Conservatives hoped SNC-Lavalin would sour Quebecers on Trudeau. Instead, it endeared him to them
In its early days, it seemed like LavScam would be the new AdScam. It hasn't come to pass
The Conservative Party advisor skipped into the room, BlackBerry cradled in his hand, his feet barely touching the floor. News that the Liberal government, led by a Quebec MP, had allegedly bent the rules to curry favour with a Quebec-based engineering behemoth had drawn howls from English Canada. Quebec would no doubt abandon the Liberal Party in a cloud of resulting resentment, embarrassment and shame. This fellow's job, helping in the party's Quebec effort to oust the Liberals from office, just became that much easier.
Such was the Conservative Party fever dream circa February 2019, in those few bonkers weeks after the Globe and Mail birthed the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Having Liberal cabinet ministers and poohbahs lean on the attorney general, at the apparent behest of the prime minister, to secure a stay out of jail free card for SNC-Lavalin exposed the juiciest of Liberal Party clichés.
For Conservatives, the parallels to another Liberal cockup, the sponsorship scandal, were undeniable and eminently exploitable. Once again, the Liberal Party had demonstrated its bloated sense of entitlement and tendency to flout the rules in order to placate Quebec. LavScam was the new AdScam.
Alas for Conservatives, it hasn't come to pass. Six months later, the biggest scandal to rock Justin Trudeau's government has failed to slacken his party's grip on Quebec. In fact, the Trudeau government's shabby attempts to shield SNC-Lavalin from the wrath of the justice system, rule of law be damned, has probably helped its chances of re-election — in Quebec at the very least.
The new Adscam
You cannot blame the Conservatives for dreaming, because there are undeniable parallels between Lavscam of 2019 and Adscam of yore. A quick refresher: In 1995, utterly spooked by Quebec's near-exit from the federation, the Liberal government of the day devised a plan to essentially sell Quebecers on Canada's many merits and delights. In theory, this branding exercise would make the Maple Leaf ubiquitous at sporting events, hunting shows and on Quebec's formidable festival circuit. In practice, this exercise was entrusted to Liberal-connected ad firms in the province, which billed inflationary amounts for work often not done.
The ensuing scandal, also birthed by the Globe and Mail, had a feedback loop effect. English Canada resented the Liberal Party's rank Quebec favouritism, which Quebecers themselves resented for the graft and corruption done in their name. The Liberals were relegated to near-rump status in Quebec in the following years, and it took nearly a decade for the party to recover from the cacophony of outrage and arrests. Lavscam has many similar ingredients: ample finger wagging from English Canada and a Liberal government willing to break the rules for an allegedly corrupt Quebec-based business. So why hasn't it come to pass?
Simple: as a large, home-grown entity, SNC-Lavalin is less a company than corporate god. Like Couche-Tard, GardaWorld, Bombardier and CGI Group, to name a few, SNC is a symbol of Quebec success and might on the world stage.
- A closer look at SNC-Lavalin's sometimes murky past
When one of these corporate gods is sold off — like, say, when an U.S.-based Lowes bought Quebec-based Rona in 2016 for an absurd amount of money — the reaction is less joyous than wake-like. "What will be the next Quebec crown jewel to be sold off?" wondered one columnist in a familiar fit of pique.
Being a Quebec corporate god holds a lot of water and hides a lot of sin. Even before the Globe and Mail revelations, the Quebec government included the company on a list of 10 "strategic" firms that would be protected from foreign takeovers.
In the wake of the Globe's revelations, when SNC-Lavalin's decampment to foreign shores became a very real possibility, the company's myriad alleged overindulgences at the behest of Muammar Gaddafi's homicidal regime became an afterthought. Far more important, as Quebec Premier François Legault put it last February, was to "settle" SNC's inconvenient legal situation and "protect the headquarters and the thousands of good, well-paying jobs we have at SNC-Lavalin."
In attempting to do exactly this, Trudeau endeared himself to Quebec's political and media classes — and, apparently, to most Quebecers themselves.
Poll analysis by 308Canada.com and the CBC's Eric Grenier suggest the Liberals remain practically tied with the Conservatives, despite a half-year's-worth of wretched headlines aimed squarely at the Liberals, the province and one of its biggest companies.
Indeed, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet has been unsparing in his criticism… of the Conservatives, who, in criticizing SNC, have "tried to score political points on the back of Quebec," according to Blanchet. He further suggested that Trudeau's biggest sin as far as SNC-Lavalin was concerned was getting caught in the first place.
Of course, in getting caught while trying to help SNC-Lavalin, Trudeau and the Liberals have made it that much more difficult for the company to avoid its day in court. Nevertheless, the effort has already paid off Quebec, home to those jealously-guarded corporate gods. Sadly for the Conservatives, Adscam this is not.
This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.