OTTAWA — Mike Duffy’s first day of testimony could be dubbed “The Story of my Life,” a long, often entertaining account of his childhood in Prince Edward Island, successful years in journalism, grim medical history and entry into the Senate.
“Nothing in my life … has been simple or straightforward,” Duffy told his defence lawyer, Donald Bayne.
It was the first time Duffy has spoken publicly since he stood briefly to plead “not guilty” to the 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery back when the trial started in April.
The 69-year-old is much thinner now, and so is the crowd in the courtroom, much of the excitement around the affair having evaporated with the electoral defeat in October of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
But Duffy has long waited for the chance to share his side of the story on his contested living and office expenses, and the $90,000 clandestine payment he received to repay some of those claims from Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright.
Duffy has maintained that he was railroaded by Harper’s staff into repaying the claims, when he never thought he had done anything wrong.
The defence strategy on the first day of testimony was to build a portrait of a man with a) solid ties to Prince Edward Island b) a long, successful journalism career with no experience running an office and c) chronic health problems that made him vulnerable to pressure.
“But the relevance to the fraud charges?” an exasperated Crown attorney Mark Holmes asked after the court was shown the long list of medications Duffy takes.
“This was going on while he was being subjected to all this pressure. Your Honour is going to make judgment to the susceptibility of the pressure that was being put on him,” Bayne said.
Duffy’s lawyer began by taking his client painstakingly through his family ties to Prince Edward Island. Duffy’s grandfather Charles Gavan Duffy, for example, was the Speaker of the provincial legislature. His parents lived there their entire lives, and his siblings still do.
Duffy began hosting a TV show for high school kids at age 15, and on the side sending stories about football games to The Canadian Press. By 17, he dropped out of school to work for the Charlottetown Guardian for $30 a week.
From there, Duffy bounced around different junior journalism jobs in radio, briefly working in Ottawa before he was let go two weeks later.
“I have to be honest with you, you will never make it in this business. Go sell ties at Eaton’s,” Duffy says he was told by one radio station boss.
Duffy persisted, finally getting his big break by paying his own way to Toronto to cover the dramatic Progressive Conservative leadership convention for a Halifax radio station. Because Robert Stanfield was from the province, Duffy became the man with the contacts into new leader.
“I realized that while it was a spectacle, it was spectacle that mattered because it allowed for the debate and discussion of ideas, and at the end of the day it would affect how every single Canadian lived their lives,” said Duffy.
“It became to me a fascination and what I committed my life to.”
Duffy began working on Parliament Hill in 1973 for a private radio network, and by the following year had been hired by CBC — which he called a “magical” time. By 1978, he was working as a national reporter for the network, and began travelling the world.
That’s when his first marriage began to fall apart, which he says was his fault for working too hard.
“I lost my kids, they moved away, eventually as far as B.C.,” Duffy said, pausing momentarily as his voice broke. “I basically had a lost decade. When I walked by a schoolyard, I wondered how my kids were doing.”
That’s around the time Duffy says his health began to decline, with major weight gain, alcohol consumption, and poor sleep.
“I was pretty depressed,” Duffy said in response to a question about his mental health. “You can’t lose your kids and not feel it. I’m a lover, and it’s just very hard.”
Still, Duffy’s career continued its upward trajectory. He was eventually hired away from the CBC to host a CTV show called “Sunday Edition.” He met his current wife Heather while working there.
He spent 20 years with the network before receiving the invitation from Harper to sit in the Senate in late 2008.
Duffy said the conversation unfolded inside Harper’s office across from Parliament Hill. He said Harper asked him whether he owned property in Prince Edward Island.
Duffy explained that he and his wife had purchased a cottage in Cavendish with the intention of moving there in retirement.
“What was your intention?” asked Bayne.
“When you grow up in P.E.I., there’s nowhere you’d rather be when you have time to enjoy it,” Duffy said.
“Having shown Heather the island from my point of view, from the backroads, the clay roads … these are where my roots are, this is where my family is, this is where my forebears are buried.”
Harper long insisted that owning $4,000 worth of property was enough for an individual to meet the constitutional requirement for sitting in the Senate, as he felt owning the property equated with residency.