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Television The SNC-Lavalin affair: A TV critic’s guide to all the drama

Jody Wilson-Raybould prepares to testify before a House of Commons justice committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Feb. 27, 2019.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

One recent evening I was just finishing a spot of ironing and about to tell my cat Rita what we were having for dinner when the phone rang.

It was an inopportune interruption. Rita has finicky tastes and has been known to send back her dinner with the hauteur of the Queen. However, she has a fondness for chicken in white-wine sauce and I was about to announce that we were having chicken cassoulet in white wine and it was almost ready.

When I answered the phone, I found myself speaking to a personable woman from a research firm who wanted to canvass my views on recent events surrounding the SNC-Lavalin affair, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government. At once, I assumed the call was either randomly generated or connected with my subscription to Organic Spa Magazine. I pleaded pressure of time, what with the chicken cassoulet being almost ready, but agreed to offer brief insights.

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Had I seen Wilson Raybould’s testimony to the justice committee on TV? “Oh indeed, I wasn’t working that day and had ample opportunity to watch both Michael Cohen’s testimony in Washington and later Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s statement and the questioning.”

Was it my opinion that Wilson-Raybould had made a strong case for inappropriate interference in her decisions?

“Well now. There was a lot of righteous indignation on TV that day. An awful, awful lot. It can be gripping, but on TV it’s the small details that register and matter. Me, I see evidence of scandal-envy in Canada, a need to have Trump-like shenanigans to torque the engine of indignation. Yet one watched that testimony in Ottawa on TV and saw a lot of salt-stained shoes and boots coming and going from the room. This bespeaks Ottawa, the local and the small. It never looked as slickly staged or as momentous as events in Washington. While the indignation was powerful, the context deflated it.”

The woman on the phone was suppressing exasperation: But, but did I not believe Wilson-Raybould’s story? “Of course I did, but as any keen viewer of TV drama will assert, a narrative thread is just that. A thread. It is linked to other threads and the entire narrative is not satisfactorily settled until all are woven into a complete story.

"The news narrative in this country for the past year has been the new NAFTA agreement and the pipeline issue. This new thread about SNC-Lavalin and alleged interference was a bolt from the blue and, frankly, as anyone who observes a sudden twist in Episode 3 of a 10-part series is aware, Episode 7 will likely put the earlier twist in a new context.”

Did I see the testimony of Butts as confirmation that improper pressure has been put on Wilson-Raybould? “Mr. Butts seemed nervous at first, his appearance before the cameras not as calculated for dramatic impact as that of the former attorney-general. That nervousness is a trait that lends authenticity to a non-actor’s TV performance. Mr. Butts offered a narrative of wider scope and he did not emerge as the meddlesome scoundrel or the intimidating puppet-master previously suggested in earlier episodes of this drama. His story, like so many classic stories, was about the individual and the community. These stories are about social cohesion and how that is achieved for the reassuring good of all. The key question is whether the individual is an idealistic rebel cast out by the community, or a formalist who refuses to bend toward the greater good.

"Mr. Butts suggested the former attorney-general was a formalist, less the cast-out idealist than a fierce stickler. Typically in narratives on TV and elsewhere such a person can create a state of unending dysfunctionality. This can grip the audience but to successfully and ultimately comfort them, what’s needed is for the entire group to agree to accept one another’s flaws and virtues. Listen, countless TV series from Seinfeld to The Sopranos to Game of Thrones are about that. After the bickering, the mutual antagonism, power-grabbing or bloody battles, the calm of social cohesion is the desired climax.”

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The personable woman on the phone suggested I seem to know a lot about TV and narratives. I allowed, cagily, that my friends said I had a knack for it while others thought I was full of horse manure.

She continued, asking did I see Trudeau’s public statement?

“Indeed. I was up early for that. I must say that in an era where errors are forgiven through the posting of a paragraph of mea culpa on Instagram, it takes fortitude to address a gang of suspicious journalists. It interested me that, like Paul Anka, regrets he had a few, but unlike Anka, he was willing to mention them. The upshot of his presentation was uplifting. Things had gone awry, trust had been eroded, but the plan is to stop underachieving in matters of trust, get help and sound advice and hope to do better. Who hasn’t wondered if life would have been better if you’d just made better decisions? It’s the stuff of many TV series, this journey of self-discovery. Now I really have to add more wine to the cassoulet!”

The meal was excellent. Rita was well pleased. Then I went around to The Done Right Inn to drink with my cronies and the cranks there. Individual and community. Explains everything, even the SNC-Lavalin affair.

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