On being … subjectively objective

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s funny the insecurities we carry with us. For as long as I can remember, I feel a surge of anxiety anytime someone uses the words subjective or objective. They’re concepts I always worry that I’ll confuse. To this day, I still look them up.

You may have heard about a political scandal brewing here in Canada. At the risk of being accused of leaving out key facts – here’s an abridged version. In 2015 SNC Lavalin, a huge, Quebec-based multinational engineering and construction firm was charged with violating anti-corruption laws for bribing Libyan officials. The trial hasn’t started yet. If found guilty, SNC would be barred from bidding on federal government contracts for 10 years.

Last year Parliament passed a law allowing for deferred prosecution agreements. Under such agreements, the government drops the charges in exchange for the company paying a huge fine and agreeing to conditions. SNC has been actively pursuing such an agreement – in court and by lobbying government officials. The Director of Public Prosecution, who reports to the Attorney General, has denied SNC’s request.

Canada’s Attorney General also wears the hat of Justice Minister. In January, as a result of someone quitting the cabinet, the Prime Minister (PM) shuffled his cabinet and he moved Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Justice Minister/Attorney General, to the Ministry of Veterans Affairs. Politically naïve person that I am, I didn’t see that as a demotion – apparently, many folks did.

Nonetheless, Wilson-Raybould accepted the new appointment and life went on.  That is, until there was a news story from an unattributed source that claimed Wilson-Raybould was removed as Justice Minister because she refused to interfere with the Public Prosecutor’s decision not to grant SNC a deferred prosecution agreement. The Prime Minister denied the allegation, saying that the decision was always Wilson-Raybould’s to make. At the time, because of attorney-client privilege, Wilson-Raybould felt she couldn’t comment about it.

Of course, that didn’t settle the matter. A few days later, after an ethics probe was announced, the PM said he had spoken with Wilson-Raybould about SNC but he thought the fact she remained in his cabinet speaks for itself. The next day, she resigned from cabinet. Ultimately, the PM partially waived attorney-client and cabinet privilege and so she was able to testify before the Justice Committee.

I didn’t have much of an opinion about Wilson-Raybould before this incident. The only things I knew about her was that she’s a lawyer, she’s indigenous, and she was a Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations before she became a Member of Parliament in 2015.

In the days leading up to her testimony, Wilson-Raybould was quoted as saying she was looking forward to “telling my truth”. I found that language – the idea of her having “her truth” – really irritating. It reminded me of Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” idea.

Why couldn’t Wilson-Raybould just say she was looking forward to telling her side of the story? I’ll tell you why: because “my truth” is much more powerful – it rings of truth, after all. I objected to her playing fast and loose with the concept of truth. I’ve always thought of truth as something that’s universal. So referring to something as “my truth” just seems wrong to me.

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was interesting. Apparently she had made up her mind on the SNC matter back in September. It was – and remains – her legal judgment that it would be improper for the Justice Minister to override the Director of Public Prosecutions on the matter and so she refused to. Furthermore, though she felt she’d made her decision known to the PM, his staff, and others, they continued to press her to reconsider.

She testified that she thought the sustained pressure was inappropriate and amounted to political interference, but she agreed it wasn't illegal. She also said she looked the Prime Minister in the eye and asked him if he was politically interfering with her role and her decision as the Attorney General. In her words, she said the PM said, “No, no, no – we just need to find a solution.” And also, she said that she felt that ultimately, her decision resulted in the Prime Minister moving her to the Veterans Affairs portfolio.

Since Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, other witnesses have given evidence to the Justice Committee on this matter, and the Prime Minister presented his side of the story in a press conference. Many have characterized the whole thing as merely a “he said versus she said” situation. My take on it is that what constitutes undue pressure is – if I’ve got this right – subjective. And, though Wilson-Raybould has her truth about why she was shuffled to Veterans Affairs, others have voiced a different truth on that point.

Honestly, I’m sad by the whole thing. We’ve lost a good Justice Minister and I’d hate for this to end up sinking the PM’s chances in the fall election. But, on a personal note, it’s helped me realize that from now on, it really doesn’t matter whether I keep the difference between subjective and objective straight. After all, it seems that if everyone has their own truth, it’s safe to say that what’s objective is … well … subjective.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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