It seems Justin Trudeau attempted to bully his minister of Justice into helping SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution. By doing that, he unleashed a political hurricane.
The resignation of two senior cabinet ministers is not unprecedented, but it’s certainly rare when the resignations are as high profile as these were.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, once Justice minister and later minister of Veterans Affairs, resigned to defend the principle of judicial independence. Treasury Board president Jane Philpott resigned in defence of ethical responsibility in cabinet.
That just doesn’t happen in a parliamentary system built around the iron law of cabinet solidarity. As Philpott pointed out, “A minister must always be prepared to defend other ministers publicly, and must speak in support of the government and its policies.”
Unfortunately for the prime minster, Wilson-Raybould is principled and strong-willed. And SNC-Lavalin is a serial offender with a long list of questionable behaviour. Wilson-Raybould wanted the court case against SNC-Lavalin to proceed.
The prime minister’s only realistic defence in this case is his loyalty toward – and defence of – his father’s vision of Canada.
Many young people may not know that Pierre Trudeau reinvented Canada. His arrival on the national scene coincided with the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which addressed the role of Quebec in Canada. The commission described the then-unspoken discrimination against Quebec as the “greatest crisis in Canada’s history.”
As prime minister in the 1970s and part of the 1980s, Trudeau’s governments instituted reforms to transition Canada from its established British colonial identity into its present form.
Pierre Trudeau’s vision of Canada was founded on new (and often contradictory) principles and institutions, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, official bilingualism and official multiculturalism.
Behind the lofty rhetoric, however, Trudeau’s reforms meant that Quebec nationalism would, in future, be funnelled through national institutions. In other words, the unspoken discrimination would be reversed: Quebec would get what it wanted, when it wanted it.
Pierre Trudeau’ Canada put Quebec and its interests above all others at the very centre of the Confederation.
Politically, this new Canada was designed not to offend the interests or sensibilities of Quebec. So, from that point until the present, there has been no national vision for Canada, no attempt to define a future destination for our nation, from sea to sea to sea.
To do so would expose openly to the rest of Canada that their interests were secondary to Quebec’s; that English-speaking Canadians were now second-class citizens in their own country.
Trudeau’s vision also meant that federal governments of all stripes would go out of their way to support Quebec economically. Equalization payments, strongly in favour of Quebec, were written into the Constitution. Tax breaks, grants and other favours for Quebec-based business champions like Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin were automatic and unquestioned.
Perhaps more importantly, criticism of the deep-seated corruption and intolerance in Quebec, particularly discrimination against their English speaking minorities, was tolerated and silently encouraged to right apparent past wrongs.
What grew in the vacuum of accountability this all created?
A culture of entitlement and corruption in Quebec.
The Charbonneau Commission of 2011 unearthed deep-seated corruption in all areas of Quebec life, including criminalization of the province’s construction industry, price fixing, bribery and other illegal practices in Quebec politics and it’s public procurement, as well as deep organized crime infiltration of the province’s labour unions, to name but a few.
Needless to say – until Wilson-Raybould principled stand – letting Quebec-based companies off the hook for allegations of criminal behaviour was just assumed, an unquestioned defence of the national consensus.
Regrettably, Pierre Trudeau’s Canada not only favoured Quebec, it also largely ignored the rest of the country. The West in general and Alberta in particular have been complaining for decades that the federal government openly discriminates against them and their interests.
Ontario has watched helplessly as its manufacturing base erodes in the face of global competition while Quebec-based industries are protected and supported behind the scenes.
The SNC-Lavalin crisis feels different. It feels like the end of an era, the end of a Canada that placed Quebec at the centre of Confederation, pitting region against region while avoiding the hard work of nation building.
This crisis is exposing the institutional discrimination at the heart of our national politics for what it is: a national disgrace.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.