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.

 

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