I belong to Air Canada.
In this moment. January 2020.
Buckled into Seat 14C.
Far above where birds take flight. The place where dreams alone can live.
In this moment, I belong to this unbounded world above the clouds. A creature of the air.
This air-borne liberation is a mirage.
I know my feet belong on the ground. A creature of the earth.
I am on a flight to Montreal to visit friends. Their relocation to this city will bring me back again and again because our friendship is long standing and we will nurture it. My friends have also made me belong to Montreal again.
Again, because this is the city where my parents met. Where I was born, but never lived in for long. What part of me, then, belongs here? Belongs to this city where I speak the language only to a moderate level of fluency? Because all of me would not be if it weren’t for this city.
But countries and cities pull at me from all different directions.
Jamaica – my mother’s birthplace. Lebanon – my father’s. Kuwait – where my sister was born. Calgary – where my youngest sister was born. And Vancouver where we settled in 1974 and where my family has stayed since. All of us have ventured afar over the years, whether alone or together, to travel or to live for fragments of time. Toronto – where I lived for six years.
My whole being is a mosaic of spaces, places, and time. Of different cultures and societies. I identify with all of them and I identify with none of them. I am rooted in my experiences with each and am unrooted because I do not feel like I wholly belong in any of them.
They have all shaped me as have other cities I’ve visited, especially those that feel as if they are the locations where I ought to be, where I yearn to be.
In Montreal, my friends and I go to a movie they want to share with me. Their second viewing, my first.
Antigone (in French, Canada, 2019). Sophie Deraspe’s screenplay and her direction. Based on the Ancient Greek play by Sophocles. A play I know. A play that belongs to me because I have studied it, absorbed it, discussed it, taught it, remember it.
This film, this Antigone, which now belongs to me, too, tells the story of an immigrant family to Canada. Two girls, two boys, and a Grandmother, haunted by the memories of the children’s parents murdered in Algeria, in the country that they once belonged to.
In this country, this foreign Canada, do they belong?
Ismène, the older girl, has built a successful career as a hair stylist. The grandmother cooks, cleans, loves each child ferociously. Antigone is fearlessly devoted to the family, to their story, to their truth. In an address to her class, “une exposition,” she elevates her classmates from a state of boredom, heads on the desk, eyes rolling, to whip-straight postures, eyes that pierce through teenage school inertia. Her story of survival, loss, and grief lures them to listen.
Antigone’s two brothers? Étéocle and Polynice? The fierce family love envelops the two brothers and yet they search for belonging elsewhere.
Why isn’t their family enough?
And why do men so often find belonging in violence, especially vulnerable men?
The story of this dislocated, relocated family unravels in flashbacks and in real time. Antigone’s knowledge of her brothers, the appearance of their being and belonging, is contradicted by the reality she grasps in hindsight.
She remembers a night. Polynice creeps home late, after dark. He opens the fridge door, she startles him in the kitchen. He stands in the shadows, the pale light casting an eerie halo around him. Bruised, bloodied, black-eyed, he exults to his sister “I’m in,” “I’m in.”
In what? In toxic brotherhood? In a position to provide for his family now? In hopelessness? In power? In control, as illusory as that power and control may be?
Polynice is not a lone wolf. What he decides matters. It affects him, his brother, his sisters, his grandmother, his community. But he makes choices as if he were alone. Is his choice a resistance to belonging to this family or is it his way to belong more meaningfully?
His choice is made as if he were an island. But no person is an island.
As much as we may long for separation, for isolation. Long to escape duties, obligations, chores, stress, news, disasters, worries, fears. But a hermetic existence is possible for only a few, it is life’s answer or life’s purpose for even fewer.
Most of us, the vast majority, need – crave – connection. We are social creatures. Socialized creatures. We achieve our potential by being a part of a world wide web and I do not mean losing ourselves in the emptiness of cyberspace or discarding hours of our life on the internet.
We want to belong. We are part of a world of belonging.
We recognize that we are as others are. Lost, found, lonely, together, alive, dying, needy, giving, angry, happy, sad, joyful, cruel, kind, hateful, loving, powerful, powerless, smart, stupid, healthy, sick, caring, selfish, playful, serious, studious, ignorant, ambitious, lackadaisical, safe, unsafe, privileged, oppressed, worried, carefree, careful, careless, faithful, faithless, believing, unbelieving. Free, not free.
Isolation, being alone, is a desire, a fantasy, as is belonging. The former is a choice, the latter inescapable. We are compelled into connection. We are born into a web of connections.
We have to negotiate with ourselves as much as with others. We negotiate with life, with experiences. And despite this we are often unprepared for what life throws at us.
Perhaps there is a toxic underpinning to the idea of belonging. After all, embedded in the word “belong” is the idea of ownership. My husband, my wife, my spouse, my daughter, my son, my child, my father, my mother, my parents, my sister, my brother, my siblings, my niece, my nephew, my uncle, my aunt, my grandparents, my cousins, my relatives, my friend, my colleague, my acquaintance, my pet, my community, my neighbourhood, my job, my school, my work, my career, my money, my dreams, my aspirations, my humour, my loss, my grief, my beliefs, my body, my pain.
Would we be better served by leaving belonging to refer to objects? When we talk about humans, living creatures, plants, trees, the earth and the webs of existence in which we’re enmeshed, would it be better use other verbs: “connect,” “embrace,” “cherish,” “know,” “love”? I connect with this city; this city connects with me. This family embraces me; I embrace this family. These friends cherish me; I cherish these friends. I know that person; that person knows me. You love me; I love you.
Words alone will not remake belonging. We need to excavate the purpose, the meaning, the appeal, the allure, the temptation of belonging.
Why do we care about belonging? Why do we need to belong?
Where do we belong? To whom do we belong?
Where do I belong? To whom do I belong? Who belongs with me, to me?
I think we can only remake belonging if we learn to transcend the boundaries of belonging and not belonging. To embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of embodying different states and ways of being. To be unbounded. To imagine our lives as bigger than what we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Bigger than our dreams, bigger than our imaginations.
Bigger than our communities of “same as me.”
As big as our hearts.
Because we belong nowhere and everywhere.
I belong nowhere and everywhere.
I may live in Vancouver, but fragments of me are dispersed. Unless I identify with everywhere, I can’t care about the world, the environment, the fragile state of humanity’s existence.
We belong to nothing and everything.
I belong to nothing and everything.
Because I am not beholden or enthralled by a particular thing or person and yet I am curious about all the world has to offer.
We belong to no one and everyone.
I belong to no one and everyone.
Because I am not an object to be owned and yet I am human as you are human, as he is human, as she is human, as they are human, as the many are human.
This heart belongs to those I love, but not as a thing for them to own.
It is a gift that says they are valued and valuable.
This soul is untethered in a state of un-belonging.
The essence of me is free.
We shared a birthday.
Auntie Laila and me.
And every year, when March 29th rolled around, I would call her, or she would call me.
This year marks the final such exchange.
Auntie Laila died yesterday.
Just as her personality was larger than life, the impact she had on me is much larger than the quantifiable amount of time that we spent in each other’s company.
We’re also part of an extended family in a culture where the furthest relation is as close as your brother or your sister, your mother or your father.
Auntie Laila was married to my Uncle Ed who is in fact my paternal grandfather’s first cousin.
That gives you a sense of how distant we are from one another on the family tree.
However, when it comes to human connection, closeness defies measurement. You cannot measure love in metres, centimetres, and kilometres or miles, inches, and yards.
When it comes to family, to those we love, distance is only every measured in heartbeats, thoughts, and dreams. If you think of a person, then they are with you. If you dream of a person, then they are with you. And when such a person dies, they never leave you.
The strength of the tie between Aunt Laila, her daughter Medina, my mother, and my sisters can be traced to a particular time and place.
We were living in Beirut in the early 1970s when Aunt Laila and Medina came to visit. In my memories, my father wasn’t there. He worked in Kuwait and was typically home for only one week every month or so.
This must have been one of the times he was away. The task of entertaining and touring fell to my Mom who at the time drove a red, four-door Peugeot. We crammed into the car, all six of us, for whichever excursion Mom and Auntie Laila had dreamt up. We would pass the time in conversation, laughter, and with music. In particular, a song.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”
Whether careening around the streets of Beirut or driving up to Karoun, the family village in the Bekaa Valley, we’d sing loudly and exuberantly with Auntie Laila leading the choir as the minutes ticked by on the clock and the kilometres of asphalt flowed under the tires.
“You make me happy when skies are gray …”
From that point on, Auntie Laila and my mother were sisters and whenever they were together they would gossip, they would giggle, they would laugh out loud. They supported one another, they travelled together, and they cooked for everyone.
When Mom died in 2015, Auntie Laila was unable to travel to Vancouver for the celebration of life, but she was in that room with us all.
She was there.
Knowing that Auntie Laila’s illness was advancing, and with the loss of another family matriarch that year, I was overwhelmed with the need to see her.
To hug her. To hear her say “Ya aini, ya habibti…”. My eyes, a profound endearment in Arabic, my dear one.
So, Luc and I did just that. We went to see Auntie Laila.
We embarked on a three-week road trip that took us from Vancouver to Kamloops, Jasper, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Lake Louise, Kelowna, and back home. At many stops along the way, we spent time with friends and family members. And in Grande Prairie, we caught up with Auntie Laila and the many relatives there.
It was magical.
“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away …”
The last time I saw Auntie Laila in person was early December 2019.
I had suggested to my father that we visit Grande Prairie because the one truth that we continue to forget and have to relearn is that life — no matter how much we try to wrestle it to the ground — is random and change can come suddenly even when it seems like we will have forever. The toll of age and illness is never predictable. The time to go and see, to stop and call, to visit and reminisce is always now although it is not often feasible to follow through on such intentions and desires.
We were lucky enough to make plans and to act on them.
Dad and I travelled to Grande Prairie. As he challenged Uncle Ed to consecutive games of crib, I sat on the couch in the family room or in the living room and Auntie Laila sat in her chair. We would chat or not, we watched the Christmas movies playing on the television, or not. It didn’t really matter. What mattered is I could look up and see that she was there. I could smile at her, I could hug her, I could say, “I love you.”
The last time I saw Auntie Laila was just a few weeks ago on March 14th during a Zoom call that gathered households together from around the world to celebrate a number of family milestones.
Auntie Laila didn’t say anything, and she may not have quite understood what all the fuss was about, but just to see her made me tear up because while it felt as if she were in the room with me, she was so very far away.
“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms …”
And now the connection has been disrupted.
There is comfort in the idea of Auntie Laila at peace, or more accurately — as my cousin Medina said to me on the phone today — she is somewhere cooking, shopping, laughing, gossiping, and partying up a storm with Alma, Haifa, Maza, and Yulanda among so many others.
It is, however, a cold comfort because the void she leaves behind is immense. It is now a distance that we will all only be able to traverse in our dreams, in our memories, and in our hearts.
In the stories we share with one another, over the years to come, of a woman who meant so very much to each and every one of us.
“But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.”
That was my reaction when Julie Nesrallah, the host of Tempo on CBC Radio, said she was about to play Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”.
Scheherazade is one of my favourite pieces of classical music. When it plays, I soar. I am lifted out of myself to float along currents of enchantment.
When I’m driving, as is often the case when I listen to Tempo, this is problematic. My foot tends to press down on the gas pedal the more immersed I become in the music!
This transcendence, this plug-in to bliss, emphasizes the power of art to shape, teach, transform, heal, and comfort. These attributes are what we need more than ever as we all struggle to grapple with the consequences of the global pandemic.
Our focus as individuals, families, and communities is on surviving. The focus of governments is on managing health systems and restoring economies. However, to ensure the well-being of society and the well-being of each of us, we need to support creative expression. We need to ensure that the arts thrive.
Unfortunately, arts and culture seldom register as a voting issue during election campaigns, such as the one currently underway in British Columbia. When cast alongside health, housing, and jobs, arts and culture drop down the list of priorities as seemingly, relatively trivial.
I understand why that happens and yet I feel the tendency to do so is misguided. Embedding art in all that we do enriches our experiences, enhances our daily lives, and elevates our humanity. As such, it’s critical that we push our political parties to include support for the arts in their platforms and our elected officials to invest in the arts, especially to facilitate the inclusion of the arts in education, in schools and in the curriculum.
To win the argument for the importance of the arts, professional performance arts organizations often deploy and rely on economic arguments to secure sponsorships and donations. It is true that arts organizations function as economic engines. They employ a wide array of people and generate spending in a number of business sectors. As such, this is an important argument to make especially in a world that justifies investments by returns in dollars and cents. In our current times though the pandemic mitigates the effectiveness of such arguments. We need to emphasize, as we always should do, that investing in the arts is about more than the bottom line of tangible, monetary effects.
It is important to note that arguing for government support of the arts is not the same as advocating for state-sponsored culture. The latter is about nourishing the arts and the latter is about promulgating propaganda. That is why support of the arts should not be contingent on government funding alone. The arts will only survive with individual and community support. We each carry a measure of personal responsibility to ensure that artists and arts organizations have the space, time, and resources to flourish and create.
I also believe that the definition of what constitutes art must be inclusive, expansive, and generous. It is not about creating hierarchical preferences for one art form or the other or privileging the art of certain groups and a few voices. For example, people tend to label opera as elitist and yet opera, fundamentally, is about the human voice and the power of the voice does not depend on costumes, sets, and large venues. Some of the most profound experiences I have had with opera have been in intimate gatherings with no staging to distract from the singer’s voice.
Opera is not an elite art form. It is typically available to only a few because professional opera productions are expensive to stage. That is why the survival of opera as an art form in its professional incarnation depends on government, corporate, and individual support. More importantly, it is crucial for opera companies to invite audiences in with programmes that enhance affordability and to venture out to meet audiences with community-based initiatives.
Support for the arts is about elevating horizons and expanding visions. Art in all its forms should never be a privilege which only a few enjoy and it should never be seen as a talent which only a few can exercise. Creative expression is in all of us and it is for all of us. It is a bridge to building community and understanding. It is a celebration of diversity. It is a path to better.
Art is what makes our spirits soar and our hearts sing.
It makes us more than.
Support the arts in these bleak times. Financially if and when you are able to, with your time and attention if you cannot, because that song, that book, that drawing, that moment of creativity captured in whichever art form you enjoy is a spark of hope.
“Non! Rien de rien … Non, Je ne regrette rien.”
With these words, Edith Piaf sings and proclaims a life of no regrets for the good and bad times she’s had, for her ups and downs, her sorrows and pleasures. It’s a powerful anthem, but the binary of no regrets versus regret is too stark a contrast for the reality of complex lives and complicated life journeys.
Similarly, the boastful, defiant, and defensive posturing of Paul Anka’s “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention” is also unsatisfying. The insistence that “I did it my way” elides any notion of factors that are beyond our control and circumstances that constrain our ability to act.
In terms of my own life, regrets for opportunities that didn’t come together or that I let elude my grasp haunt me.
If I had been accepted into the MA programme in History at UBC or if my application to law school had been successful in the early 1980s, I would have likely built a multi-decade career by now in either academia or law. Of course, I have found my way back to academia and am a better scholar today than I would have been as a 22-year-old, but it is difficult balancing the reality of being a mature woman with that of being a junior scholar.
I resigned my position with Expo 86 before the fair opened. I was an early hire and one of the original hostesses that welcomed guests to the display pavilion before moving over to the Expo Centre, better known today as Vancouver’s Science World. If I had persevered and accepted the boredom and circumscribed responsibility of my role at that time for the benefit of experiencing the world’s fair as an insider, would I have established a network that allowed me to work at other events around the world? On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to different countries without the obligation of working while away.
Before returning to Vancouver from Toronto in 1992, I tried to secure a position with Rogers Cablesystems, my employer at the time, but they didn’t come through with an offer until after I’d made another commitment. What would have happened if they had made the offer sooner and I had been a part of Rogers’s pay-per-view initiative? What if I had listened to Jerry Beckerman, a family friend and well-connected political strategist, and sought the nomination for a nearby riding when the incumbent MLA decided not to run for re-election? What if I had been more diligent in pitching stories when I was writing food and travel articles, with pieces appearing in the North Shore Outlook, The Georgia Straight, and other publications? What if I had followed up with the editor from Gourmet who gave me his card when I attended a weekend of culinary workshops and events in New York, which the magazine had organized?
This process of self-reflection is necessary, ongoing, and can’t merely be an end-of-days reckoning. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles writes, “Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” While crossing that final frontier may mean an end to pain, if we can’t find comfort and happiness until we die, then life is an empty, joyless exercise. Sophocles reflected the mentality of his era, one in which society viewed humans as playthings of the gods. Many today entertain similar notions of fate. However, to believe that life is a matter of God’s will is to embrace the simplicity of an answer rather than the complexity of a quest.
As I see it, the resolution of my life’s trajectories brings me to this point, this present, this now. It seems to me that taking the measure of one’s life, regrets and all, is about the ability to say “okay, I’m good here and I will continue to strive.” It is an eternal balance between letting go and holding on because to have no regrets is a life without learning and to wallow in regrets is a life without purpose.
The current Covid19 global pandemic has tugged us further into living in and for the moment. It also shines a glaring spotlight on systemic injustices and inequities that allow people with privilege to stay home rather than negotiating the frontlines and trenches of in-person work. This reinforces my belief that the greatest privilege is the privilege of mobility, the ability to move between spheres of existence whether physical, emotional, social, geographical, intellectual, or economic. That’s why boxing people into hierarchical slots and labelling them as this or that is an act of oppression. It denies individuals the right to move across boundaries and between spaces, in a material as well as a metaphorical sense, perpetuating existing power structures and historical patterns of domination.
While it is easy for me to opine about the life I’ve lived, in a blog post of over 1,000 words, it also projects a certainty and confidence I don’t feel. Rather, take this writing as evidence of what we all have to do. We all have to sit with the unease and discomfort of a future we don’t control and a past we can’t forget.
For me, in this moment and stage of life, I know I am more comfortable with myself, if not at ease. I have come to terms with who I am and what I have done although I am continually questioning my understandings. I’m still sorting out where I want to go from here, why and how. I recognize that there are decisions and commitments that I will have to make although many factors are beyond my control. I also know that I have to continue to be aware and reflective, to strive and to move. I can never ever get so submerged into myself that I fail to recognize my privilege, forget to be grateful for all I have, and make the mistake of thinking my experience stands in for everyone else’s.
The actions I take may not change the world or shape current events, but I need to do what I can — we all need to do what we can — to make things better for ourselves, our friends, our families, our communities, and our world. It’s about the stake we have in lifting up humanity as a collective. The loss of that collective vision or limiting our collective vision to those who look like us and live like us, is the greatest threat to our future. As we survey the regrets and resolutions of our lives, as we raft the rapids of our existence, it is our obligation and responsibility to ensure others can do so, too, safely, with dignity, integrity, and the knowledge that they are valued and valuable.
“Never leave a dimension out.”
So, what happened?
And I write this not as someone who knows definitively.
I write this as a Canadian voter, one who has voted in every municipal, provincial, and federal election since I became eligible to do so.
A voter of a particular demographic in a particular context at a particular time.
A voter trying to puzzle through a complex situation with access to too much information from too many sources and too many people, none of which are authoritative and none of whom can know definitively.
Even the words direct participants offer have to be weighed because there’s always a personal dimension to what is said, what is done, and what is remembered no matter how meticulous the note-taking or how clear the recording.
There is also a particular challenge with this most recent Canadian political controversy because it encompasses economic, political, social, historical, constitutional, and legal dimensions, among others, and to understand some of these I’ve had to rely on the interpretation and explication of others.
I have also made a number of assumptions in my effort to understand what has happened, to determine how I feel about it all, and to reflect on what it means for my future voting intentions.
To start, I do not believe that any of the key players were operating with nefarious intent.
That is, I do not believe that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was trying to bring down the Liberal government and I do not believe that the Prime Minister, the PMO, the PCO, and others were acting in an unethical manner.
I also do not believe that the Canadian government is corrupt.
I recognize that relationships between our governments and Big Business are uncomfortably close. That applies to the current government, all past governments, and any future ones. This is symptomatic of governments around the world and is a reflection of the unbridled capitalist system that dominates global economies.
For those NDP supporters who will jump up and say, “Not-our-party,” look at the governments in Alberta and British Columbia to understand that even NDP governments have to contend with Big Business. The challenge is to draw social and economic benefits from Big Business and not to placate the corporate sector or to give into the bullying of particular corporations, especially those who claim their survival is at stake.
It’s a difficult balance to achieve and it doesn’t matter to, or isn’t a goal for, the true revolutionaries whose interests are in dismantling the current economic system.
It is also unfounded, in my estimation, to say this Prime Minister and this government do not believe in the rule of law.
The mechanism at the heart of the recent Canadian political explosion, a Deferred Prosecution Agreement or DPA, is a punitive measure and an admission of wrongdoing. It is also part of Canadian legislation; it is the law of this country.
To pursue a DPA is not about circumventing the law. It is about upholding the law using an alternative approach to resolution, in the same vein as mediations, arbitrations, and out-of-court settlements.
I am not saying whether or not SNC Lavalin qualifies for a DPA because it is not a question for me to answer nor is it one that I’m capable of answering. However, there are different views on this issue even from those with the expertise and professional qualifications to make such a determination. For example, The National Observer’s Sandy Garossino has written eloquently on why, in her view, SNC Lavalin does not qualify for a DPA and other legal mavens have said that perhaps they might.
However, if one’s interpretation of events includes the belief that DPAs were included in Canadian legislation only to serve the interests of SNC Lavalin, then that person is operating from the point of view that the government is corrupt — although no proof to that effect has been offered anywhere that I have seen and which I’ve already stated is not my position.
The final assumption that I’ve made, or I should more accurately say presumption, is that the working relationship between the Prime Minister, his former Chief of Staff, the PMO, the PCO, the Cabinet, the Liberal Caucus and the former Attorney General had begun to deteriorate long before a concerned anonymous source leaked a story that was not theirs to tell to Robert Fife of The Globe and Mail.
I obviously have no way to gauge the source of this tension. Was it due to disagreements around judicial appointments (now a confirmed part of the narrative because of another anonymous leak), the Indigenous Rights framework (now confirmed because of a recent interview with Jody Wilson-Raybould), or even other legislation such as the legalization of cannabis or medical assistance in dying? Or was it all of the above and more?
It’s reasonable to conclude, however, that this nagging and gnawing tension, which snapped under the pressure of the last three months, was partly due to personality conflicts.
So, after my long preamble, what happened?
Those were the words of Jody Wilson-Raybould to the Justice Committee and words that she has not contradicted since she first spoke them.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould also stated that she was not directed to take a particular course of action.
In the absence of illegality and a lack of direction, the question becomes one of ethics. More specifically, was the pressure that Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt and documented political interference?
This is where the personal dimension comes into play.
To see the calls and discussions on the SNC Lavalin file as political interference instead of an attempt to explore the viability of applying a lawful alternative makes sense if one does not trust those involved in the discussions.
And, to me, this was the PMO’s and PCO’s greatest failing. They did not understand or make an attempt to understand the level of mistrust and distrust that had, over time, imbued their relationship with the former Attorney General.
Political interference also makes sense if there is a narrow interpretation of the Attorney General’s discretion, another point I’ve seen debated by experts online.
The attribution of political interference does not make sense if additional factors are considered such as reports that were not shared with the PCO and PMO, the refusal to consider the merits of outside counsel on the potential use of new, precedent-setting legislation, and incomplete explanations. As any parent knows, “no, because” is not persuasive argumentation.
And, to me, this is one area where room opens up to question Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s approach to communicating with her colleagues.
There is also a sequence of events that makes it even more difficult to determine an answer to the question of whether or not the undue pressure Ms. Wilson-Raybould experienced did constitute political interference because there were other alternatives and options available to her that she chose not to take.
For example, according to the Shawcross Principle, an Attorney General must resign if they feel the actions of the government are unacceptable.
At this point, someone will fire back and question why I, someone who is not a lawyer and not a constitutional expert, is talking about a legal and constitutional manner. True, but neither are most Canadian voters. Neither are most opinion columnists with national platforms and yet their interpretations, whether well informed, uniformed, or misinformed, are read and presented as definitive when they should be read and understood as speculative.
Furthermore, as stated above, I am a Canadian voter who has to assess, to the best of my ability, the legal and constitutional threads that have woven this tumultuous tapestry.
I have to make my determinations based on the information available to me and which I am able to process even when lawyers and constitutional experts don’t agree. That is the burden of democratic citizenship, which is not easy and which is predicated on making an effort to contemplate, consider, contest, and conclude.
Another retort I’ve seen made, when the Shawcross Principle is invoked, is to question why Jody Wilson-Raybould, as Attorney General, should have been the one to resign.
The answer is straightforward.
Because she was Attorney General and that is what Attorney Generals are obligated to do according to the terms of the Shawcross Principle. There is also historical precedence of Attorney Generals who have done exactly that.
So, in the absence of Jody Wilson-Raybould resigning at this point in the saga, the only reasonable assumption observers can make is that whatever the government did, it was not bad enough to trigger the resignation of the Attorney General as required.
That is, the government didn’t cross the line. Its conduct was ethical or, if you prefer, bad, but not bad enough.
Another angle some have taken, such as Jane Philpott in her interview with Macleans, is that Ms. Wilson-Raybould didn’t resign because if she were to do so, the full force of corruption and malfeasance would be unleashed on Canadians and the Canadian justice system. While this is a noble thought, the argument is fallacious.
Had Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned as Attorney General, it would have been the clearest indication that the government had acted in an indisputably unethical manner. A resignation under those circumstances would have given rise to many of the same consequences — outrage, questions, investigations, and so forth — without the damage of leak and counter-leak, let alone hyperbolic media reaction and unpalatable opposition partisanship, to the general public’s trust and faith in our political processes and our systems of governance.
Furthermore, the one-person-against-all argument shows a disregard for the strength of our existing systems and institutions. It’s a stance that portrays our systems and institutions as already weak, corrupt, and malleable despite the paucity of evidence to that effect. However, evidence isn’t required if one is predisposed to see them in this light because of one’s own unhappiness, displeasure, or dissatisfaction with the Canadian government and its workings.
And that is not the same as saying Canada is perfect.
Nothing is, no one is.
The next juncture that raises questions about the events that unfolded and the perception of political interference has to do with Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s move to Veterans Affairs.
Despite her disenchantment with the Prime Minister, the PMO, and the PCO and her belief that their actions constituted political interference, she did not say no to another position at the same cabinet table with the same cabinet colleagues in the same government.
Her resignation came after a barrage of insulting media coverage that depicted the move as a demotion. More specifically, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from Cabinet after the Prime Minister blithely asserted that all was well when he and his team should have known better.
However, I understand the logic of the situation. The Prime Minister and his team believed that matters had been resolved. They assumed the willingness of the Minister to continue to sit at the Cabinet table was evidence that equilibrium had been reestablished. This may have been naive given Jane Philpott’s intervention and the contentious pre-shuffle discussions with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, but on what basis should they have thought otherwise?
A family member, during a recent politically tinged discussion around the dinner table, argued that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s hand was forced with each declaration the government made. That is, she may have stayed as Minister of Veterans Affairs if only the Prime Minister hadn’t averred her contentment with such obliviousness. So, each step she took was in reaction to a narrative which she felt was objectionable and untrue.
That’s fair and it is a different interpretation that I will continue to evaluate.
However, if Ms. Wilson-Raybould had lost confidence in the Prime Minister (a question she did not answer during her appearance before the Justice Committee and hasn’t answered, to the best of my knowledge in subsequent interviews and disclosures) and if she objected to the actions of the various team members, and given all the other objections she had raised in the pre-shuffle negotiations, if these were all reasons for not accepting the position as Minister of Veterans Affairs, what were the Prime Minister, the PMO, and the PCO to think when she did accept the post? How were they to know what may have appeared to be an acceptable outcome was nothing of the sort?
And if my presumption about a pre-existing fractious working relationship is true, perhaps the Prime Minister and his team had been wanting to shuffle cabinet posts even before the SNC Lavalin situation turned into molten lava.
Although cabinet shuffles are the prerogative of the Prime Minister, the PMO was likely aware that the optics of shuffling the Attorney General would have been appalling no matter when such a move was made. In that sense, Scott Brison’s departure must have felt like a heaven sent opportunity. Here was a new vacancy that permitted a larger cabinet shuffle. And because that did seem to be an answer to an ongoing issue, they jumped at the opportunity of what must have seemed like a tailor made solution despite the warnings and cautions they had received.
With regard to the secret recording Ms. Wilson-Raybould made of her telephone conversation with Michael Wernick, I have struggled to understand what it was that made her feel so threatened that she resorted to the one incontestably unethical action in this whole story.
What made her feel so desperate?
As with most aspects of this ongoing saga, interpretations of the recording have varied widely and the only purpose it seems to have served is to confirm, as the CBC’s Aaron Wherry and others tweeted, pre-existing positions.
That is, if you believe Ms. Wilson-Raybould was the only one bravely standing up to political interference, then in the call you heard her being unduly pressured. If you believe that the government was trying to understand Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s positioning on the SNC Lavalin file, then in the call you heard someone trying to make sense of a contentious issue in a context where much was not understood and even less was shared.
I recognize that Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt isolated and alone within Caucus although she had at least two stalwart supporters and the guidance of the trusted advisor to whom she has alluded.
But, what did she think recording Mr. Wernick would accomplish? Why was she unwilling to stand firm now when she had stood firm so far and had been successful in doing so?
I also don’t understand why Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused to seek outside legal advice with regard to the merits of a DPA for SNC Lavalin. I realize that it meant that her colleagues were not satisfied with her refusal to consider the viability of the new legal alternative, but she knew that already.
I have no doubt the constant second-guessing and “what ifs” frustrated her. I’ve been the only woman on a senior management team in a corporate setting. Many men don’t listen to women. It is a constant struggle to be heard. It’s a struggle that is disheartening, discouraging, and demoralizing.
It’s also not right nor fair.
However, it is a reality that women in male-dominated careers and professions contend with and sometimes managing the situation entails taking steps that in a healthier, more collaborative environment would not be required.
Getting an external review that agreed with the position Ms. Wilson-Raybould was taking would have ended the calls and inquiries more certainly than a secret recording that compromised her ethics. If an external review raised doubts about the conclusion that a DPA was not merited, then she could still have refused to change her position or she may have opted to reconsider based on sound, legal advice, not on political grounds. The fact that she did not pursue this avenue, continues to mystify me.
In the end, it seems to me that the bumbling response of the Prime Minister and the PMO, especially in the initial phases of the storm, was because all the players involved were gobsmacked by the unravelling of a relationship they assumed had healed. The saga is in fact reminiscent of every bad break up any of us have had, where the person that’s left has left us blubbering, over tubs of ice cream, mounds of chocolate, and scads of tissues, “I just don’t get it! How could it all go so wrong? How could they do this to me?”
To me, the PMO reacted as they did because they were dumped by leak and had absolutely no clue why. That failure to grasp the intricacies of the deteriorating relationship, and their own responsibility for it, reflects naïveté rather than ill-intent. As with every schism, anger and grief set in, too, and decision-making, on the part of all parties involved, became suspect.
So, what happened?
To be honest, I’m still unsure and I don’t think that we will ever fully know, even if an inquiry were to be called.
There are too many moving parts of the puzzle. There too many dimensions to consider including the most elusive of all, the personal one.
I do know, however, that Canadian politics has paid a steep price and the result, so far, has only been to reap the dividends of distrust, division, and discord.