It can be difficult to recognize events as historic when we are in the middle of them.
Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould standing up for the integrity of the office and position of Attorney General of Canada will be remembered by history. She is defending a pillar of Canadian democracy—the separation of the Justice and Legislative branches of government.
In an era of pervasive media (particularly social media) Canadians are in danger of becoming desensitized by the political excesses and scandals south-of-the-border. Fortunately, there is evidence we aren’t at that point yet.
Polls indicate a majority of Canadians are paying close attention to developments in the scandal surrounding political attempts to secure SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement. Indeed, it’s proving impossible to look away.
It’s an issue that crosses partisan political lines and there are lessons for all about good governance and transparency.
However, various interests provide a ringside barrage, with small related issues sometimes receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage to the central show:
Was there inappropriate and/or illegal influence applied to the then-Attorney General to overturn the decision of the chief public prosecutor in the SNC-Lavalin case? And, when Wilson-Raybould wouldn’t succumb to the pressure, was she fired to make way for a justice minister or AG who would?
The attempts continue to try and justify the behaviour of the PMO by pointing out that thousands of jobs are at stake. Not only has this stance been called into question by recent statements from the CEO of SNC-Lavalin, but it’s contrary to Canada’s criminal code: Section s.715.32(3), which aligns with the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. In a nutshell, prosecutors must take into account public interest when considering whether to offer a deferred prosecution agreement. But they also must exclude considerations around economic harm or international relations.
Prosecutorial independence is a principle in our Canadian constitution – the justice and legislative branches of government are separate. The contact point between the justice branch and the legislative branch is the attorney general. It’s a position traditionally held by the justice minister, but they are two separate and distinct roles. Many checks and balances are in place to ensure we don’t have politicized prosecutions.
Wilson-Raybould is trying to protect this core value. She’s defending the rule of law and the integrity of government. Former minister Jane Philpott also stood up to be counted. If there was any doubt, the recording of Wilson-Raybould’s December 2018 phone call with then Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick dispels it.
It is disturbing to observe attempts at spin by many elected Liberals. Worse, are the clumsy attempts at casting aspersions. Many are silent. But is silence acceptable when a constitutional pillar is at stake?
In 2016, the federal Liberals swept into office on Justin Trudeau’s back.
What resonated most with me, and many others, were Trudeau’s commitments to equality and feminism. Trudeau appeared to be a model for 21st Century politicians. He was open and responsive and eschewed the ‘old boys’ culture. The last few weeks have evaporated many of those hopes and expectations. Was it all just a cynical play for votes?
Ironically, it was an aboriginal woman who, in the process of defending the rule of law and the role of the attorney general, stood up for the values Trudeau espoused during the election.
It can be incredibly difficult to stand up and speak the truth – and the personal costs can be enormous. Wilson-Raybould would have known this, but she did it anyway, because integrity is not a fancy outfit you only put on for public appearances.
Canadians want a full airing and correction. Why is there such reluctance to allow Wilson-Raybould to speak freely? This prolonged dance around full disclosure is damaging to our international relations, particularly with China, yet it continues.
It’s been disturbing to watch the partisan maneuvering of the federal MPs on the justice and ethics committees. I wonder how relevant or effective these bodies are if they are so easily used to confound investigations into the governing party?
A critical question remaining in this scandal is whether or not the prime minister fired Wilson-Raybould from her positions because he wanted to replace her with someone who would do his bidding?
Trudeau has not granted Wilson-Raybould leave to speak of those events, and this festering situation will not start healing until he does.
Voters are demoralized. Are we in danger of sinking into a helpless apathy that assumes manipulation, backroom deals and even outright lies are the political default? Hopefully, we and our democracy are stronger than that.
Katherine Wagner is a member of the
Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency,
a former school trustee and member
of Golden Ears Writers.