Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/2/2019 (805 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Writing in 1906, André Siegfried observed the "impassioned rivalries" between French and English Canadians that would lead to "an immemorial struggle." French and English Canadians, he warned, were "like brothers that hate each other… (and) have to dwell under one roof."
The Fathers of Confederation crafted institutions designed to allow French and English Canadians to reside together peacefully. But the ongoing task of brokering these interests has fallen to Canada’s two old political parties and their leaders.
From the outside, Canada appears to be an easily governed, peaceable kingdom. Henry Kissinger argued that Canada’s well-ordered society was incapable of producing anything other than "small problems."
But balancing the interests of Quebec with those of the rest of the country means that Canada can be nightmarishly difficult to govern. "Managing Canada," history professor Robert Bothwell argues, "can be an extraordinary achievement, drawing on qualities of imagination and reserves of principle." The country has often relied on talented prime ministers to find balance between French and English Canada.
This hasn’t been easy. And the country came within a whisker of splitting apart in the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.
This history of tension and the role of the federal government in brokering the interests of Quebec and the rest of the country are both well worth keeping in mind when discussing the SNC-Lavalin scandal that has engulfed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
At the centre of the controversy is the Quebec-based construction and engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which is facing charges of corruption and bribery. SNC-Lavalin has extensively lobbied the federal government to come to a remediation agreement, which would allow the corporation to acknowledge wrongdoing but avoid a lengthy trial and potential criminal conviction.
It is thought that such a conviction would kneecap and potentially spell the end of SNC-Lavalin, resulting in economic consequences and a substantial loss of jobs in Quebec. For starters, a criminal conviction would mean the company could be banned from bidding on federal government contracts for 10 years.
The scandal revolves around two questions. First, did someone in the Prime Minister’s Office pressure now-departed attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to direct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to craft such a deal with SNC-Lavalin? And second, did Trudeau demote Wilson-Raybould to the position of minister of veterans affairs because she refused to bend to this pressure?
A secondary, but perhaps more troubling, aspect of the case relates to SNC-Lavalin’s role in the creation of remediation agreements, which mysteriously popped up in a government omnibus bill only last year in the midst of the company’s intense lobbying effort. Did the government craft this legislation in response to SNC-Lavalin’s legal woes?
In Quebec, SNC-Lavalin has a chorus of defenders who favour a remediation agreement in order to avoid the lost jobs that would likely result from a trial and conviction. Quebec’s economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon, has argued in favour of a settlement for the company, noting that "SNC-Lavalin is a company we would like to keep healthy." Former minister Jacques Daoust similarly described SNC-Lavalin as a Quebec "jewel" that should be preserved "at all cost." Premier François Legault has pushed Trudeau for a settlement, in part to save Quebec jobs.
The government’s description of remediation agreements calls corporate crime a "complex problem that can have a serious impact on the economy and on innocent third parties, such as employees." Sound familiar?
Opinion pieces in Quebec newspapers regularly question the point of destroying the company over these charges, and accuse English Canadians of anti-Quebec bigotry in their zeal for seeing SNC-Lavalin prosecuted.
Indeed, in the rest of Canada, public opinion is firmly on the side of Wilson-Raybould over Trudeau. And the government would likely face intense backlash if SNC-Lavalin received a remediation agreement, which new attorney general David Lametti has stated is still a possibility.
Despite this potential backlash, I think a remediation agreement is likely. In his public comments on Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, Trudeau has often been at pains to mention the importance of economic development and protection of jobs. To non-Quebecers, these comments may seem irrelevant to the question of whether he or his office pressured Wilson-Raybould. But in Quebec, jobs are the central concern related to SNC-Lavalin.
The trial balloon floated by the Liberal chair of the parliamentary justice committee — that Wilson-Raybould may have been demoted because she doesn’t speak French — was mocked in English Canada. I suspect this speculation might have been more favourably received in Quebec.
Balancing the interests of Quebec and the rest of Canada is a large part of what makes governing Canada so difficult. Trudeau — less than a year away from a federal election — is now at the centre of a scandal in which the interests of the "brothers that hate each other" appear to be diametrically opposed. I don’t envy him.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies
department at the University of Manitoba.