For decades, Prime Ministers of every stripe have been trying to reconcile differences with Canada’s First Nations that many believe flow from the Indian Act of 1876. That was, perhaps more than anything else, Justin Trudeau’s primary goal. To that end, he appointed Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould, a prominent indigenous lawyer, to be Minister of Justice and Attorney General, one of the highest offices in the land.
Enter journalist Robert Fife, who relishes making governments squirm. Fife plays no favourites with either Liberals or Conservatives. Fife’s article in the Globe and Mail alleged that the Trudeau government put un-due pressure on the Minister of Justice to accept a non-prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, one of Canada’s biggest and most internationally important companies. Apparently, the Minister refused and was reassigned ostensibly for that and perhaps other reasons. The Minister could be technically right.
But Canada does not have many companies with over 50,000 employees and several (Nortel, Stelco) have already been lost. The proposed type of agreement is used in the UK, Australia and USA. Such agreements enable courts to punish individuals who engaged in corrupt behaviour, without risking severe damage to the company itself. For several days, the debate has been about who said what to whom and with what tone, but Canada’s top civil servant who has served both parties for over 37 years, says that was all legitimate advocacy. The experienced Chief Civil Servant could be right.
Next came an article from a legal scholar who said Ms. Wilson-Raybould had a job that can be impossible. The job of the Minister of Justice is to advise and ensure the legality of proposed legislation. The job of the Attorney General is to act as the government’s defense lawyer. To avoid a conflict between these two roles, such as exists in the SNC case, those jobs are occupied by two individuals in the UK justice system that Canada’s system was patterned after. The legal scholar could be right.
Coincidentally, a CBC report outlined that Minister Wilson-Raybould disagreed with some parts of the legislation being developed by Minister Caroline Bennet that would replace the 1876 Indian Act with a new modern structure for indigenous government. PM Trudeau had split the very challenging indigenous file between two competent ministers to try to accelerate progress that had alluded many past governments. While the 634 First Nations chiefs like to complain about the Indian Act, it does protect their jobs and gives them leverage by making it almost impossible to get consensus on anything. For example, past AFN chief Shawn Atleo resigned in frustration, after months of negotiations, when he could not get the 634 chiefs to agree to the reasonable terms of a multi-billion-dollar education package offered by the Harper government. Ms. Wilson-Raybould could indeed be torn between loyalties.
Looming in the background is the possibility that the Minister of Justice/Attorney General may soon have to decide on who has jurisdiction to approve the Trans-Mountain pipeline and Canada’s biggest ever natural gas project in northern BC. The elected chiefs want the gas project built, but some hereditary chiefs object and have been blocking construction sites. Ms. Wilson Raybould’s father is a hereditary chief. Was she reassigned to relieve her of having a conflict of interest? That reassignment could have been the right and humane thing to do.
There are times to stand on principle and times to be pragmatic. A head office is much easier to move than a plant. But along with head offices go high-value jobs and tax revenue from financial, legal and consulting services, and contributions to universities, research institutions, etc.
More questions come to mind:
- Why would the prosecution service and the Minister of Justice be so opposed to extending the same non-prosecution agreement SNC-Lavalin could get if their head office were re-located to their existing branch office 350 kilometers down the road in Albany New York or in Cambridge England?
- On the eve of an election, is it possible to set aside partisan politics for the good of one of Canada’s few flagship companies? What will the Conservatives say if the next company to be charged with corruption is in Calgary? What will the NDP say if the next company to be charged is in Vancouver?
This is indeed a Rubik’s cube-grade dilemma for voters. But it will be up to the voters to determine what is in the best long-term interest for Canada.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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