Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

Lessening Us: The Supreme Court and SNC-Lavalin

The SNC-Lavalin episode gets worse, if that is possible.

In an apparent effort to distract from the SNC-Lavalin affair, a leak on Monday claimed that the rift between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould began far before the term “deferred prosecution agreement” entered the public lexicon. Apparently, it all started when Wilson-Raybould recommended Manitoba Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal to the Supreme Court of Canada. For those unaware, Chief Justice Joyal has, over the years, advanced a welcome antidote for the Charterphile Canadian legal community. His views are not extreme or inappropriate; rather, they are intelligent appreciations of the cultural and institutional changes that the Charter introduced. The fact that he was rejected out of hand for a Supreme Court appointment—and the fact the circumstances of his appointment have been leaked—are indictments of both Canada’s legal and political system.

The most important part of all of this is the morally repugnant way in which Chief Justice Joyal’s application for the bench was released by some unknown party. Originally, it was reported that Trudeau scuttled Wilson-Raybould’s recommendation because of his disagreement with Chief Justice Joyal’s views. Then, it was reported that Chief Justice Joyal actually withdrew his application, because his wife was suffering from metastatic breast cancer. The fact that this was leaked, and that Chief Justice Joyal’s personal life was implicated in the process, is a low for Canadian politics. No one should have to endure public scrutiny on a matter as personal–and tragic–as a cancer diagnosis.

What makes it even more tragic is that, as Chief Justice Joyal noted, his personal situation seems to be used as an agenda for the broader SNC-Lavalin controversy. The implication of all of this is that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the information to the press in order to show just how misguided Wilson-Raybould was as Attorney General. If there was any doubt, the episode shows just how far some politicos will go to undermine not only norms surrounding judicial appointments but also the personal lives of those in the way.

And, all of this for views that are not at all controversial and are important counterpoints to the ongoing debates about the Charter and its institutional features. A good example of Chief Justice Joyal’s welcome assessment of the major counter-majoritarian difficulty introduced by the Charter is his 2017 speech to the Law and Freedom Conference. The main theme of the speech outlined the consequences of the “judicial potency” that the Charter introduced, a feature that “was not anticipated back in 1982.” These consequences are ones that are not often discussed, are certainly true. For example, consider a few of the consequences Chief Justice Joyal noted:

  • The constitutional requirements imposed by the Charter do not “mesh” well with the legislative process, making it more difficult to make laws.
  • The Charter has moved important debates outside of the realm of the legislature and into the realm of courts.
  • This movement outside of the legislative realm creates “a public discourse dominated by the concept of ‘rights’,” one that is defined by “judicial formulations and tests.”
  • The political culture introduced by the Charter conflates constitutionality with policy wisdom, when there is no need to necessarily merge the two concepts.

Agree or disagree, these are all important consequences of the system of judicial review introduced by the Charter, and the way in which Canadian lawyers have reacted to that power of review. There is no doubt that the Canadian legal community largely suffers from “Charteritis,” (not my term–check out David Mossop’s 1985 article entited “Charteritis and Other Legal Diseases”). And for that reason, Chief Justice Joyal’s remarks in 2017 were a welcome appreciation of the symptoms of that disease.

But in the leak published on Monday, the nuance and force of Chief Justice Joyal’s conclusions were completely lost. Apparently, when Wilson-Raybould recommended Chief Justice Joyal to the bench, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was concerned about the 2017 speech. Trudeau was apparently concerned that Joyal would be less willing to protect rights that have come from judicial interpretation of the Charter, including rights to abortion access and LGBTQ2 rights.

If this is true, this base understanding of Chief Justice Joyal’s legal views is completely wrong. There is nothing in his 2017 speech that would indicate a preference—one way or another—for any particular issue that would come before the Supreme Court, should he have been a judge. All of Chief Justice Joyal’s broader views are perfectly consistent with a respect for stare decisis and the cases that have entrenched rights, whether those cases were rightly or wrongly decided.

Chief Justice Joyal’s views have nothing to do with these issues, simply put. They merely stand for the idea that, in the age of the Charter, the legislatures have assumed a different role. This is simply an empirical fact. There are consequences to this. One is that, rather than dealing with issues through the cut-and-thrust of political debate, we have moved those debates into the courts, which are often ill-suited to deal with these sorts of problems. The issue of Aboriginal rights and title is a perfect example. Because of the recalcitrance of governments over generations, Aboriginal groups have, strategically, moved to the courts to vindicate their rights. But that does not mean that the judicial forum is a better place to do so. The Tsilqho’tin case is a good example of this—a case which took decades of time and untold resources to reach the Supreme Court. Even people who believe in the Charter, and in the judicial role that it introduced, should recognize that legislatures should still be important areas of public debate that should be equal constitutional actors in their own right, owed respect by the Supreme Court’s judges.

While it is perfectly appropriate for the Prime Minister to want to appoint people to the bench who reflect his view of the Constitution, those views should at least be informed and educated. Based on the media reporting so far, it appears that the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to understand that one can have different approaches to Charter interpretation—or a less positive view of the broader implications of the Charter—and still have a respect for the document as a matter of constitutional law. Even if one thinks those views are wrong, this is no reason to misunderstand what Chief Justice Joyal’s views actually represent.

Taken together, this whole SNC-Lavalin episode continues to lessen us–our law and our politics.

Our Pythic Judges: SNC-Lavalin

In Ancient Greece, travelers from far and wide descended upon the Oracle at Delphi. Known collectively as the Pythia, these priestesses or women of Delphi, over generations, provided advice and counsel to anyone wishing to seek it. The Pythia were thought to channel the god Apollo. As the mythology of the Pythia grew, with kings and leaders of armies seeking counsel, no major decision was made before consulting the Pythia. 

We seem to be in a Pythic reality in Canada these days. All in the last month, we have been told that former Chief Justice McLachlin would investigate impropriety in the British Columbia legislature; that former Chief Justice McLachlin was also considered as a potential font of advice for Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s ne’er-do-well former Principal Secretary in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal; and that former judges of the Supreme Court of Canada Justice Cromwell and Iacobucci were involved in the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin case, representing former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin, respectively.

This state of affairs attracted considerable commentary on Twitter, and I truly think it is a live question that should be debated in the Canadian legal community: what expectations should we have for retired Supreme Court judges (or judges generally)  in Canada?

One can think of two issues that this question invites: the ethical question and the democratic question. First, consider the ethics of the situation. No one denies that judges should be able, like all people, to have a productive and fulfilling post-retirement life. That could include work. After all, these judges have considerable talents that could be brought to bear in any number of situations. Work as a commercial arbitrator, counsel to a law firm—the opportunities are potentially endless.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate question whether judges should be doing certain kinds of work post-retirement. Judicial independence is not only about actual independence but the perception of independence. Though retired, it is certainly possible that a member of the public, objectively and reasonably looking at a particular former judge, could conclude that there is an independence problem if a former judge is using his or her talents in a way that impacts the perception of impartiality. There is at least an implicit recognition of this principle in the generous pensions we provide for those who have served Canada on the bench.

These principles are reflected in the scheme for mandatory retirement. The upshot of Canada’s mandatory age of retirement for judges is that, eventually, judges have to retire, even if they are not ready. In the United States, there is no mandatory retirement age such that judges—most recently Justice Antonin Scalia—sometime pass away while on the bench. There are benefits and drawbacks to the American approach. On one hand, when judges leave the United States Supreme Court, they are probably ready to truly retire, and there is less of a concern about independence. On the other hand, the Canadian approach “cycles” judges in and out of the system, and one might reasonably think that this cycling is for the better.

It’s hard to resolve this question, but I think it is probably best to err on the side of protecting the integrity of the judicial office. The role of the judiciary is too important in modern day Canada—perhaps more important than it should be, mind you—to risk even a perception of partiality. This does not mean that judges should be barred from work, far from it. It simply means we desperately need rules to govern the situation.

My larger concern is with the democratic side of the equation, and this is where modern-day retired judges seem to resemble the Pythia. I think it is unwise for questions about the law within the political branches to be referred to retired judges as if they are some standing committee to  resolve legal disputes in the abstract. This is not the role of the courts in the first place: courts require concrete facts connected to legal causes of action that are ripe for adjudication before they can weigh in. It should most certainly not be the role of retired judges, however eminent.

The effect of making a retired judge like former Chief Justice McLachlin or otherwise “an eminent Canadian jurist or panel of jurists” a first port of call in a case like SNC-Lavalin has corrosive pragmatic and legal effects. Consider the legal effect, first. Gerald Butts mentioned that the former Chief Justice was a potential option for advice, because of the fact that the law governing remediation agreements was new.  The goal was to consult the Pythic judges before the Attorney General would make a decision on SNC-Lavalin. This tendency—to punt the result to some advisory panel—erodes the role that the political branches of government should play in the interpretation and application of law, especially where the law is new. Novelty is no reason to punt the task of law-elaboration within the executive branch. Even if an advisory panel of retired judges was a legitimate idea—and it is not—questions like the ones posed in SNC-Lavalin are not easily amenable to judicial scrutiny. In this realm, the political branches of government should wear the responsibility and burden of making important decisions.

This is connected to the ultimate pragmatic effect of permitting this advisory practice to go unabated. As we know, Ministers of the Crown are politically accountable (or answerable, in other contexts) in the House of Commons for their actions. This concept of responsible government has the effect of providing a focal point for political accountability. But if a Minister, facing political heat, seeks to essentially delegate the power of making a tough decision to a retired judge, that delegation deflects democratic responsibility. Should other politicians disagree with whatever decision the judge renders and then the Minister adopts, the Minister can simply say that she followed the recommendation of the eminent retired judge. It is unlikely that those in the general public will wish to question the opinion of such an esteemed person, asked by the Minister to consider the situation and provide an answer. So, we have a diversion of political accountability, with a politically irresponsible judge essentially making tough decisions for a Minister. The incentive effect will be more of this advisory work sought by governments seeking to duck the hard decisions.

In a modern democracy, there is no Pythia to which we should appeal. Judges serve a defined and circumscribed role, and retired judges an even more circumscribed role. I do not think it is a best practice, except in certain situations, to ask judges to resolve politically difficult issues simply because the law on the issue is unsettled.