Cross Country Checkup

Navigating the truth behind the political drama in the SNC-Lavalin controversy

As the SNC-Lavalin controversy continues to unfurl, pollsters are asking Canadians who they trust. Experts share with Cross Country Checkup the factors that voters should consider to determine who is trustworthy.

Experts weigh in on the factors Canadians are using to determine who is most trustworthy

Former top adviser to Justin Trudeau, Gerald Butts, left, disputed allegations made by former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, right, in his testmony to the House of Commons justice committee. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press, Chris Wattie/Reuters)

No sooner had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrapped his news conference this week, acknowledging an "erosion of trust" at the core of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, when pollsters fanned out across the land asking voters who they believe.

As Canadians struggle to reconcile former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould's testimony — alleging inappropriate pressure in a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin — with rebuttals from Trudeau's former right-hand man Gerald Butts, experts suggest they should be mindful of how they determine who is telling the truth.

"Research shows that people are really bad at identifying who is speaking honestly and who is being deliberately dishonest," said Emma Cunliffe, a law professor at the University of British Columbia.

The controversy has squarely pitted Wilson-Raybould's version of events against the Prime Minister's Office, with Butts and Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, flatly denying aspects of Wilson-Raybould's testimony.

Who to trust is an important political question for voters, says Cunliffe, but the process of determining who is telling the truth is fraught with challenges.

Cunliffe has studied how judges reach decisions about facts in a criminal cases, especially when presented with two contradictory stories from people who disagree about events.

"Often, it's people who are most confident in their capacity to tell when somebody is lying who are most likely to be wrong," she said.

Law professor Emma Cunliffe says that unconcious bias can play a role in who we choose to trust. (Submitted by Emma Cunliffe)

Determining truthfulness

As a guide to weighing the conflicting testimonies in the SNC-Lavalin controversy, Cunliffe says Canadians should be wary of interpreting behaviour such as eye contact or a person's manner to decide if someone is telling a lie.

Instead, Cunliffe emphasizes that independent evidence is critical to determining the truth of a person's memory or account.

On that front, Cunliffe was impressed that Wilson-Raybould buttressed her testimony and recollection of conversations with extensive written details, suggesting "at the very least, she may have better records."

If we use the metaphor of Canadians as the jury, how many Canadians are awake to this and how many are falling asleep?- Paul Nesbitt-Larking, Huron University College law professor

However, she also points out that notes and text messages referred to by Wilson-Raybould and Butts in their testimonies haven't been made available to Canadians.

"The most important clues that a court would use [to determine truthfulness] aren't available to the public in this case," said Cunliffe.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking, a political science professor at Huron University College, has been watching the SNC-Lavalin affair through the lens of "political psychology," a field of research that examines how a human's psychological nature impacts political decisions.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking says that the players in this controversy are skilled at using logic and emotion to persuade Canadians. (Submitted by Paul Nesbitt-Larking)

He argues the conflicting narratives in the SNC-Lavalin affair don't necessarily add up to any one of the actors telling lies.

"It's quite reasonable for people of goodwill and people who are engaged in the same sort of area of experience to see the truth in slightly different ways," said Nesbitt-Larking.

"Somebody making a request may be perceived as making a demand or issuing a veiled threat. In human communication, these are things that happen quite often."

Consider unconscious bias 

While evidence is key, bias also plays a role.

According to Nesbitt-Larking, Canadians don't know enough about the political actors to actually determine who is telling the truth. And observers may bring their own confirmation biases to the task, interpreting the testimonies through their own partisan political or identity perspectives.

"There's motivated reasoning that's involved in all of this," he said. "Seeing your side always ... picking out the arguments that support your position and your identity, and rejecting the others."

Cunliffe agrees, adding that Canadians should consider their own unconscious stereotypes and biases when it comes to ideas about race or gender roles, when assessing truthfulness.

"For example, if one has a stereotype about Indigenous people which suggests that Indigenous people are less likely to be well educated and very organized and highly articulate, then we may have trouble seeing a given Indigenous person as well educated, highly organized and very articulate."

According to Cunliffe, there's a wide body of research that suggests women's testimony is often judged stereotypically, including notions that women tend to be excessively emotional and to overreact to small things, or that they take things personally when a situation isn't personal.

Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee that she faced 'veiled threats' from PMO staffers in relation to the SNC-Lavalin case. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What's unusual about the SNC-Lavalin controversy, says Nesbitt-Larking, is that it's all being aired in the public court, with players who are skilled at using logic and emotion to persuade.

While the controversy has sparked intense conversations about political trustworthiness amongst media and punditry, he feels the matter may have reached its apex in the minds of voters.

"If we use the metaphor of Canadians as the jury, how many Canadians are awake to this and how many are falling asleep?" Nesbitt-Larking asked.

"Is the jury paying attention?"

With files from Mary Newman and Shayfali Saujani

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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