Monthly Archives: February 2019

The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin Affair, Part II

If you read recent posts on this blog you will notice that they all talk about Unsolved Riddles. Those are situations, commonly found in the social-economic-environmental-cultural-political domain, where the truth lies not at one pole or another, but at both poles. We have a humdinger on our hands right now, as was pointed out by Althia Raj of the CBC’s “At Issue” panel last night (Wednesday, February 27th). None of the others on the panel caught on, however, preferring to stress the contention of the matter. In fact, the CBC News web site this morning blazoned a headline announcing that the matter “forces Liberals to take sides.” Of course it does nothing of the kind, although it may present them with that opportunity. To take sides in an Unsolved Riddle is exactly the wrong way to treat it.

Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did indeed an admirable job of telling “her truth”. She is a formidable advocate. The Prime Minister then told his, doing a less admirable job. He is a formidable advocate too, but in a different style. As we think about these competing truths, however, we should remember that she is advocating for a point of view, just as he is. Her point of view is a legal one, but also inescapably a political one. His is an economic point of view, also a social one because of the jobs involved, also inescapably a political one. So far they are equal.

I am not here to argue the merits of these poles, although I was interested to see an article last night discussing the Canadian practice of combining the jobs of Minister of Justice (political) and Attorney General (legal). ( Ms. Wilson-Raybould is of course perfectly within her rights to be more comfortable with the latter, but as long as they are combined, and she had the job, she had to do them both. She held the inherent Unsolved Riddle in her hands, as did the Prime Minister. We should perhaps be more sympathetic, because these people are both our agents, solemnly obliged to do the best they can to accommodate both points of view. I believe that to argue that legalism ought to out-weigh social and economic justice would be an idea that Canadians, in general, do not accept. It is certainly an idea vigorously contested when legalism in a criminal case reaches a conclusion contrary to our sense of justice.

The confusing aspect of this one, of course, is that in promoting social and economic justice for the employees and multipliers of SNC-Lavalin, we appear to be easing up on the corporation itself and their misdeeds. There may be no way around that. We rely on corporations to create and sustain jobs, which makes us dependent on them. A man who shoots his horse because it puts a foot wrong had better enjoy walking.

Once we take in all the complexities in this affair we come down simply, I believe, to a row between two well-intentioned politicians over what should be done with a difficult case. Both Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister believed they were doing the right thing. She did not like being pressured, and he did not like being defied. An Unsolved Riddle with poles rooted in conflicting ideas of justice, becomes an Unsolved Riddle involving personalities, which is too bad.

Here we have fine drama. Politicians, news media, and social media are all undeniably excited. But is exploiting drama good politics, good journalism, or good citizenry? It is tempting to do so, no doubt. But despite the drama, this episode raises difficult legal, economic, and political issues which require careful thought. The issue is not really whether to believe Ms. Wilson-Raybould or the Prime Minister, or neither, or both, the last being the Unsolved Riddle course. The issue is what should be done about SNC-Lavalin. That’s a tough one, replete with hard legal, economic, and political questions that have  become very public. So let’s talk about them.

Let’s talk also about whether the offices of the Minister of Justice (political) and Attorney General (legal) should be held by the same official, and whether the latter should be in Cabinet.



The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin “Affair”

As affairs go this is a pretty sorry one, but instructive nonetheless. We should thank our lucky stars that in times like these, the best Canada can do for political scandal is an argument among senior politicians concerning the fate of an important corporation allegedly caught in the act of bribing people in a corrupt foreign regime, a criminal act in this country. It should go without saying that the crime lies in getting caught, because I am sure that all corporations who deal with corrupt regimes do it. Pay bribes, that is. Not get caught. As long as we like the jobs and the stock price gains that come from such practices, we are hardly in a position to cast stones. But we do it anyway.

There are two aspects to this affair. One is the behaviour of the politicians. The other is the behaviour of the media reporting it.

Before I resoundingly object to the behaviour of the CBC, where I get most of my Canadian news, I tip my  hat to Chantal Hébert and Neil Macdonald who at least tried to tell us that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that the interpretations of the political opposition need not be taken as Gospel. Fortunately yesterday (February 21st) the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, threw some light where before had been only suspicion, and all became clear to the intelligently imaginative eye.

My interpretation: There was an argument among senior politicians about an important domestic matter, and one of them didn’t like it. She, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time, was the one who had to make the decision. She in fact made it her way, but unfortunately she expressed her indignation at the argument to such effect that someone in her entourage — I doubt very much that she did it herself — blatted to The Globe and Mail. That august press organ failed to ask itself or discern what was really going on, printed the story, the opposition weighed in, other media took up the cry, and a tiny morsel of hell broke loose.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould MP, then spoke in the House of Commons, looking forward to the opportunity to tell “her truth”. That was graceful of her. She could have said “the truth”. It was also the moment when the affair became instructive, and not merely intensely irritating.

She has her truth. Her former colleagues have their truth. I hope both will find clear articulation, and the sooner the better. Both these truths will be true to those who hold them. It may even be that both are true objectively, and that we have here a clear example of what Stephen Leacock called an Unsolved Riddle, a situation where The Truth lies at both poles simultaneously. Stephen Leacock was of course one of those who could do justice to the absurdity of the discussion, as politicians, the media, and the public try to come to grips with one of these things. The phenomenon itself is not absurd, but simply a part of the human condition with which we ought to be entirely familiar but to which we never seem to become accustomed.

I wish the Prime Minister had told his truth right off the bat. Of course it is a terrible thing if SNC-Lavalin with all its experience, expertise, and legions of employees were to fail, if the allegations are well founded, as a result of common practice carried out with clumsy stupidity. They will have learned their lesson, and it is only right that it should hurt. But not fatally. He and his people were entirely within their rights and their jobs to argue so. Ms. Wilson-Raybould was entirely within her rights and her job to want to throw the book at them, to resent the intrusion of political or economic considerations into a legal matter. Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall. Two truths, both true. The jurisprudential art will consist in finding a way to respect both. I think our rule of law will be able to do that, if the hordes stop howling and let the juris bring their brains and skill to bear in pursuit of the best possible mixture of justices.

In my schoolyard many years ago, when combat broke out between two boys, or more rarely between two girls, the cry would go up: “Fight fight fight!” And everyone would rush over to form a circle around the combatants and urge them on, some cheering for one, some for the other, most simply enjoying the spectacle. A teacher would then come along and break it up before anyone got hurt very much. A bloody nose or two, perhaps, or some pulled hair. We are at no loss these days for people to form the circle and cheer as we did, but who will act as the teacher? Where is the voice of calm common sense in this absurd affair and others like it, the voice who knows how things happen in the huge complex conflicted highly-pressured governments of our time, and how we should think about them.

Stephen Leacock, on his good days, had that kind of voice. Of course he had his bad days too. Who of us does not? This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of  his birth, the 75th of his death, and the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. It’s time to re-write that book.