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Howard Anglin: Canada’s top men

Commentary

Near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and fellow archaeologist-adventurer Dr. Marcus Brody sit down with U.S. Army Intelligence to discuss the fate of the Ark. Indy and Brody want to know what the government plans to do with it, and Major Eaton—who we know can’t be trusted because he’s an adipose pipe-smoking government man in a grey suit—isn’t exactly forthcoming.

Brody: “The Ark is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched …” 

Major Eaton: “And it will be, I assure you … we have top men working on it right now.”

Indy (leaning across the table): “Who?”

Major Eaton: “Top. Men.”

That answer doesn’t satisfy our heroes, but what can they do?It’s always puzzled me why, after tracking the Ark of the Covenant halfway around the world and battling a Nazi army to secure it, Dr. Jones was so quick to let it go. He’s not at least a little curious about what the government has done with the world’s most powerful and dangerous weapon? Forget Indian temples, the sequel should have been “Indiana Jones and the Government Bureaucracy of Doom.” “Top men” are on the job, and that’s all the government thinks they need to know. 

I don’t know if the Rt. Hon. David Johnston—as top a man as Canada has to offer—is a fan of the Indiana Jones movies, but his performance at the press conference accompanying his report into foreign interference reminded me of that grey-suited, pipe-smoking government man.

In response to the first question, Johnston explained in detail his interactions with Justin Trudeau as a boy and as a student at McGill University. His tone was indignant, as befits a man defending his honour. It was, you see, Trudeau’s father that was his close friend and the children just happened to be hanging around, bumming the occasional ride home. 

I’m prepared to believe that Johnston’s impressively specific recollection of events from 40 years ago is factually true, but it was quite a contrast to the rather cozier impression he was happy to convey in an interview with journalist Bob Fife in 2016. 

Back then, Johnston gushed about how he and his wife had become “good friends” with the junior Trudeau, who live nearby on the grounds of Rideau Hall. Why, just the other day, Johnston told Fife, the prime minister’s children came over for homemade cookies.

According to the accompanying CTV story, “It’s the kind of encounter that can only happen in Ottawa.” This is because:

Johnston, who represents the Queen in Canada, lives on a 79-acre park nestled near the Ottawa River. He’s a landlord of sorts to the Trudeau family, who moved into a cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall as the government prepares to renovate 24 Sussex. 

(Remember when Trudeau was going to renovate 24 Sussex, instead of letting it crumble like an Oedipal House of Usher?)

When Fife remarked that “a lot of Canadians don’t realise that you in fact were a very good friend of Pierre Elliot Trudeau,” far from demurring, Johnston beamed and quipped, “I guess it shows what a small country Canada is.” That’s a charitable way to describe a national elite every bit as insular and incestuous (though far less interesting) than the beaux mondes of Proust or Powell.

In the gilded bubble that David Johnston has lived in for more than sixty years, Canada really is a small country. No one is more than one degree of separation from a governor general, a prime minister, a clerk of the privy council, or a Supreme Court justice. Add in philanthropic foundations and board memberships, and the world circumscribed by Bay Street and Rue St-Jacques becomes very small indeed.

This was comically clear during the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio, when the chair of SNC-Lavalin, who just happened to be a former clerk of the privy council, engaged former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to convince the Prime Minister’s Office and the then-clerk of the privy council that the attorney general could intervene to help the company avoid criminal charges. 

Iacobucci then engaged another former Supreme Court justice, John Major, to draft a related legal opinion, which for good measure he shared with yet another former Supreme Court justice, Beverley McLachlin. At roughly the same time, the Prime Minister’s Office also discussed hiring Beverley McLachlin to encourage the attorney general to see the wisdom of SNC-Lavalin’s position. 

Finally, after she resigned, the attorney general hired former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to advise her on handling her post-ministerial role. As Yuan Yi Zhu wrote at the time, in a line that should be a national proverb, “No scandal is a scandal in Canada unless at least one retired Supreme Court justice has been involved.” 

If we graded scandals by the number of ex-justices involved, SNC-Lavalin was a four-judge scandal. So far, the Foreign Interference debacle is just a one-judge affair, but that may be because Beverley McLachlin is already busy lending her reputation to Beijing via a seat on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. 

The justice in question here is, once again, Frank Iacobucci. In response to another question about whether he has been concerned to avoid not just an actual conflict of interest but even the appearance of a conflict, Johnston revealed that the former justice had advised him there was no conflict. So that’s that, then. Any appearance of impropriety is our problem, not his.

What standard did Mr. Iacobucci apply in his legal opinion? What facts did he consider? How longstanding, exactly, is their friendship (here is Johnston calling Mr. Iacobucci “a great friend” in 2017)? Was the opinion delivered over a glass of dry sherry and mixed nuts at the Rideau Club or a G&T and crustless sandwiches at the RCYC?

Of course, we won’t get answers to any of these questions. It’s enough for us to know that top men are on the job. Top. Men.

Johnston was right. Canada really is a small country…if you’re lucky enough to move in circles where “good friends” share a leafy Ottawa estate, where you can ask a “great friend” for a legal opinion clearing you of a conflict of interest, and where you can get your dad’s old confidant to grade your job performance on a matter of national security.

Between superannuated Supremes and eminent Canadians, our federal politics sometimes feels like a collegial class of old friends swapping favours and extending to each other a presumption of trust and goodwill that I suspect very few ordinary Canadians think they deserve. In other words, it’s just another day at the office for Canada’s top men.

Sean Speer: The Canadian establishment’s ‘China consensus’ has been wrong from the start

Commentary

An underrated force behind the months-long Chinese interference scandal and even David Johnston’s report this week may be the Canadian establishment’s own self-consciousness about its deep-rooted yet wrongheaded commitment to what one might describe as the “China consensus.”

One gets the sense that the key players involved including the prime minister and the former governor general cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that their basic assumptions about Canada’s relationship with China, its broader place in the world, and the sources of its long-term prosperity were in hindsight misplaced.

They’re so resistant to the idea that they made a misjudgment that they’re prepared to live with the perception that they’re corrupt, politically motivated, and ultimately hiding something. Their egos are big enough, in other words, that they’ve come to misread their own self-interest. They’d rather look sketchy than wrong.

The China consensus began to take shape more than 30 years ago in the triumphalism of the Cold War victory. It assumed as a matter of political economy that China’s integration into the global economy would lead to its political liberalization and ultimately democracy. These forces weren’t just seen as contingent. They were casual.

U.S. foreign policy scholar Henry Rowen even famously predicted in a 1996 essay that China would become a democracy in 2015 based on its economic development patterns and the similar experiences in Japan and South Korea.

Although Canadian business and political elites never quite committed themselves to such firm predictions, they strongly endorsed the notion that greater economic integration with China would invariably put it on the path towards broader liberalization. As recently as 2019, for instance, former Chrétien-era Trade Minister, Roy Maclaren, still spoke of how “deepening trade and investment relations with China…would lead to human-rights advances.”

This wasn’t the source of major partisan disagreement. It was a political consensus that extended from Jean Chrétien to Stockwell Day and virtually everyone in between. Even my former boss Stephen Harper who was elected in 2006 with the most skeptical views about China of any major political figure in decades eventually succumb to the consensus in part due to growing frustration with the Obama administration’s indifference to Canada.

It’s fair to say, though, that the Trudeau government came to office in late 2015 with a renewed commitment to the China consensus. The new government’s so-called “reset” included bilateral free trade talks with China even though Australia and other allies were starting to raise alarms about the Chinese government’s duplicitous model of economic and diplomatic engagement.

Canada’s political class wasn’t alone in its “leap of faith” on China. It has extended it far beyond to the country’s broader establishment including Johnston himself. As National Post columnist Terry Glavin has recently documented, Johnston was as committed to the China consensus as any political figure of the era. He oversaw the establishment of one of the country’s Confucius Institutes and has met Chinese President Xi Jinping several times. Glavin even calls him “an elite capture poster boy.”

This optimism about the opportunities inherent in a burgeoning economic relationship with China was rooted in the long-standing Canadian goal of diversifying our economic and geopolitical dependence on the United States. That Canada had been first to officially establish diplomatic relations with China in October 1970 and many in Canada’s establishment were drawn to China’s top-down technocracy reinforced this predisposition.

I’ve assumed that these Sinophiles at the centre of Canadian business, cultural, and political life persisted in their views about China long after the evidence confirmed otherwise out of a sense of dogmatism. They were so committed to the idea of China as an ideological proposition that they refused to see its backsliding under President Xi on the country’s market reforms and his growing political centralization and crackdowns on personal freedoms using the technologies paid for by our two-way trade.

Even as the political classes in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere came to accept that their own bipartisan versions of the China consensus were wrong, Canada remained a bit of an outlier. We’ve been the slowest to come to this realization. Our exclusion from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the AUKUS security alliance is in large part a result of a perception that the Canadian government has yet to fully move on from the China consensus.

The past few years have provided plenty of evidence to bolster this perception. The Trudeau government’s foot-dragging on banning Huawei equipment from Canada’s wireless networks, its bizarre COVID-19 vaccine deal with a military-connected China company (which Johnston describes as “once promising”), and its failure to act in response to the mounting evidence of Chinese election interference are only the highest-profile examples. As I’ve recently written, notwithstanding the government’s tough talk in its newly-released Indo-Pacific Strategy, its actions suggest that it remains uneasy about the implications of reconceptualizing China as a hostile actor and a geopolitical threat.  

The same reluctance is present in Johnston’s report. Although he generally singles out China for foreign interference, he tends to emphasize the more general risk. He never mentions by name the Chinese official at the heart of many of these allegations and defends former Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan’s proximity to the Chinese consulate in Toronto on the grounds that he’s “admitted it publicly.” He even goes to some length to justify the idea that diplomats posted in Canada will have preferences in our elections and they “may even express those preferences openly or privately.”

These observations read as though they’ve been put forward by someone who’s hesitant to see what he’s actually seen in the intelligence reports. That in and of itself is revelatory. Perhaps it isn’t merely ideology that’s come to blind Canada’s establishment to the true ambitions and activities of the People’s Republic of China. Maybe it’s just ego. Maybe the prime minister, Johnston, and others like them just can’t bring themselves to admit that they were wrong. They cannot acknowledge that their decades-long assumptions about China’s economic and political model and the future of Canada’s global relationships were mistaken. They cannot reckon with the misalignment between their perception of the world and its disappointing yet incontrovertible reality. 

It leaves the rest of us however suspended between the two. We continue to live in a country in which the establishment stubbornly clings to a failed consensus on China. The past several weeks—including what Johnston’s report says and doesn’t say—have exposed the consequences. It’s clear to everyone but seemingly those in charge.