Goal for PM’s chief of staff: no surprises
By Susan Delacourt
Within the next month, Katie Telford will gain a new distinction – she will be the longest-serving chief of staff to any Canadian prime minister since the position was created in the late 1970s.
It might not be how Telford would have predicted things would turn out when she first met Justin Trudeau almost 17 years ago in Toronto, but much about their working relationship has hinged on what wasn’t exactly expected.
It was 2006, and Telford was campaign manager for the Liberal leadership campaign of former Ontario education minister Gerard Kennedy, for whom she had worked at Queen’s Park. Trudeau, along with his old university friend Gerald Butts, was supporting Kennedy’s bid. Just before the convention, Trudeau asked to meet with Telford and they got together at a Toronto restaurant.
A lively conversation ensued about the hot issues of the day, including Quebec language politics. Telford, who would joke later that she had a bad poker face, apparently was unable to disguise her surprise at the impression Trudeau made.
“I’m not quite what you thought I was, am I?” Trudeau said over his shoulder as he left the restaurant.
Telford, who would end up managing Trudeau’s leadership campaign and then moving in as chief of staff after the 2015 election, has fewer occasions to be surprised after 10 years in his inner circle and seven-and-a-half years as his chief of staff. Only Jean Pelletier, who served seven-and-a-half years as chief of staff to Jean Chrétien, held similar longevity among the nine people who have held this post since 1979.
Telford has remained in her job that long for one main reason – that’s exactly where Trudeau wants her to stay. This is a prime minister with a very small circle of trust and within that tiny knot of people, Telford is arguably the most trusted. Very few chiefs of staff have travelled with the prime minister – certainly none as much as Telford, who is constantly at Trudeau’s side when he is abroad.
Trudeau won’t be at her side this Friday, but he will be trusting her implicitly when she makes a much-anticipated appearance at the Commons committee on foreign election interference. She has testified before in this format – once on the WE Charity controversy and again before a Commons defence committee looking into sexual misconduct in the military.
Her goal this Friday, as with those other brief forays into the spotlight, will be to deliver absolutely no surprises – and no news. Her challenge will lie in how well she manages to appear simultaneously forthcoming but also respectful of her sworn oaths to secrecy and national security.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with Telford would know she takes those oaths seriously, as well as her own hard-earned reputation for discretion. She is often seen as aloof, even among friendly Liberals, but it’s probably more fair to describe her as exceedingly private.
Telford fiercely guards her own privacy and that of her husband, Rob Silver, and son George, who will turn 12 this year. For that reason alone, recent stories of the break-in at her home over Christmas would have troubled her far more than the flurry of news stories about whether she would or wouldn’t testify at the election interference committee.
Telford’s long tenure with Trudeau is a frequent talking point in the political chattering classes – it defies the old saw that the people who get a prime minister into office should not be the people who surround him after winning power. Butts left the PMO in 2019 – a development that many said would be followed by Telford’s eventual departure too. But the old trio simply shrunk to a duo; Butts’ role as principal secretary has never been filled and it’s now Telford who solely possesses the institutional memory of Trudeau before and after taking office as PM.
“Katie is the grown-up around me and Gerry,” Trudeau told me back in 2013, when he was running for Liberal leadership and constantly being told he needed a more seasoned, old Liberal hand running his campaign.
“She’s the one who is exceedingly well-organized and she thinks things through in a really far-seeing and broad way. She thinks about the deeper consequences when Gerry and I are trying to outsmart each other,” he said.
“Certainly on everything that is campaign and organization, she constantly fights against people who don’t take her seriously, who belittle her, who say they can do a better job and not just men, not just older men, but everyone. “
Early in her career at Trudeau’s side, Telford became known as the one who wanted numbers and data; she enjoys diving into statistics and the story behind trends in those numbers. She keeps a close eye on social media, but she rarely engages on Twitter. (She is a little more forthcoming and open on Instagram.)
Telford takes seriously the feminist credentials of this government and occasionally has leaned on her networks of women outside government to promote goals within it.
Most fatefully, this is how the Trudeau team gained early entrée into Donald Trump’s White House back when that massive disruption landed in Canada’s lap. Telford had met Ivanka Trump at a Fortune magazine event in 2016 and when Ivanka’s father became president, Telford was able to reach out and forge a connection with Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.
It was that connection that led to the women’s business networking event at the centre of Trudeau’s first trip to meet Trump in Washington in 2017, where leading female executives sat down with the leaders, as well as Telford and Ivanka. Telford’s ongoing relationship with Kushner and Ivanka helped as well in the tortuous negotiations over North American free trade. Telford was forced to miss her own 40th birthday party because those negotiations burned down to the wire in September 2018.
Telford also has a long-established, trusting relationship with the New Democrats’ national director, Anne McGrath. Way back in 2008, when Telford was working for Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and McGrath was with NDP leader Jack Layton, the two were at the centre of the so-called “coalition crisis” that rocked Harper’s newly re-elected government. Liberals and New Democrats, along with the Bloc, came up with a plan to oust the Conservatives through a non-confidence vote and replace it with a Liberal-NDP government.
Fifteen years later, the Liberals and NDP are working together again, and McGrath and Telford are principal actors in the supply and confidence agreement keeping Trudeau – and Telford, if she chooses – in their jobs until 2025.
Telford is aware that many people – foes and friends – wonder how long she will choose to stay at Trudeau’s side. Much of the speculation gets back to her, one way or another, as she does the quiet but extensive networking the job requires. One thing is clear: whenever she does leave, that will be her choice – Trudeau has been known to surprise her, but not on this score.
And as long as she is there, and especially this Friday, she will be trying to make sure that nothing she does surprises the prime minister either.