, the names he was called, the death threats, all the while trying to shield his family from haters who seemed to have few limits. Even his children were harassed. The prospect of Sorbara's book coming out – she gave him an early copy – brought it all back.

“Man, that's just tough for me to read,” Thibeault said of the book. “My wife (Yolanda) is reading it as well and she gets emotional, because we know the turmoil it caused in so many people's lives. That's the hardest part.”

Lost in all the noise of the scandal was the fact during his short tenure in cabinet, he was able to deliver for the riding, securing funding to keep four-laning of Highway 69 and, most of all, the PET scanner at Health Sciences North that opens Oct. 9.

Playing a role in getting the Liberals to fund it, helping the late Sam Bruno realize his dream, makes all the bad things that happened easier to deal with.

“I go to bed at night and I'm able to look in the mirror,” he said. “Certainly I wish I was able to do more, but you know things like the PET scanner were very important for the community and I just know the benefits that will come.”

He's not expecting a "statue of Glenn" outside HSN, Thibeault quips, and maybe he doesn’t get  much credit in the public. But he went to bat at the caucus table after “seven years of it not moving,” and convinced his colleagues to support the project.

“Now it's here, it's opening and that's great for the North and great for our community,” he said. “The (Bruno) family asked me to be there on the 9th with them, so you know what? I might not be getting the recognition from the community, but I'm getting recognition from the family – and that's important.”

Would he ever consider running for office again? It's a question Thibeault has already been asked – he had to make a T-shirt during last year's municipal election that said he wasn't running for mayor.

While not ruling anything out, Thibeault says the hyper partisan turn politics has taken — where the opposition is the evil enemy rather than an honourable adversary — makes it tough for him or any good person to take the plunge.

“I never wanted to be a career politician and, you know, thanks to the people of Sudbury, I don't have to worry about that,” he jokes. “But there are too many politicians out there now that are in it for the wrong reasons, unfortunately.”

He still believes the vast majority of Canadian politicians are there to serve the public. But the increased centralization of control by the big parties, the abuse politicians take, and the us-versus-them approach to campaigning is changing that.
 
“It's this current political environment – more and more, we're not drawing in the good people,” he said. “There are great people in all parties — I know very good people in the current Ford government, I know great people in the NDP and the Greens.

“What concerns me is why they're not speaking up. Many of them now, I don't know if they feel their voice can't be heard because they are afraid of the centre (the term for decision-making bodies for the major parties).”

The online negativity is an issue, too, one that likely scares off potentially good candidates. The loudest, most negative voices tend to focus on trivial issues.

“We really need to find ways to start talking about policy and not personal traits,” Thibeault said. “I've heard more about how much I'm balding from the bloggers. Or how much weight I've gained or how tired I look, or what colour my suit is.

“We're dealing with climate change — and even if people don't believe in climate change, wouldn't stopping pollution be something we should be discussing anyways? I don't have the magic wand to fix that. I wish I did. I wish someone did."




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