the comfort of why

Now Is The Spring of Our Discontent

“Never leave a dimension out.”
Stuart Hall

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.

Reema shares an image of Canada Day celebrations on the Rideau Canal from July 2017.
Ottawa, Canada Day, 2017

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?

Nothing illegal.

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.

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