Howard Anglin: God save us from the eminent Canadians

As soon as Trudeau uttered that dismal phrase, we knew what were in for
Former Governor General David Johnston waves as guests in the Senate chamber applaud his tenure in the position during the installation ceremony for Canada's 29th Governor General, Julie Payette, in Ottawa on Monday, October 2, 2017. Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press.

At least it wasn’t Beverley McLachlin. Apparently even Justin Trudeau thinks it would be a bit de trop to appoint a judge who sits on a Chinese court to investigate Chinese meddling in our electoral system. But admit it: her name at least crossed your mind when Trudeau promised that he would appoint an “eminent Canadian” to look into the matter.

Instead, we got David Johnston, and it doesn’t get much more eminent than that. The man was captain of the varsity hockey team at Harvard, for goodness sake. If we were the sort of country that still went in for honorific prefixes and postnominals, the plain Mr. Johnston would have a string of them as long as any Victorian colonial grandee.

Johnston was a genial and impeccably boring Governor General at a time when that was a welcome relief. Bland to the point of invisibility, he seemed determined not to be noticed. He even refused the historic uniform, opting instead to dress like the commodore of a suburban yacht club. 

Publicly, he rarely set a foot wrong, while privately he performed the less palatable duties of his office without complaint, schmoozing foreign dictators and paying Canada’s official respects at the funerals of the sort of head of state it would be awkward for the PM to honour. 

I don’t mean any of that churlishly. Johnston was an unsung diplomatic asset who reliably and effectively pressed Canada’s interests at the highest levels around the world in ways that most people in government never saw. His reports of his meetings were incisive and helpful.

It’s true that his record of investigative and regulatory appointments is rather more checkered. His exclusion of the Airbus payments to Karlheinz Schreiber from the scope of the Oliphant Commission’s terms of reference was at best a serious error in judgment. I’ll leave the “at worst” alternative to those who were there

More recently, he headed up the hapless Leaders’ Debates Commission that barred True North and Rebel Media from covering the 2019 leaders’ debates. The two news outlets had to rush to the Federal Court to overturn the decision, which the judge said was “lacking in discernible rationality and logic” and “neither justified nor intelligible.” 

Others have pointed to his involvement with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation as a problem, though that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as his advisory role with Deloitte, one of those global advisory firms that has raked in billions from government consulting (including in $172 million from the Government of Canada in 2021-22 alone, according to a Carleton University report) and has generally viewed the genocidal PRC as a gold mine rather than a global threat. 

But complaining about any of this, or any of Johnston’s other corporate and eleemosynary boards, commissions, panels, and advisory roles is beside the point: this is what it means to be an eminent Canadian. As soon as Trudeau uttered that dismal phrase, we knew what were in for. Frankly, Johnston is about as good as we could have hoped for, all things considered. 

The problem here is not Johnston, it’s the whole class, nay the very idea, of “eminent Canadians”—a phrase that means nothing outside Ottawa and a few corporate boardrooms in downtown Toronto and Montreal, but which means everything within that ambit. In those enclaves of faux leather chairs and sapless modern art, the answer to every problem is always the same: deploy the eminent Canadians! 

This is why their boards are stacked with them, and how we end up with paragraphs like this, which could be torn from the appendix of Peter C. Newman’s The Canadian Establishment:

Circles are small in Canadian business, and [BMO board chairman] Mr. Prichard and [BMO vice-chair] Mr. Lynch had every reason to be twisting arms on behalf of SNC-Lavalin, though the pair were in the Prime Minister’s office so often last fall they should have been allowed to choose the furniture. Mr. Prichard is also chair of law firm Torys, which is representing the Montreal-based engineering company. And along with his day job at BMO, Mr. Lynch is chair of the board of SNC-Lavalin. He’s also the former Clerk of the Privy Council, the country’s top civil servant.

When Lytton Strachey wrote his bitchy little book Eminent Victorians, he scandalized British society by aiming his iconoclasm at true giants of the previous age, figures still much better remembered than Strachey himself (the arc of history sometimes does bend toward justice). If the book has a legacy today, it is that it left the adjective “eminent” charged with faintly sardonic insinuation. Only in Canada, and even then only among a certain type of insular Laurentian Liberal, could the phrase “eminent Canadian” still be used unironically. 

The label does, however, pair well with Johnston’s other new title of “special rapporteur.” Brent Cameron did a fine job in these pages explaining what exactly a “special rapporteur” is and what it might mean in this novel context, so I will skip the details. The short answer is that it’s a term borrowed from the dubious United Nations Human Rights Council for an expert appointed to assist them in their (sometimes not entirely spurious) human rights investigations. 

Cameron explained that, “[a]ssuming the use of the unconventional title isn’t some cynical messaging ploy” (which, for the record, is not an assumption that I am willing to grant), if the Trudeau government follows the UN’s example, the “special rapporteur” will be granted virtually unrestricted access to “interview all manner of individuals within the government, the opposition, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, academia, and any advocacy groups within the broader society.” This—and I don’t think I’m bursting anyone’s bubble here—is not going to happen. Even if it did, I doubt Johnston would find much that would surprise anyone.

And here we finally get to my own problem with the appointment. The eminently special David Johnston may be expert in many things, but he is not an expert in the areas relevant to this investigation. He is not an expert in foreign or domestic intelligence, he is not an expert in the political activities of the Chinese Communist Party, and—most importantly—he is not an expert in politics. 

If you want someone to investigate who has been tampering with the high table seating chart at Massey College, an eminent Canadian like Johnston is your man. No question. But the allegations of electoral interference that he is being tasked to investigating occurred at a rather less eminent level of our national politics, down in the murky world of riding nominations and municipal politics. 

These are shady places where, when you turn over a rock, you never know what is going to scurry out. I fear that Johnston will be lost as an outsider in the world of membership drives, volunteer recruitment, straw donors, and foreign-influenced diaspora politics, and will end up chasing shadows, half-truths, and will-o-the-whisp allegations down dead-end paper trails.

But if not Johnston, then who? Cameron’s suggestion of a retired judge or diplomat “from Britain, Australia, or New Zealand—jurisdictions that approximate Canada on multiple levels and utilize the Westminster system of government” is smart, though instead of a judge or diplomat, I’d have gone for a retired intelligence mandarin or ex-cabinet minister, someone with relevant experience of either foreign interference or coal-face politics. Anyone, really, who knows first-hand what to look for. Anyone, in other words, but an “eminent Canadian.”

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