Political Sense and Nonsense
I cannot help it: the Jody Wilson-Raybould / SNC-Lavalin political storm in Ottawa and in news media has fascinated me. Bewildered me at times, but in the main, it has kept me interested week by week.
Politics can be a bore. Not this time, not for me, in this instance. Her resignation, followed by the resignations of PMO secretary Gerald Butts and then of cabinet minister Jane Philpott, are meaningful, in the sense of having significance to inform Canadians about their governmental system.
When I write this, the former Attorney-General has testified only once before the Justice Committee, and if the Liberals on committee have their way (they will), she will not do so again.
I conclude the writing of this column March 18, the day when the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, has announced his retirement/resignation will soon take effect, a very serious consequence of his part in the story. And also today, the Justice Committee majority (yes, Liberals) used their power to declare that the work of the committee in this matter is finished – without a second opportunity for the “truth-teller, Woman born of a Noble Family”, to testify again.
I am not waiting for any further denouement after today before submitting this edition of Arc to my editor. I have prejudiced my conclusion: nothing else can come out in the near future that will change the atmosphere now established by this tale of story and counter-story.
The atmospherics of the story interest me most. By that I mean I care more about the cumulative and intangible effect of the many details on “the Canadian public Mind” than about immediate conclusions in the present. I believe only an historical perspective will provide meaningful conclusions, and history is not what happens only, but what we say about the past. Until a few years from now, this story will actually be part of our present consciousness ... Ask me in 2022 what the story “really” was about.
What’s it all about? What does it mean? What should we think?
No one ever has “the last word” on what the real subject must be in a story like this. In politics, as in personal lives, no one can say what the real meaning of personal and political differences are -- not the actors in the drama, and certainly not any journalist or politician.
I am the only expert on my own life, you on yours, and that truth is the same for Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau, Philpott, Wernick, Butts, et al (who are the actors in the drama) as far as their own interiors are concerned. And as far as the exterior world of politics, it will all be a matter of opinion, not fact, when trying to answer questions of meaning.
When the ballots are counted at the polls on election night in October, and a changed (Liberal or otherwise) federal government is voted into power, the meaning of this saga will not be any more certain.
No “expert” can say what such political events, as have occurred in this affair, will signify for Canadian voters -- who are the theoretical government of this democracy. No one will know what effect this saga has had on voter choice – all estimations of the effect and the meaning of the story/scandal/ controversy will be guesses. Here are some of mine.
Disgusted, irritated, disappointed: my admission of mood
As I write this piece, I am irritated and disappointed by the quality, or rather lack of it, in the Globe and Mail for first pushing the story, and forcing headlines where in my opinion it would be more fitting to wait for substance, but the Globe seems to have chosen sensation and spectacle. Somehow the editors there have decided that their paper owns this story since they were first to report it. This has meant some sorry examples of low journalism.
I cite the “story” of one MP, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, as the worst example of what journalism can lower itself to, to feed low appetite. I am disgusted by this sorry spectacle. The Globe may have twigged to how this particular tale has crossed a line into tabloid crap, for it has not continued to pursue the topic.
How was Ms. Caesar-Chavannes and her interaction with Trudeau in some way “newsworthy”? What is there that has national significance and substance for a Canadian citizen to ponder and to carry into political activity -- at election time or any other time? This is journalism at its weakest, gossipy worst. It has no value to tell me anything I need to know about my Prime Minister. Surely a leader can have exchanges that are not reported? Surely the husband of an MP, listening to a private conversation using a speakerphone, is not a legitimate “source” for a valid news story? The Globe owes an apology.
Personally, I demur at calling this story “scandal.” But I must be transparent about my own politics: realistically, I see only Andrew Scheer and his Conservative Party as the alternative government to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals; I vote for neither, but I can foresee no circumstances where I would prefer Scheer’s party, for they are still the people who followed Stephen Harper, the worst ideologue as prime minister I have suffered in my lifetime.
Journalistic opinionators and media analysts, academics of “political science” and strategists for political parties, will all – in their own estimation, if not in mine – earn their paycheques by application of their intellects to understand the saga of Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau, SNC-Lavalin and the law *.
Some of what has happened will never be understood by people outside the events and the feelings, and the people inside -- the actors in the drama -- will not agree on the exact events, words, feelings, and the interpretations of those. But these people have real power and influence over Canada and Canadians, so the story matters to the outer world i.e. to politics, to issues of power, government, law, news, journalism, and national community. What we as a community of citizens learn, what we do with the knowledge, matters a great deal to the lives we enjoy in Canada.
Acting as if my opinion matters, I am going to take my shots and offer up my estimations, for without doubt I am a member of what is calling “the chattering classes” of the Canadian electorate. Education, temperament, professional resume – these are the background to my personal stake in writing about the events of the past five weeks of unfolding Canadian federal political issues.
Beginning: Wilson-Raybould loses her place as Justice Minister
Jody Wilson-Raybould was our Minister of Veterans Affairs from January 11th to February 12th. Before that she held the much-more-prestigious post of our Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, a post uniting two functions that critics say ought to be separated as they do it in the U.K. Was the change in her status a demotion? She thought so, we would find out.
The Globe and Mail smelled a story. They published it in February. On February 7th, the Globe and Mail charged Trudeau with interference in her duties monthsbeforehand. The Globe story was not sourced, citing confidentiality for excuse. Justin Trudeau refuted the Globe story the same day; his words were careful, not smoothly delivered, as he stood outside in Vaughn, Ontario to say there was no interference with the A-G. He seemed to speak in stilted manner: "Neither the current nor the previous attorney general was ever directed by me, or by anyone in my office, to take a decision in this matter."
After this awkward statement, the PM followed up his remarks days later by telling journalists to look at the fact that Jody WR was still in his Cabinet -- and that fact should tell people that JWR still supported him. JWR obviously heard this and February 12th she resigned from cabinet.
At the time of her transfer to Veterans Affairs, JWR had issued a statement saying she always stood for the principle of transparency, listing her several accomplishments in Justice, and raising questions in some minds about why she felt the need to make this pronouncement. The question was raised by journalists and no genuine reply was forthcoming.
Did she see her change of ministry as a demotion, since Justice is a higher-profile and more-substantial post than Veterans? Also noted at the time was the fact that JWR could have been made the Minister for Indigenous Services, but was not. This was important, though no one said so at the time. It turned out that JWR was in fact offered Indigenous Services, formerly the post of Jane Philpott, but JWR said “no thank you.”
It would also be revealed long after the fact, that Philpott herself had told the PM that JWR would be a fine minister for Indigenous Services. Philpott’s advice was followed, the offer was made – but JWR would not take the offer.
Middle: Justin denies, Jody resigns, Liberal foes lick their lips
Saying neither he or his office (PMO) had “interfered” with the former Attorney-General nor “applied inappropriate pressure” in the matter of the possible deferral of a criminal prosecution for SNC-Lavalin became our Prime Minister's standard reply for most of the month.
The PM was looking rattled after JWR resigned. Now he came out with a statement that he did not know that JWR had ever felt strongly that he had been interfering in her independence as the A-G, and told media that she “should have told him” she was uncomfortable with approaches made from his office in the SNC-Lavalin case. She, in his version, did not ever tell him that any of the conversations she had with PMO staff were “inappropriate pressure” on her. And he said he was “disappointed and frankly somewhat mystified” by her decision to resign when she did.
Meanwhile, the former A-G was on the moral high ground, saying she had “her truth” to reveal but she was prevented until it was clear what she could legally say in public; since she had been the highest-ranking legal counsel to the Cabinet, she was bound by lawyer-client privilege to say nothing. She could only speak if she received a waiver to speak from the PM and Cabinet.
She was seen in the antechamber outside a Liberal caucus meeting one Wednesday morning, where she waited two hours before being invited in. Rumours spread of a reconciliation of the caucus with JWR; this would prove to be unfounded. Some scurrilous remarks about JWR as the A-G, of her self-centredness and difficult personality, poor team-membership spirit, and poor co-operation, made the rounds on social media.
The PM went out publicly to show his displeasure and disapproval of such tactics. He said he “should have” quashed these even more quickly. Again, for me, this stuff ought not qualify as news.
Climax: the former Attorney-General testifies, the PMO looks villainous
The Prime Minister then did what the Opposition asked, waiving the legal protocol that stopped JWR from going public; she went in front of the Justice Committee to testify under oath, asking for and getting a 30-minute dedicated time for her version of what had happened behind closed doors. In the House of Commons she had publicly stated she wanted an “opportunity to speak my truth.”
She reminded the public that her native tongue had a word for her: Hiligaxste, which means One who corrects the Chief’s Path. Matriarchs of her nation have held this post in prehistoric and historic time, we are told. JWR’s her father, a former Chief, reminded media his daughter had been given a native name --Puglaas, Woman born of a Noble Family – in her childhood. Personally, I find it odd how little impact JWR made in public consciousness in her time at Justice, during a period one might have expected her to be as prominent as Chrystia Freeland has been. Justice has handled the enormous task of legalizing cannabis.
Journalists began to trot out the phrase “speak Truth to Power” from this point onward – quite inappropriately since the phrase belongs to the Quakers (Christians!) not natives, and we do not know what truth is final, yet.
JWR is now merely another Liberal back-bench MP in the House of Commons -- but she was powerful while she sat in Cabinet. The David vs. Goliath imagery, of this noble woman fighting powerful white males, is nice drama but no help to our understanding; cliché never improves any understandings. I refuse to apply the word “heroine” to her in this story, nor “corrupt” to Trudeau.
In her sworn testimony, JWR revealed ministerial conversations and other private meetings and communications between her and government members up to and including Justin Trudeau himself. She was categorical: there was a sustained effort to make her change her decision to allow the Prosecutor to go ahead with criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin. She had made that decision by September 17 and told the P.M. on that day, while “looking him in the eye,” that he had better not try to direct her to change her mind. He hastened to agree with her that it was “her decision.”
But he believed he could still try persuasion …Here is where his trouble begins.
After that, she says was “hounded” with 10 phone calls, emails, and 10 meetings involving herself or her staff, with representatives of the P.M. such as Gerald Butts and Michael Wernick. Those two men would be next to testify in the committee hearings.
The “interference” with her independence was “inappropriate” but not illegal, in her judgement.
What JWR has still not been able to speak about in public is this: what are pertinent events, conversations, communications, decisions, or meetings that pertain to her resignation, that happened after her shuffle/demotion to the Veterans ministry? Cabinet confidentiality prohibits her from this, and she has not received permission to speak. Trudeau has not offered a waiver in this yet.
JWR has written a letter to her constituents in her Vancouver riding. You can read it here.
I sense that JWR feels she has more significant revelations. Others sense it too. But at time of writing this, she has not broken the silence imposed on her. For that she has my respect. The silence leaves me unable to draw opinion or conclusion about whether she was treated fairly and ethically by cabinet; when she speaks about “my truth” I sense she feels disrespected and censored.
*Readers might think I neglected the SNC-Lavalin political-corporate collusion-corruption aspects of this story, but I feel my perspectives on state and ruling class have been expressed by me before. What I said in my last long column in three parts stands for my view:
“One constant refrain in the self-presentation of the West, the story we tell ourselves about our superior way of politics and rights, is that our system separates private business from public government, just as we separate Church and State. This is heard repeatedly in Canada now as we find our policy toward China and a Chinese corporation, Huawei, under scrutiny. “Canada is a rule-of-law society and we do not interfere in the processes of the law and the courts, not employing government dictation over judicial procedure.” Such is the sentiment we hear from our Foreign Minister Christia Freeland. In the West, government allows forces of the free market and the independence of the legal process to operate “outside politics.”
“Yet we're also observing our Prime Minister squirm under suspicion his Liberal government has tried to save a corporation, SNC Lavellin, from losing contracts as a result of illegal activities (bribes) in the corrupt Libyan regime. Saving a corporation that employs many thousands of Canadians is a motive, perhaps, for government to pursue a certain course; the American President says good relations with the murderous misogynists who rule Saudi Arabia are needed, so the Saudis keep putting money into the American economy to keep Americans employed. When corporations dislike government actions, they can punish us. They might export corporate jobs to a poorer nation with low wages. One could forgive the observer who concludes that in the West, multi-party free elections produce government that has to serve corporations, whereas in China or Arabia, business must serve unfree, unelected, one-party government. In no place do “the People” truly govern for themselves or exercise real freedom in their choices.
“A superwealthy minority – a ruling class -- rule the masses, in all cases. Government is never rule of, for, and by a sovereign citizenry. I accept the truth of that analysis, but I would still much rather live in the West, capitalist, corporate, and corrupted as it may be.”