When the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke in February, the initial public reaction was that it seemed to be … something. As the affair unfolded in the press and Parliament, that something seemed at once increasingly serious and amorphous. What was it? A story of cynical political interference with the rule of law? A tale of a toxic center of government? Politicians being politicians? A struggle for the economic interests of the country?
This week, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion released a report in which he details the SNC-Lavalin affair day by day, month by month. He found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated Section 9 of Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act when he used his position of authority over former attorney general and minister of justice Jody Wilson-Raybould to press for a remediation agreement for Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin. He found that Trudeau broke the law.
Throughout the winter and spring, as the SNC-Lavalin story evolved, the government and its supporters defended the prime minister and his team. The arguments went something like: That’s how politics works. If he did anything wrong — and we aren’t saying he did, mind you — he did it for the good of the country. For our economic interests. Wilson-Raybould is jilted. It’s sour grapes.
To challenge these reasons, excuses, rationalizations was to just not get it.
Dion’s 60-page report is a vindication of those who sensed that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. It’s comprehensive. There are consistent themes. Trudeau and his team preferred a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin. Wilson-Raybould supported the director of public prosecutions, who did not. The former attorney general and minister of justice felt pressured by the government to reconsider her decision — jobs, the headquarters in Montreal, more jobs, the upcoming Quebec election, did we mention jobs, and, of course, the general election.
Dion’s report makes it clear that Trudeau and his agents crossed a line. That much is obvious. Reading it closely, though, you get the sense that the line is blurrier than you might expect and people negotiating it aren’t caricatures of themselves — cartoon heroes or villains in two dimensions. Throughout the process most of them seemed to know there was a line they shouldn’t cross. A handful of people did a series of inappropriate and regrettable things for a variety of reasons, some sympathetic, some not, some of which seem plainly in the public interest, some of which seem plainly in the political interest of partisans. Ultimately, a handful of them, including Trudeau, crossed the line, indistinct as it was.
The whole affair might have been real politics at work, but whatever you think “real” politics is, behavior in this case contravened ethical and legal boundaries. Maybe another prime minister and government would have done the same. Worse ethical and legal breaches have likely occurred before — one thinks of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, and the Pacific Scandal — but we’re talking about this one. In the world of the possible, we ought to try to hold everyone to account. We’ll fail. We must manage to catch the ones we catch, punish them appropriately and work on ways to minimize future transgressions.
After the report was released, Trudeau took responsibility for the matter but didn’t apologize. He maintains his defense: Remediation was in the public interest, and Wilson-Raybould didn’t communicate to him that she felt pressured. (She should have done so or resigned, continues the reasoning.) The symmetry is soothing in its own way.
The ethics commissioner has done his job. He can’t punish the prime minister, though. Typically, he can assign fines for certain contraventions of the Conflict of Interest Act, but not for this one. Monetary penalties don’t apply.
Given the tools we have, then, the appropriate punishment in this case — and further adjudication of the matter — ought to be left to the discretion of Canadians. Their recourse is the ballot box.
In a democracy, the people are often mistaken but never wrong. This fall, Canada will have a federal election and a chance to make a decision. The SNC-Lavalin affair will be fresh fodder for citizens and parties. It should be. Voters can and should judge whether and to what degree Trudeau and his team ought to be sanctioned for what they did, weighing that consideration against their electoral alternatives. The evidence and findings are available to everyone, detailed in English and in French, for us and for posterity.