Canada Rex Murphy: When 'sorry' doesn't cut it any more
Rex Murphy: The WE Charity scandal is far from over
This isn’t over — not by a long shot. Just because the cozy contract between the Government of Canada and WE Charity has been nullified, doesn’t mean we’re through with this controversy; and just because Marc and Craig Kielburger and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau want to walk away from a mess that seems entirely of their own construction does not mean they should be allowed to do so. This is a $900-million program that appears to have been ever so casually passed on to Trudeau’s friends. A stir arose and now both parties say, “Oh my, how unfortunate this is. If we’d known this would stir a controversy, we would never have agreed to it.
What is a Trudeau apology worth?
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There was some semblance of regret when the prime minister said he was sorry because he had “brought” his mother into the WE mess. I’d say he was quite sincere about feeling badly that his mother had been spotlighted in the past week or so.
At the same time, he had multiple opportunities to warn Margaret Trudeau away from giving WE speeches — 28 times in fact. To warn her that as he, both before becoming prime minister and after, was a standout special speaker at the big WE Day events, she, in particular, should probably stay away for both their comfort and benefit.
That, even more seriously, as his government, even before the $912-million student volunteer program, had given various grants to the WE boys, including $1.18 million for a 2017 Canada Day event no less, that she should probably not be so frequent a paid presence at these functions. Just for decorum’s sake if for nothing else, and certainly to erase even the slightest appearance of conflict of interest. Forgetting all other considerations just from filial prudence.
Rex Murphy: Who cancelled the WE contract — and why?
I don’t normally do trilogies, but this WE Charity affair is fascinating. The government’s facile description of the WE deal’s unexplained collapse noted that it was a “mutually agreed upon decision.” But that’s hardly reassuring, as the choice to enter into the deal a few weeks earlier was also a mutually agreed upon decision. How could it be otherwise? Mutual agreement is the definition of a deal. Apparently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also thought there was some explanatory power in telling us that the deal was “unfortunate.” Unfortunate for whom and why was it unfortunate? “Unfortunate” is a very lame and evasive word for messing up a $900-million deal.
So yes, I agree he was sorry to see his mother (and the other kin) caught in the uproar, but the sorrow probably contained as much regret as actual contrition. Regret that the arrangements with WE fell through, more than contrition over the casual, thoughtless and unseemly ways they were brought into being.
Contrition brings me to the broader consideration of his apologia. In the Catholic church, and this has always seemed right to me even outside any ecclesiastical frame, it is clearly understood that an act of contrition (which is actually an apology to God) is not complete, it is impaired and null, unless it is accompanied by a genuine resolve not to commit the same sin again.
Let me illustrate this with a homely instance. You do not commit adultery with the neighbour’s wife (let us call her Shirley Longboots, a pseudonym to shield her identity), head off to the confessional, confess, say the act of contrition, receive absolution and … promptly romp right back for another dance on the mattress with Shirley.
Matt Gurney: What the prime minister doesn't get about the WE scandal
Late last month, the CBC asked WE Charity — the organization at the heart of the recent scandal over almost a billion dollars in proposed, but then cancelled, federal work — if the charity had ever paid a member of the Trudeau family for speeches. The Trudeau family have many links to WE Charity: until 2017 the prime minister himself regularly attended the group’s annual Canadian youth rally called WE Day; his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, is a WE ambassador and hosts a WE podcast. The speeches had happened. Those were a matter of record.
People would say you were not sincere, your confessor would severely chide you. You would not have been absolved.
Now I know we’re in a different zone here. Confessions of sorrow to the Canadian public, normally, do not involve considerations of your destination in the afterlife. But if on occasion you do apologize to the Canadian public and say you are sorry — let us say for violating the Conflict of Interest Act — the public will listen, study your manner and tone, and almost certainly — they are an obliging lot — accept the apology and more or less let things go on as they were. Everyone makes mistakes is the rubric normally applied.
But let us imagine that after one apology involving the Conflict of Interest Act (think Aga Khan, island vacation, helicopter rides, Seamus O’Regan), a little later, on a deeper matter (rule of law), and after much attempt at evading responsibility, you finally come forward again and say you were wrong and you are sorry. You breached the conflict of interest legislation, again.
That’s the second time for the same sin — you’ve gone, metaphorically of course, back to Shirley and her long boots. The second time you apologize is not going to be received with the same ease and grace. Because it implies all you learned from the first occasion was that if you said the formula “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” that was all that was needed. It was the formula, not any conviction of its meaning, that worked.
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Where was the resolve after the first call from grace to sin no more? The second apology will retroactively reduce the value of the first one.
Well, then, what should happen when a third, even bigger matter emerges? A matter of nearly a billion-dollar disbursement being placed in the hands of two high-powered “charity entrepreneurs,” Craig and Marc Kielburger. The same Kielburgers that you, your family, your finance minster’s family, and yes —Seamus O’Regan (he does get around) — have had long connections with. What happens when that emerges and the public, almost instantly, doesn’t like it one bit?
They see a great and blatant series of conflicts of interest. They see that the WE bunch, which you and your family and some ministers and even advisers have been entangled with for various periods, have astonishingly been made the overseers and contractors for a billion-dollar emergency program. Even a past Conflict of Interest Commissioner gives more than a hint that this is a Grade A conflict of interest. Even your caucus, though they won’t dare say it out loud, look at the deal with the Kielburgers as a political Hindenburg.
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A great storm brews for a week. And then Monday morning you walk down those now familiar steps and, once again, offer to the Canadian public these now familiar words: “I made a mistake. I am sorry.”
This is like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, the third time. Three is not careless. It is routine on the way to being a habit. What was learned from No. 1 and No. 2? Apparently nothing — except that, when there is no other road for a getaway, best to say “I’m sorry. I apologize.”
The third time I’d incline to say this is getting tiresome. Emoting a formula of words emoted already twice before is more wearisome than convincing. Break it once, break it twice, break the Conflict of Interest legislation — designed for probity and transparency in the spending of public money — three times, and I’d suggest that “sorry” doesn’t cut it any more.
Now, if we had a Parliament, perhaps these strange initiatives wouldn’t be quite so attractive. If we had a Parliament, it could take up NDP Charlie Angus’s most pointed and relevant observation: “We need to get the contracts between WE and the Trudeau family. It would be appalling if WE paid Margaret Trudeau to participate in a Canada Day event with her son the prime minister. Beyond tacky. It’s appalling.”
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