Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and contributing editor to Maclean’s magazine.
Last week, the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof penned a glowing column about Canada, praising our country (and our government) for moral clarity and leadership in a time of global turmoil. It was an understandable gesture, especially at a time when prominent U.S. politicians are embroiled with blackface scandals and sexual assault accusations, and when President Trump makes a joking tweet about genocide against Native Americans to take a swipe at a political opponent.
Indeed, Canada has often functioned as a sort of moral poster child for many U.S. columnists over the past few years, what with our access to universal health care, public welcoming of refugees and a charismatic prime minister who pops up randomly in selfies. However, for anyone actually paying attention to what our government does when the cameras are off, Canada has a long way to go before claiming that moral high ground. Moral leadership is more than photo appearances and progressive language — it’s also making sure that our rule of law is seen to be applied equitably. That includes holding our most powerful citizens and corporate entities to task.
Take, for example, the shocking cabinet resignation on Tuesday of Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of veterans affairs and former attorney general of Canada. She stepped down after the Globe and Mail published a damning report alleging that while Wilson-Raybould served as AG, she came under pressure from Trudeau or his staff to arrange a deal with engineering conglomerate SNC-Lavalin that would let it avoid criminal prosecution. The company had long been under fire for multiple allegations of bribery and money laundering in several countries (including our own), the most explosive of which was a high-profile case involving Riadh Ben Aissa, former SNC executive vice president, and Saadi Gaddafi, son of the deceased Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
In 2015, Canadian federal prosecutors charged the company with bribery and fraud related to its dealings in Libya over a 10-year period leading up to the 2011 coup. Although the Canadian government recently introduced deferred prosecution agreements to allow companies to admit wrongdoing and pay fines, rather than face criminal charges and potential bans from federal contracts — and ostensibly did so after heavy lobbying by SNC — the Public Prosecution Service instead refused to use the agreement with SNC. It was a further blow to the image of a company whose market value had already been beleaguered by fines, class-action lawsuits and a debarment from contracts financed by the World Bank.
The appearance of interference from the Trudeau’s office in a federal prosecution couldn’t have come at a worse time. At the moment, Canada’s wealthy elite and corporate interests are already under heavy public scrutiny, and government failures in enforcing rules equitably among the powerful has scraped the luster away from our recently burnished image.
When the Panama Papers scandal broke, 625 Canadian-based companies, foundations and individuals were found to have hidden their money offshore. That scandal was compounded by the Paradise Papers leak, in which the names of more than 3,000 Canadian potential tax cheats surfaced. In the nearly three years since the Panama Papers surfaced, no charges in Canada have been filed. While about $500 million in unpaid taxes have been recouped globally due to the Panama Papers leak, none of it was collected by the Canada Revenue Agency, and no updates have been forthcoming.
By no means does Canada’s double standard for wealthy end at its own borders. After Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, likely at the command of the Saudi Arabian government, questions emerged in Canada as to whether the federal government would invoke its Magnitsky Act to levy targeted sanctions against the kingdom. At the very least, it could have canceled its $15 billion contract for light armored vehicles. While Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland indicated that no new export permits to Saudi Arabia would be approved, Trudeau dissembled on the matter of the armored vehicles, pointing to the exorbitant cost of terminating the contract. “Suffice it to say,” he said in a news conference, “possible penalties would be in the billions of dollars.”
And that’s essentially what it comes down to in Canada. For those who exist outside the sphere of Canada’s political and corporate elites, the rules of our justice system apply as the laws are written. Yet for those with enough accumulated wealth and connections, there is a separate track available. One where even dedicated public servants, appointed for the purpose of seeing to our laws being carried out, may find their work discredited and their names smeared in the press by their own party members, should they prove too much a thorn in the side of those interests.
While Canada is dealing with the inability to hold our elites to account for alleged financial malfeasance, we simultaneously are failing to provide the basic necessities of life to northern communities and have so heavily bungled our data collection efforts that we can’t know for sure whether our social systems are working as intended. That, unfortunately, ought to take us out of the running for global leadership of any kind, least of all the world’s moral center.
Until Canada can prove its laws apply to all of us, and equally so, we’re going to have to sit this one out.