Pacific Scandal is great grandma of SNC-Lavalin : but all “systematic organization of hatreds” is obsolete today

Feb 15th, 2019 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene
Moon over the Canadian Yukon … just after sunset.

[UPDATED FEBRUARY 18. SEE BELOW]. On Valentine’s Day 2019 it is hard to know just what to make of the first prime minister of the 1867 confederation of British North American Provinces now known as Canada.

(Well … my thoughts here are actually being posted just after Valentine’s Day, but that’s just because I’m a little slower than I used to be.)

John A. Macdonald’s 19th century career nonetheless retains some enduring twisted relevance. And it could help us with the real issue at the bottom of the February 13, 2019 CBC News report : “Commons justice committee to probe SNC-Lavalin affair – but Liberals limit witness list.”

I cite some recent sentences citing still others on what in “the spring of 1873 … burst upon the general public as ‘the Pacific Scandal’ — the ‘first major political scandal in Canada after Confederation,’ which ‘involved the taking of election funds by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in exchange for the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.’”

Newspaper headlines of the day on the Pacific Scandal, 1873.

As I see it as well, the Pacific Scandal “marked the start of a long and dishonourable but enduring Canadian political tradition of defeating federal governments by mobilizing scandals against them — as revived in the ‘Adscam’ squabble [aka sponsorship scandal] that helped the Harper Conservatives win their first minority government in 2006.”

(And note this February 12, 2019 headline : “Vancouver MP Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation revives ‘vivid memories’ of sponsorship scandal.”)

As I ponder the depths of Valentine’s Day 2019, voices from my TV set and computer are growing adamant about what some mainstream media professionals are already calling the SNC-Lavalin Scandal.

The depths of Valentine’s Day 2019.

I offer this selection of headlines culled from my local Globe and Mail and Toronto Star websites earlier this morning (February 14) : “Wilson-Raybould’s resignation is an off-brand, disastrous narrative for the Liberals” (Lori Turnbull, Globe) ; “Trudeau risks isolating himself over his attacks on Wilson-Raybould” (Chantal Hébert, Star) ; “Wilson-Raybould’s departure is a calamity for Trudeau’s Liberals” (John Ibbitson, Globe) ; “Is the SNC-Lavalin scandal’s biggest victim Trudeau’s relationship with Indigenous people?” (Tanya Talaga, Star).

These strike me as the kind of headlines that brought the embryonic Canadian people of 1873 the Pacific Scandal — and that just might bring yet another descendant, the SNC-Lavalin Scandal of 2019, with similar giddy consequences.

(The Pacific Scandal soon enough brought down John A. Macdonald’s first Conservative government of the 1867 confederation, and replaced it with a less organized group of Liberals led by the penny-pinching stone mason Alexander Mackenzie.)

Back in the northern woods of early 2019, if something very much like this is what is actually going on today, as the leading issue in the Canadian federal politics breaking news, my own unshakeable reaction is just Wake Me When It’s Over.

And I say this as a Canadian citizen who has voted in every federal election since the advent of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1968.

I am relieved as well that in Canada today I can also hear other voices from my TV set and computer who seem to agree with me, one way or another, more or less. Not everything from the past is worth preserving.

The Age of the Pacific Scandal in Canada ought to have ended long ago. It is just distracting us from the real problems of — in the tidy words of Joe Clark’s preface to Jean Chrétien’s 2018 book of Canadian political stories — “our remarkably diverse country and complicated world.”

Of course, the people of Canada in all their remarkable diversity may finally decide, this coming October 21, that someone and something other than the Justin Trudeau Liberals will be governing Canada 2019–2023.

(And remember : in our present system 40% of the cross-country popular vote can win a governing majority of seats in the House at Ottawa.)

That is at least how our democracy works at the moment. But if at least 40% of the people of Canada do chose Andrew Scheer as prime minister over Justin Trudeau (indirectly), let us at least pretend that this is the result of some wise and measured debate on the key issues before us — from the Trans Mountain pipeline to housing costs for young families to Indigenous reconciliation to jobs, jobs, jobs, and on and on and on.

The Age of the Pacific Scandal, that is to say, was captured in the American historian, journalist, and presidential grandson Henry Adams’s patrician observation of 1907 : “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

More than a century later we aren’t driving the same kind of automobile that Henry Adams bought in 1902. We shouldn’t be practising his kind of politics as the systematic organization of hatreds either. But that’s what scandals do so well — while pretending to appeal to higher standards that grow increasingly vague and slippery the closer you get to their dead centres.

Finally, for the names and addresses of those whose online and related media voices on this issue I have appreciated and enjoyed the most so far — and a few further thoughts on the later long career of the John A. Macdonald who was chased out of office by the Pacific Scandal in 1873 —  click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll below!)

 UPDATE –  MONDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2019, 5:30 PM : Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts has now resigned, in an effort to defuse the growing controversy over “allegations that senior members of the PMO pressured former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to help Quebec-based multinational engineering firm SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution on bribery and fraud charges in relation to contracts in Libya.”

Butts has “said he categorically denies allegations that he or anyone else in the PMO put this sort of pressure on Wilson-Raybould. He said the accusation is ‘simply not true.’” At the same time, “the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the prime minister and his office is doing for all Canadians … My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend. It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”

On the other hand : “Conservative Leader AndrewScheer says Butts’s resignation shows there is ‘much more’ to the SNC-Lavalin affair than JustinTrudeau has admitted.” And Scheer has repeated his “call on PM to waive solicitor-client privilege” so  Jody Wilson-Raybould can speak. Scheer also “says push will continue for justice committee probe.”

Whether the Conservatives (and/or New Democrats) can persuade enough voters that “SNC-Lavalin” deserves to become the kind of old-school Canadian political scandal that can bring down the Trudeau government in this year’s October 21 election remains unclear. I personally continue to believe that this version of politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds” has become obsolete. As an aspiring objective observer of Canadian politics, I agree as well that only time will tell. But for the moment I continue to colour myself skeptical.

 1. A Few of My Favourite Things

Canada’s current biggest big city in the snow.

* At  6:35 AM on Friday, February 8, 2019 David Hamer – “Happily retired after 35 years at the Bar .. Husband, Dad, and Grandfather” — tweeted : “Let’s assume for a moment that someone in the PMO spoke inappropriately and the A-G stood firm. Not the first time such a thing has happened in Canada. The system worked. Is that a reason to elect  AndrewScheer  and his @CPC_HQ ghouls?

* On Sunday, February 10 Alex Boutilier reported in the Toronto Star on “Andrew Scheer met with SNC-Lavalin chief over criminal charges … the Conservative leader discussed the ‘deferred prosecution agreement’ sought by SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal fraud and corruption charges.” At 2:20 PM the same day Tom Parkin — “with a bluntly social democratic point of view” — tweeted on the same article : “Scheer’s office ‘did not respond to repeated questions Saturday and Sunday as to whether Scheer has an opinion on whether SNC should be allowed to avoid criminal trial’.” 

From most hilarious prom photos of all time by Dana Sivan, II. Tks to kiwi report. Happy Valentine’s Day 2019.

* On Monday, February 11 Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist for the Toronto Star wrote about “Canadian politicians are allowed to influence judicial proceedings …  Forgotten in the furor over whether Justin Trudeau’s office meddled in a court case is an inconvenient fact: In certain instances, Canadian law allows politicians to play a pivotal role in judicial proceedings … This may be one of those instances.”

* At 4:23 PM on Wednesday, February 13 the “suburban mom” and communications professional Sarbjit Kaur tweeted : “Hoopla and hysterics notwithstanding: show me a political leader of any stripe who’d let a multi billion $ company that employs thousands go down without making any (lawful) attempts to avert, find another (reasonable) solution?”

Btw those who believe Doug Ford’s popularity in Ontario will also help federal Conservatives this coming October 21 might want to re-examine a February 11 tweet from the Ontario Liberal Bryan Leblanc : “The hard work of Interim Leader @JohnFraserOS and grassroots Liberals is showing results … Liberals in the lead for the first time since October 2016: new Ontario horse race numbers from Innovative Research … OLP: 31% ; PCPO: 28% ; ONDP: 20%.”

2. Last thoughts on John A. Macdonald  — and his Liberal opponents … and coalition partners

From most hilarious prom photos of all time by Dana Sivan, I. Tks to kiwi report. Happy Valentine’s Day 2019.

It says something significant, I think, that the judgment of the voters over the Pacific Scandal in the 1873 Canadian federal election that the “Liberal Conservative” party of John A. Macdonald lost did not imply Macdonald had done something definitively wrong which would bar him from future office.

In fact, after losing in 1873, the Macdonald Liberal Conservatives went on to win the next four federal elections of 1878, 1882, 1887, and 1891. And it was only after Macdonald’s death that Wilfrid Laurier’s revived Liberal Party of Canada managed to defeat the long post-confederation hegemony of Macdonald’s party, in the 1896 election.

It is significant as well, as far as I’m concerned, that John A. Macdonald’s party was called “Liberal Conservative.”  Whatever its other faults, it was less aggressively right-wing and more centrist than the Conservative Party of Canada Stephen Harper finally managed to pull together in the early 21st century.

In my view the kind of “conservative populism” that Stephen Harper has been talking about recently (and that Donald Trump presumably epitomizes in the USA next door, and Mr. Scheer presumably represents in Canada now) is exactly the wrong thing for Canada in 2019 and the years immediately following. 

Winter in the northern woods.

I agree with David Hamer’s implication that nothing we know or are likely to find out about SNC-Lavalin and/or the fate of Jody Wilson-Raybould amounts to any serious “reason to elect  @AndrewScheer  and his @CPC_HQ ghouls.”

I do agree as well that many critical things can be said about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party of Canada. No one is perfect. But Justin Trudeau still strikes me as considerably less imperfect than Andrew Scheer and his Conservative Party of Canada ghouls — who too often seem far too interested in imitating the dysfunctional Trump Republicans next door.

As far as the NDP goes (or the Greens for that matter) they stand no serious chance of forming a Canadian federal government on October 21, 2019.  The practical choice is between the Trudeau Liberals and the Scheer Conservatives — both of whom have apparently shown some concern to protect the jobs SNC-Lavalin has long provided (and especially in Quebec — also the heartland of the Pacific Scandal in 1873, and the sponsorship scandal in 2006). 

A Canadian vacation : Valentine’s Day in Iceland 2019 (well, the date may not be quite right).

I finally fall back on some words of the great unsung Canadian economist and historian Harold Innis from long ago in the late 1940s (that I have also fallen back on in other such cases before) : “As evidence of the futility of political discussion in Canada, there were Liberals who deplored the activities of the federal administration in no uncertain terms but always concluded with what was to them an unanswerable argument — ‘What is the alternative?’ In one’s weaker moments the answer does appear conclusive.” And I think we are still at a stage of our development in Canada where the advice we listen to in our weaker moments is what finally counts!

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