Letter from the editor: Canada, Inc.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about SNC-Lavalin in Ottawa on Thursday, March 7, 2019
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about SNC-Lavalin in Ottawa on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Justin Tang/CP

The SNC-Lavalin story is a lightning rod for so many of the frustrations that divide Canada: the ongoing challenge of reconciliation, the systemic under-representation and undermining of women, the centralization of power in the hands of a few unelected figures and the coddling of the central Canadian economy.

On their own, these issues flare up like volcanic ash and then retreat into the bedrock of our discourse. Taken together, they result in a toxic mix of resentment, alienation and indifference that could do lasting damage to the country.

Others are far more suited to assess the impact of the scandal on reconciliation, women and the centralization of power. That impact is neither trivial nor superficial. However, the SNC-Lavalin scandal has also shown that while Ottawa talks a big game on supporting entrepreneurship, when push comes to shove, incumbent firms are favoured and the playing field is tilted toward the centre of the country. One SNC-Lavalin scandal speaks louder than scores of government funding announcements.

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The party line is that 9,000 jobs and their pensions were at stake, and there’s no reason not to believe that the prime minister believes that’s true. While there may be room for different interpretations of what took place between Jody Wilson-Raybould and the Justin Trudeau government, what isn’t in dispute is that to save those jobs, the PM was willing to keep fighting though the legal system in a way that he wasn’t for Alberta.

Don Braid wrote in the Calgary Herald last month about the Trans Mountain Pipeline, “Without any secretive actions, Ottawa could have appealed, ordered construction to continue, worked to fulfil the court’s demands and contested every application for an injunction.” Trudeau did not do that. You can be supportive of clean energy and still see why it’s difficult for western Canadians to see the contrast with his actions to save 9,000 mostly-Quebec jobs as anything more than central Canadian favouritism. When you factor in that SNC-Lavalin itself has a former Privy Council clerk as its chair and pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec as its largest shareholder, this scandal laid bare the appearance of some ugly truths for those outside the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.

It doesn’t stop there. By reiterating his argument that the government was trying to save jobs, Trudeau inadvertently gave the middle finger to every small-business owner in the country. Those entrepreneurs—who already felt slighted by the small-business tax-credit fiasco of 2017—must be watching this scandal in disbelief. The government has added a corrupt, incumbent firm with Quebec ties to the mound of seemingly failing firms like Bombardier, and large foreign companies that get priority over small, local businesses. See Zane Schwartz’s story from last year on the lack of fallout of the Phoenix fiasco for IBM or Murad Hemmadi’s story from last month pointing out how more than half of the Strategic Innovation Fund went to foreign firms. Is it any wonder some feel like the cards are stacked against them?

Heritage Minutes and history books celebrate the big firms seen as integral to the building of the dominion of Canada—Hudson’s Bay, Tim Hortons, the railways Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. But those firms—a troubled retail chain, a foreign-owned restaurant brand, a transport oligopoly—are not the engines of Canada’s future. It’s the entrepreneurs—the over one million small- and medium-sized businesses whose names we don’t remember, but whose efforts keep the prosperity flowing.

The prime minister may manage his government out of this current crisis, but it won’t be easy. The ordeal has brought to a head some of the biggest fissures in Canadian society. When politics is practised in an 18th-century way with an electorate with 21st century expectations, the damage will last far longer than one election cycle.