For the past few weeks, the Canadian public – and increasingly the world – have witnessed the quintessential Canadian scandal.
So far, no one has proven any law has been broken, no one has been physically injured, and the core issue is whether 9,000 (or 3,500 or 6,000 or any) jobs are at risk because of a legally-mandated judgment by Canada’s attorney general (who also sits in cabinet as the minister of Justice).
Only in Canada, you say?
Cast as the villain in the scandal is a corporation. It’s largely comprised of engineers, who bid on contracts, many from global governments, to build hospitals, bridges, power plants and associated infrastructure, arguably all for some aspect of the public good.
Unfortunately, the corporation has experienced certain ethical conundrums around allegations of bribery, and executives have been fired and charged with criminal offences. Some charges have already been dropped due to prosecutorial delays and court-determined judgments are being sought on other fronts.
In the cause of corporate rapprochement, apologies have been made, lobbying has been undertaken up to and including the prime minister’s office, and the then-attorney general refused to buckle under the ‘old school’ requests for accommodation and compromise, and the utilization of new federal law.
This federal law now enables deferred prosecution agreements and associated remediation agreements, overseen by judges and permitting corporate apologies, prosecution of miscreants, the payment of fines, and the avoidance of lengthy, expensive litigation that might bankrupt a corporation.
Failing bankruptcy, 10-year prohibitions from competing for federal government contracts are on offer in the case of proven corporate guilt.
The term ‘old school’ is used above to refer to the corporate and political lobbying of the attorney general for prosecutorial relief. Recently, two tweets by no less than Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (author of 2018’s best seller Enlightenment Now) pointed out that the old school process is actually the foundation of democratic problem solution making:
“@sapinker . March 10: I admire Justin Trudeau & suspect he’ll survive his current tsuris … I’d add: selecting a cabinet to fulfill gender + ethnic quotas means the ministers will see their mandate as being symbols of morally correct values. That’s different from a mandate of skillfully negotiating the messy tradeoffs & compromises needed to run a democracy.”
So, buying Pinker’s logic, the real solution to Canada’s current ‘scandal’ is crafting the mediation between old school hegemony and new school identity politics. In contemporary terms, that’s seeking a rapprochement between Jody Wilson-Raybould’s principled legal stance and Justin Trudeau’s messy political parlance.
But is this mediation possible? And if so, what does it look like?
I’d like to argue this point from the experience of my early career, which often placed me as a corporate employee (i.e. in Pinker’s terminology, an old school “messy tradeoffs” proponent) in negotiations with Indigenous groups practising what might seem today to be identity politics, where people of a particular ethnicity, cultural and spiritual background (e.g. the Dene Nation) form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional party politics over contentious issues.
The issues of the day, in the 1980s and 1990s, ranged over pipeline rights-of-way through Denendeh in the Northwest Territories, the practical continuance of the ‘bush economy’ in Fort Mackay, Alta., and the realities of blowout prevention and oil spill containment in pristine ocean areas like B.C.’s Hecate Strait.
In each of these cases, accommodation of diverging viewpoints was possible.
Pipeline rights-of-way were established by seeking new routes that deviated from the notion that the shortest and cheapest distance between two points is a straight line because of obvious and irreconcilable concerns like damage to spawning grounds, destruction of graveyards, and proximity of 2,000-man work camps to small communities. By making the early effort to listen to community concerns and to propose ameliorations, alternate and acceptable routes were established.
The first steps to securing the continuance of the bush economy in Fort Mackay involved detailed mapping of traditional land use and occupancy by community elders, and the use of those maps to educate oil company executives with planning responsibilities.
The resumption of offshore drilling in Hecate Strait proved too costly and dangerous, so the project was abandoned.
In each of these cases, early notice, true facts, active listening and fair efforts produced resolutions, ranging from project redesign, to Indigenous planning inputs, to the cancellation of a poorly-conceived project.
The core lesson was that old school listening and identity politics morality could in combination produce mediation – at least some of the time.