The SNC-Lavalin ruckus isn’t really about SNC-Lavalin—it’s about Justin.
Gather around, boys and girls, as once again I pull my granddad pants up into my armpits and hook my Walter Brennan thumbs behind my suspenders. I’ve just awakened from a forty-eight-hour afternoon nap, which is why I’m so annoyingly perky, and though the time is long past when it was even remotely relevant for me to explain what the Tommy Douglas was going on with this Canadian SNC-Lavalin doodad, I need you to listen up and at least pretend to care.
As blessèd Saint Judy was wont to growl:“ATTENTION WILL BE PAID!” Now, could someone help me up off my knees?
I never promised you relevance, Murgatroyd McGraw. I promised you Marlboro breath so toxic it could singe your eyebrows, yellow teeth caked with butter tart filling, mysterious, noisome stains on my gusset and slyly humorous, flippant commentary in place of measured, in-depth analysis.
Measured in-depth analysis? How perfectly common!
So, while I clear my smoker’s throat, the better to hoark another oyster onto my signed, framed portrait of Stephen Harper—some pleasures never pall— it’s time for a Canadian Fireside Chat about politics, optics, and which one of the following options you find most attractive:
Progressive Conservatives: More guzzling of fossil fuels, privatized health care, blatant white supremacy, rolled-back reproductive rights for women, no seat at the U.N. Security Council and compulsory church attendance in calico habits modeled after “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Who?;
Liberals: Badly-needed carbon tax that will actually put money IN the pockets of taxpayers, a stab at equality, properly-funded universal healthcare, business as usual and a pretty—and pretty ineffectual—prime minister, but who, when you look at him, at least doesn’t make you feel like stabbing yourself in the eyes with remorse because you voted your country into a no-turning-back state of oligarchic theocracy run by climate-change-denying cretins; OR
New Democratic Party: You’re kidding, right? Though Jagmeet Singh, the national party leader, is right up there, for me, anyway, in the woody-popping hierarchy, what with that dashing, dark, handsome sub-continental vibe and the liquid music of his accent, which is to me as a moist, patchouli-scented tongue probing my hairy, crusted inner ear.
Though, pace Jagmeet, Sikhs can be a little homophobic, as proof of which I will share that the last time a Sikh guy popped round for a blow-job, he said something kind of, well, insensitive to me as he was doing up his trousers. He cast an incredulous look down his nose at me, and said,
“Why do you like men?”
Betsy DeVos Theranos! This is a tough one! Don’t forget your ‘Smores, eh?
There was once a time in Canada, a long-ago, simpler era when squawking blue jays landed on your outstretched index finger and friendly, efficient beavers in Harris Tweed vests valet-parked your car at the Royal York, when we were content with, even proud of, our de facto one-party system.
Every other year or so you could vote Progressive Conservative (PC) instead of Liberal, just so you wouldn’t die of boredom, and without afterwards having to blush and laugh nervously while explaining that you’d recently been thrown from your thoroughbred at Woodbine Racetrack and weren’t expected to recover full brain function for at least a few months.
There was no shame in voting for the party of John Diefenbaker, or even of Brian Mulroney. Diefenbaker, for example, in 1957, appointed the first female member of Cabinet, Secretary of State Ellen Fairclough, who is remembered for eliminating racial discrimination in Canada’s immigration policy.
Yes, the PC’s were for equality and advancing the role of women in public service. Kim Campbell, Justice Minister and Attorney General under Mulroney, passed important gun control legislation.
And here’s a quote from Brian M:
“I think the government has to reposition environment on top of their national and international priorities.”
Provincially, we had exemplary conservative leaders in John Robarts and Bill Davis (who appointed Margaret Birch as the first female Cabinet member in the Ontario Legislature in 1972).
Empowered women! Gun control! Prioritizing the environment! Are we through the looking-glass yet, did we nibble the wrong side of the giant mushroom, are we mad as hatters? These were “conservative” men and women with some bold ideas (and some dubious ones such as NAFTA), but they were, on the whole, advocates of fiscal conservatism. Whatever their private beliefs might be, they understood that as public servants they were in office to work for the benefit of all Canadians.
That government had a role to play in the lives of voters, that government could and should be a good custodian of the environment, that government should protect and recognize the worth of all its citizens—these were not “radicalized extreme-left socialist agendas.” They were givens.
Only when the execrable slime-bag Mike Harris took power—on the rebound from Bob Rae and the NDP— in 1995 did the conservative shredding of the social contract begin in Ontario. This of course was nothing but the same old conservative playbill, turbocharged and disguised as a “Common Sense Revolution.”
When populists and demagogues start making like Uri Geller with English, co-opting concepts like “common sense,” “revolution,” “freedom,” “democratic” and “people,” and bending them into new, sinister shapes, you know it’s time to pack your weekender from Frank & Oak with rolls of bandages and a big bottle of aspirin, in case your future includes an extended stay in the basement of the Presidential Palace, where they don’t even bother to soundproof the interrogation rooms; and whatever you do, don’t forget your Roget’s so you can look up the exact opposite of whatever they’re promising to deliver.
Mike’s “Common Sense Revolution” involved a typical, explicitly anti-labour, anti-social safety net stance (get those queens off welfare!), gerrymandering by way of the amalgamation of the City of Toronto and its suburbs into a “megacity,” the downloading of once-provincial costs to municipalities, and pedaling the snake oil of “deficit reduction” and privatization: all of this based on the premise that government itself is the problem, and therefore the correct and only model for government is that of a department store holding a fire sale.
Example: Ontario had built and was managing a toll highway, the 407, the world’s first with no toll booths and automatic, electronic billing. This public project was based on the startlingly novel concept that greedy, entitled car drivers should actually pay for the infrastructure that they require and should also compensate for guzzling black gold, with the tolls collected contributing much-needed revenue (deficit!) that would support health care and other social services. This one was a no-brainer, and would surely be Ontario’s golden goose for many decades.
But Harris, following his personal mantra of “if it ain’t broke, break it, then declare it needs privatizing,” sold the highway’s operations to a business consortium in the late 1990’s for $3 billion to “reduce the deficit.” Now, twenty years later, none other than SNC-Lavalin is selling ten percent of its share in the toll highway for $3.25 billion.
Nice business acumen, Mike.
Other highlights of his term in office include the Walkerton tragedy, in which a couple of buffoons in charge of the well water supply to a small town failed to chlorinate the water (which had been contaminated by manure run-off from a farmer’s field), make accurate reports, undergo yearly mandatory training, or indeed to do anything except help themselves to a cold brew from the fridge at the Public Utilities Commission and try to cover their criminally incompetent tracks.
Although the Ministry of the Environment had repeatedly ordered the managers and staff to follow the correct, current testing protocols, no one had ever followed up to see if this had actually happened (it hadn’t). Water testing had been privatized, and it can’t be denied that government was smaller as a result.
So was the population of Walkerton, down by a body count of six unfortunate victims of E. coli-contaminated water and thousands of others laid low by life-threatening gastrointestinal infection as a result of ignorance and bad management.
But let’s look at the bright side: At least we balanced the budget.
Getting back to our “scandal:” SNC-Lavalin is a Canadian company whose executives have, in the past, been rather overly fond of bribing Middle Eastern despots in order to obtain lucrative contracts. (Business as usual in that part of the world, you might understandably murmur, and many did.)
This is old, old news; all of the executives guilty of buying their business are long gone and justice done. Any scandal had been dealt with long ago, yet the stars decreed that SNC-Lavalin would be thrust into the spotlight once more, apparently to provide our new Justice Minister and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, with her inaugural trial by fire.
The stakes: Prosecute SNC-Lavalin, after which they would be forever banned from taking government contracts; or treat it as a civil matter and administer a sharp financial slap on the wrist.
Wilson-Raybould was determined to take the prosecution route. Justin Trudeau, understandably anxious about the potential loss of nine thousand jobs just before a federal election, picked up the phone. In fact, he may have picked up the phone a few times before having his morning de-caf, and he may have insisted more than once, as it’s his duty to do so, that there was an alternative to going hard-line and prosecuting.
This was remediation, involving hefty fines but saving the nine thousand jobs, a rather sensible-sounding approach made possible by recent legislation that had been fully endorsed by the PC’s. In this scenario, there was scope for judicial discretion and prosecution was not inevitable. Remediation would provide transparency, promote confidence in the just outcome via that hefty fine and avoid dragging innocent employees into a quite unnecessary, because redundant, criminal investigation.
Wilson-Raybould, whose staff had examined the legislation and concluded that SNC-Lavalin was not eligible for remediation, was having none of it.
Why was Wilson-Raybould so rattled when the PM, along with other members of the boys’ club, advocated vigorously for remediation, and why did she dig in her heels? The more Justin and other cool heads tried to persuade, the more stubbornly she pushed back. Was she handicapped by the thinnest skin ever sported by a member of Cabinet or, for that matter, a lawyer? Was she revealing that she simply couldn’t cope with the demands of the post?
Trudeau’s lobbying has been spun as “undue pressure,” obstruction of justice, a sneaky attempt to let criminals off the hook, or to pay off business cronies, but all these descriptions are quite false. His lobbying was neither inappropriate nor shady.
Did Trudeau attempt to influence the attorney general’s decision? Of course he did, because this is exactly what is expected in our adversarial legal system. Every day, in every court, lawyers attempt to influence: They advocate vigorously, even aggressively, for the solutions that they feel best serve the public interest. This is not sleaze or scandal or interference; this is how our legal system works.
Now Wilson-Raybould proceeded to have an extremely public melt-down that cast Trudeau in an extremely unfavorable light, and she stirred the contents of this teacup so relentlessly that we can justifiably question if her concern was actually about justice.
Wilson-Raybould’s trump card, and her most gasp-inducing error of judgment—or deliberate act of sabotage, take your pick—was to produce, like a cheesey Las Vegas illusionist producing a white rabbit from her top hat, a recording of a phone conversation she’d had with the PM—a recording she had made secretly, without Trudeau’s knowledge or consent— and every nuance of whose content was now parsed and analyzed in the press ad nauseum.
Such cloak-and-daggerism is not the meat and potatoes of the highest levels of Canadian government. This is high-school drama, the sort of subterfuge the nerdy, overly-sensitive President of the Debating Society deploys on the mean boys in the motorcycle jackets who tease her about her acne.
I draw the following conclusions:
There is no scandal or wrongdoing to be found, and no one is seriously claiming there is. This whole affair was a cynical, calculated exercise in throwing mud and seeing how much would stick. Progressive Conservatives and their official mouthpiece, the Globe & Mail, were more than willing to leverage public ignorance of our government and our legal system and to misrepresent both the substance and context of events.
Let’s see what we have: A Native MP, a woman, being hounded by the “feminist” PM; “punitive” demotions and Cabinet shuffles; sudden resignations, corporate criminals going scott free; secret recordings! Perfect ingredients for the perfect spin, a narrative that could create enough doubt to cast the prime minister as a sneak and a bully, and make Canadians question his judgment and even his legitimacy.
The ultimate goal? Bring down Justin Trudeau at any cost.
Is SNC-Lavalin a great, big, heavy-duty Glad bag full of sleaze? Sure, but no more so than any other corporation doing what capitalism does best, i.e., feed itself. Is Justin Trudeau an entitled, opaque, overgrown brat who expected business as usual with the boys in the backroom and who doesn’t understand how his apparent belief that he is not obliged to justify any action, or tell the whole truth, ever, reveals him as shifty and arrogant? It would seem that way.
Were any laws broken? No. Did anything happen that was even out of line? Apart from maybe Nancy Drew and the Case of the Secret Phone Call, not even close.
This was a scandal-free scandal, a big helping of Nothing-Poutine, yet the Progressive Conservatives made a meal of it, bulking up the thinnest material with insinuation and indignation. More insidiously, they caught the attention of the white male demographic that despises Trudeau; despises him for being his father’s son; despises his patrician upbringing and gentility; despises what they see as his “girliness,” his drama teaching days, his avowed feminism, never acknowledging that he grew up breathing politics as the son of Pierre, our most flamboyant and also most intellectually rigorous statesman, the man who held this country together with his bare hands when it threatened to disintegrate and would not let go until it was out of danger.
The trolls and the disgruntled slingers of mud forget Justin’s long years of political dues-paying and his resounding success in 2015; and they are apoplectic at Trudeau’s inclusiveness, his generosity, his uncanny ability to unite Canadians, to embody our pride, to build and articulate our identity and our collective vision for this brave, fragile confederation, this country that is barely more than a wish, a dream, an idea of a country.
Trudeau inspires; white male conservatives, fuming with hard-hatted rage at their diminishing hold on power, carp and threaten and bury their heads in the tar sands and call, shamefully, for a return to “European values.”
They are full of that odious, passionate intensity; the very worst, as always, dragging down the very best.