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The SNC-Lavalin affair

  • May 01, 2019
  • David Slavick

The SNC Lavalin affair seems uniquely designed to evoke interest in the legal mind. The complexities of Deferred Prosecution Agreements, questions regarding the chain of command in the bureaucracy, and the independence of the Attorney General’s office all are the sorts of niggling legal minutiae that excite and titillate legal thinkers. The SNC Lavalin affair has become a beautiful bar exam hypothetical, throwing a checklist of legal issues from across the many silos of legal regulation into one steaming hot pot of stew, seasoned liberally with political machinations.

Lawyers are justifiably intrigued. Lawyers like puzzles. But legal minds have to ask themselves is if they are interested in this issue because it is important to them or if they are interested because it is legally interesting. That distinction in the age of the infotainment legal podcast and true crime documentary is one that legal thinkers must parse out. We cannot let our desire to unravel a mystery colour our understanding of to what extent “normal” politics should be pathologized through the lens of legal regulation.

The lawyerly ability to divorce oneself from political considerations is super-human in many ways given that the political is personal and that law is the memorialization of politics. The way we organize our lives is full of political decision making but the pseudo-objectivity of calling balls and strikes is a lens we must try to escape.

Is the SNC Lavalin affair legally interesting? Absolutely. Is it a legal scandal? Probably not. Yes, it seems untoward that the Attorney General and Minister of Justice positions are intertwined. Yes, the legislation on deferred prosecution agreements seems vague around issues of local economic impact versus national impact. Yes, the palace intrigues of who met who, when, at the Fairmont Ch√Ęteau Laurier does feel like unraveling a spy case. These things can all be true without the need to seek out a legal solution to what is distasteful but run of the mill politics in Ottawa, Washington DC, or any other centre of power.

It is appealing to look at the seeming nuances of the political process and feel that the aspects of that process that fail to conform to our understanding of legal norms and get the gut sense that there is something deeply illegal occurring. That would be in many ways satisfying; we enter into the legal profession because we feel the law is a way to make meaning of the world. Sadly, there are many times the world is too messy to organize in that way. Grey areas develop in the cracks of the regulation of behaviour – that is the stuff of life, that is where politics live and law finds its powers diminished. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The limitations of law allow us to see where politics reside and it is in politics that we can change the world, not just change the law. It is, in fact, an election year, and it is in these years that we can determine where the country is headed. Just as we cannot have politics stand in for law, we cannot let the law stand in for politics.


David Slavick is a former adjunct law professor at Elon University School of Law, a former political consultant and DC think tank staffer, Canadian in training, producer of The Michael Brooks Show, and co-host/producer of the Heidi Matthews On Demand Podcast. Find him on Twitter @davidslavick.