Canada’s “Lavscam” scandal — which returned to the headlines last week, after Parliament’s ethics commissioner formally concluded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the law in conspiring to protect a powerful Quebec construction firm from prosecution — has proved a font of endless embarrassment for the country’s “centrist establishment.”
This powerful minority of highly educated, mostly white Canadians who hold jobs in the public-facing professions that shape the grand narratives of Canadian politics has been harshly critical of the prime minister since the Lavscam story broke. Broadly progressive but not overtly left, enthusiastically modern but institutionally conservative, they view themselves as champions of meritocracy and procedure, and enemies of populism and recklessness.
While many members of this centrist establishment vote Liberal and were once willing to give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt, many have rallied hard against Trudeau’s efforts to strong-arm federal prosecutors into revisiting corruption charges against engineering company SNC-Lavalin. They consider his indifference to the wisdom of Canada’s legal community and professionalized civil service, and expectation that prosecutions would revolve around his notions of justice rather than the Justice Department’s, appalling.
Yet, at the same time, the root causes of Lavscam can also be traced to a set of establishment shibboleths that many of these critics have supported for decades.
Trudeau’s quest to spare Lavalin from prosecution cannot be divorced from the ultra-establishment obsession of his political life: making the province of Quebec feel safe and welcome in Canada. It’s a preoccupation he inherited from his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who spent much of his about 16 years in power rearranging Canada’s constitutional and political order around the “national unity” objective. During the 1980s and 1990s, pacifying French Canadian nationalism and resisting Quebec secessionism were the great patriotic causes of Canada’s educated and informed. Elaborate packages of constitutional amendments — the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords — were drafted by teams of lawyers and civil servants to clarify Quebec’s precise place as a “distinct society” within a united Canada, with attitudes toward these proposals spawning a considerable elite-populist divide.
Among the various elite conclusions forged in this era was the notion that Canada’s territorial integrity could be preserved only through an “asymmetric federalism,” in which Quebec was afforded political rights and legal privileges the other provinces were not — and that the rest of Canada would have to accept this as the price of keeping the country together.
It is from this place that Trudeau’s Lavscam actions were motivated. As the ethics commissioner’s report confirms, Trudeau believed he had to spare SNC-Lavalin from full prosecution to keep a proud Quebec corporation in the province, preserve thousands of Quebec jobs, honor Lavalin’s Quebec infrastructure contracts, fulfill his advocacy responsibilities as a member of parliament for a Quebec riding and spare Quebec’s embattled federalist government from having to explain why Ottawa wasn’t on their side.
It’s thus deeply disingenuous for anyone sitting in proximity to Canadian conventional wisdom to now affect horror at a prime minister using every tool at his disposal to do what much of Canada’s credentialed class spent decades arguing was the federal government’s primary job.
Indeed, it may be the predictable nature of Trudeau’s behavior that has prevented Lavscam from being as politically damaging as powerful voices in the Canadian media have consistently expected it to be. A recent study by the think tank Public Policy Forum found that Canadian journalists on Twitter spend an enormous amount of time talking about ethics, including “topics related to the SNC-Lavalin scandal,” despite government ethics being near the bottom of what ordinary Canadians consider important.
Outside of Quebec itself, it’s easy to imagine Lavscam registering to many Canadians as simply another Quebec-centric Ottawa drama they have learned to tune out over the years. It may reinforce stereotypes of corrupt Liberal governments playing fast and loose with the law, but polls aren’t indicating government corruption is as salient an issue as it was in, say, 2006 following the sponsorship scandal (Ottawa’s last legally dubious effort to curry Quebec’s favor).
Instead, Lavscam — and the hostility Trudeau has received from some usually reliable factions of his base in response to it — may be most useful for illustrating shifting moral priorities within the Canadian elite. Equal application of the law and protecting the right of civil servants to make decisions free of political interference has now clearly superseded older tropes of national-unity-at-any-price. And the lawyerly coldness of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau’s fired attorney general, now supersedes romantic Trudeauvian nationalism.
For Canadians who have grown tired of seeing Ottawa treat Quebec appeasement as the highest good, the fact that Trudeau has been so thoroughly ineffective at rallying Canada’s intellectual elite to his defense undoubtedly represents progress.
Yet there remains corresponding danger that Lavscam’s lessons will be overlearned, spawning an increasingly authoritarian bureaucracy convinced that any guidance from elected officials is both unethical and likely illegal. For anyone who believes that democratic oversight of state machinery remains an essential component of self-government, this is an outcome Trudeau’s embarrassment must not be used to empower.