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Opinion The SNC-Lavalin affair shows us how this country really runs, and who it is run for

To live in a country forever in the shadow of America has some blessings. Among them, there’s this: we can never quite beat their political drama.

On Wednesday, however, Canada might have done it. While the testimony of Donald Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, transfixed the world, the reports originating out of an entirely different committee meeting in Ottawa may have been more scandalous.

Canada has always presented a good front of house: prim, stoic, orderly and well-managed. The kitchen is ankle-deep in grime and in dire need of pest control, but the backroom is easy to hide from happy patrons.

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The scandal now unfolding in Ottawa – concerning just how far Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government was willing to go to save iconic Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin – is giving us all a peek behind that grubby little counter. It’s showing us what this country really is and for whom it actually runs.

According to Jody Wilson-Raybould – who confirmed the reporting by The Globe and Mail – the former justice minister and attorney-general “experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion ... in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin," she said in dramatic, hours-long testimony in front of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Wednesday. A DPA would allow the company to forgo a criminal trial for bribery for projects in Libya in exchange for an admission of wrongdoing and a fine.

Crass partisan electoral gain seemed to be at least the undertone of these conversations, she said. Occasionally it was even an overtone: One PMO staffer noted that SNC-Lavalin was threatening to move its headquarters from Montreal to a more congenial location abroad ahead of the federal election this fall, allegedly saying that “we can have the best policy in the world, but we need to be re-elected.”

She said she felt that pressure over a number of months until the end of 2018, when Ms. Wilson-Raybould was suddenly demoted and replaced in her high-profile cabinet post by a member of Parliament from Montreal.

Mr. Trudeau delivered a brief statement on Wednesday night in Montreal, disagreeing with Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s “characterization” of events. “Our government will always focus on jobs and our economy. We of course had discussions about the potential loss of 9,000 jobs in communities across the country, including the possible impact on pensions,” he said.

No doubt, that focus will be welcome in some corners. But it should be noted that Mr. Trudeau is not the great defender of Canadian jobs, writ large, here.

He’s defending certain jobs. Not jobs in Oshawa, or northern Alberta, or Newfoundland – no, no, how quaint. Mr. Trudeau is passionate about the jobs that give lustre to a company that stands at the very firmament of the central Canadian elite, headquartered in a province with enormous psychological and electoral significance for the Liberals.

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SNC-Lavalin provides the right sort of jobs, being the kind of company that knows the right sort of people: that is, the kind who can make a call that gets answered at the PMO.

One of these meetings about SNC-Lavalin took place with Mr. Trudeau himself, according to Ms. Wilson-Raybould: “At that point the PM jumped in stressing that there is an election in Quebec ... 'and I am an MP in Quebec – the member for Papineau.” She says she responded: “Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision, as the AG? I would strongly advise against it.”

“No, no, no," he allegedly said – "we just need to find a solution.”

And all this, to save what? A company that has been mired in corruption scandals, both domestic and international, for decades. The World Bank Group blacklisted SNC-Lavalin and more than 100 of its affiliates for 10 years, meaning that Canadian businesses now dominate the bank’s list of companies sanctioned for fraud or corruption.

Now, a report from La Presse alleges that SNC-Lavalin paid tens of thousands of dollars for the services of prostitutes and naked dancers to entertain the son of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi during a tour of Canada in 2008.

Even Liberal die-hards aren’t really trying to defend this. The only recourse is this anemic plea for jobs, or to assure themselves that the Conservatives would be worse, probably.

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It’s not hard to detect the nihilistic shrug behind all of this, though. This is the way it’s done – the way things have always been done. That’s how the country really runs. This is who it is run for.

Once you assure yourselves that the Other Guys would probably do the same, you’ve handed the Liberals, the “natural governing party of Canada,” the license to get away with anything.

And then they get away with everything.

Even though Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony didn’t involve porn-star hush-money or a convicted felon hurling broadsides at the sitting U.S. president, that revelation might just shock you even more.

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