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Politics Laurentian Consensus at the centre of Trudeau’s missteps in the SNC-Lavalin affair

Jody Wilson-Raybould’s actions have confounded Justin Trudeau and his advisers because she stands outside their world. They just cannot comprehend her.

This is also why Western anger at the Liberal government has become so intense. Mr. Trudeau and his kind have never understood the West, or cared to try. That indifference is coming home to roost.

Mr. Trudeau stoutly denied on Thursday that he sought to coerce his then-attorney-general into ordering a deferred-prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. He will not be resigning or calling an election. Nonetheless, it is clear that this government is in crisis.

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How could the Liberals have bungled things so badly? The answer may lie in where Mr. Trudeau went to school.

The elites who govern this country come mostly from the same places – usually a city within the watershed of the St. Lawrence River – and went to the same universities: Western, Toronto, Queen’s, McGill, University of Montreal. They generally live in the same downtown neighbourhoods in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and hold the same progressive but pragmatic views. On the big issues, they usually debate among themselves, reach a consensus, and implement that Laurentian Consensus, as some call it, through their preferred vehicle: the Liberal Party.

When the director of public prosecutions decided that SNC-Lavalin, a major Quebec employer, did not qualify for a deferred prosecution, the consensus quickly emerged: A conviction could bring down the company, which must not happen.

And so, according to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony to the Commons justice committee, a senior adviser to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, senior staff in the Prime Minister’s office, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick and the Prime Minister himself met with Ms. Wilson-Raybould and her staff repeatedly to impress on them the dire political implications of not granting the firm a deferred-prosecution agreement. As she said Mathieu Bouchard, an adviser to the Prime Minister, put it: “We can have the best policy in the world, but we need to get re-elected.”

Mr. Bouchard attended McGill, and Mr. Morneau went to Western. Mr. Wernick is an alumnus of University of Toronto. Mr. Trudeau met Gerald Butts, his close friend and former personal secretary, when they were at McGill.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould was raised in Vancouver and Comox, B.C., and attended the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia. She is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, and was regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. As an Indigenous leader from British Columbia, she was three time zones and a world removed from the Laurentian elites.

This may be why Mr. Trudeau and his advisers were so unsuccessful in making Ms. Wilson-Raybould intervene to protect SNC-Lavalin. And it may be why they were unable to predict her actions after she was removed as attorney-general. They assumed she was a politician, a Liberal, and someone who understood that Canada was governed from the centre.

But she is not a politician – at least not a conventional one – she is a Liberal by convenience, and she has no particular attachment to the centre. She is, however, a former Crown attorney devoted to protecting the rule of law, a British Columbian and an Indigenous woman who I suspect took offence to all these Laurentian men trying to make her see things their way. Besides, what was SNC-Lavalin to her?

What is it to anyone in the West? The Liberals, based on the former attorney-general’s testimony, were willing to pervert the course of justice to protect 9,000 jobs at a Montreal-based engineering firm. But what about the tens of thousands of jobs lost in the oil patch thanks to this same government’s indifference to getting a pipeline to the sea?

Why did the Liberals buy the Trans Mountain pipeline and then not fight more aggressively in the courts and in the court of public opinion for the right to twin the line? Why are shovels not in the ground now that the National Energy Board has, yet again, approved the project? And why bring in new legislation, Bill C-69, that could make it virtually impossible to get any new energy project approved?

When he was younger, Mr. Trudeau studied and lived in B.C. John Duffy, a former Liberal strategist, once called him “the first post-Laurentian Liberal.” But Justin Trudeau is as Laurentian as Jody Wilson-Raybould is not. And that may be the nub of this thing.

Read more opinion

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Did Trudeau fall for a bluff that SNC-Lavalin would flee Canada?

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