Black Earth Rising- Part II

Why Black Earth Rising? Why that title to the series? The earth in Rwanda is distinctively red. During production, the series had an alternative title – The Forgiving Earth, suggesting that Black Earth Rising is about salvation and redemption through unpacking the past and forgiving “the other” to create a strong and thriving nation. I give almost nothing away to let readers know that the reconciliation of the two sisters, the current authoritarian President of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi and a former general in the RPF, a hero in the rescue of her people, Alice Munezero, ends the series. However, that thread is a minor and mostly symbolic sub-plot, inserted artificially because of the themes the writer/director wants to underline. But why Black Earth Rising?

The romantic and idealistic theme is clear. People should move beyond their past sectarian violent conflict through reconciliation and respect for the other. How to do that? Unpack the repressed memories. Dig up the mass graves. Except there is only the slightest hint of mass graves in the whole series. Instead, the focus is not on the group, but on the individual. Further, it is in the individual for whom the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, between a British and Rwandan identity, will be buried in order to participate in the resurrection. It is a message of a new globalized identity rooted in human rights that will allow age-old animosities to be interred.

As if the animosities were really and deeply about ethnicities! Humans can find any Other to target – to define as Other, to define as wholly Other, to define as an inferior Other, to define as a threatening Other, to define as a threatening Other who must be quarantined and exiled, to define as a threatening Other from whom security can be gained only through extermination. In watching the series, you do not see the downward spiral. Only the plotted recovery of the cast by the removal of mysterious unknowns.

But the problem is not about what is unknown. For all along, the challenge was that we ignored what we already knew to allow either hope or hatred to blind us to the reality unfolding before us. Whether idealistic or brutalist, the source of the conundrum is not in the weakening of our eyes or in the connection of our brains to processing what we see, but in the blinkers we choose to wear. Hatred and hope, hope and hatred, are merely reasons for mindblindness, not causes. The dream of transforming the colour of the red earth of Rwanda into rich black earth that will allow richness to emerge – material richness, cultural richness, moral richness – is simply a fraud. And however, exciting the drama that unfolds through the plot, the resurrection emerges as a deus ex machina, an artificially imposed solution on a horribly painful part of all our history that rings false.   

How did that happen? How could the brilliance of a volcanic Michaela Coel playing Kate Ashby and John Goodman – his real name so appropriate to the false idealism underpinning the series – playing the cynical, world-weary but rights driven international human rights lawyer, Michael Ennis, end up resulting in the feeling that one has been cheated, that the deck has been stacked, that the dice have been loaded? I believe that the use of the genre of a thriller, while entrancing and keeping us mesmerized, also keeps the viewer blinded. We are literally blindsided by the inadequacy of the simplistic and misleading result to the absolute horror of the evil and atrocious bloodiness of the genocide.

Let me provide some real grounding, and not in a black earth totally absent from Rwanda. The series is basically about the ability of legal systems of justice to bring mass murderers their just deserts. But just look at the phrase – “just deserts” – as if the solution to blood and gore on a massive scale is an energy bar, as if justice were just the sweet ending to a delicious meal. In reality, it is a desert, an arid plain or a rocky and craggy Sinai out of which only morals can be handed down from on high as simplistic formulas. John Goodman can play the role of a jocular salesman of the new international human rights regime in the name of which we have watched a new form of lies and injustice roll out in front of us.

Atrocities are not excavated; they are buried deeper under pap. Sometimes it is the pap of providing John Goodman with a silent prop to show what a caring and committed individual he is under his cynical idealistic blather – that is, a wife in a coma of frozen silence. The viewer has to know it is pap because we do not feel the pain of John Goodman’s loss. We never feel that Michael Ennis hurts, hurts so deeply that he needs to cover that pain up with comic asides and witty banter.

What about wonder woman, whether on her daily runs or swimming vigorously in a pool? Michaela Cole is certainly an intriguing presence. But in the end, what we have watched is a marvel comic character dressed in the costume of a genocide survivor. It is the absence that pains me deeply, not what is present before me. And the contradictions! Instead of showing the drama of the interaction of thought and feeling, her brilliance as an investigator is used simply as a foil for her periodic emotional breakdowns. The two states play off one another without either throwing much light on the other.

While watching brilliant performances trapped in a convoluted plot of various threads that never come together to knit a sweater, and while our attention is kept by hints and reveals that end up as disguises and cover-ups, I ended up feeling used and abused. But not just me. History most of all. The Rwandan genocide was a horror show of world historical importance. Like the holocaust, it demands immersion, demands at the very least vicarious pain, demands our attention to reality. The device of the drama entailed in the pursuit of one’s personal identity falls so short of the immensity of the evil that instead of experiencing at least some cathartic relief, I felt as if I had been served terrible Chinese fast syrupy sweet and sour chicken with overcooked beans and undercooked rice in a commercial food court.

The Rwandan genocide was visceral. The Rwandan genocide cannot be captured by a zombie horror movie even with the best of actors and the highest production quality. And justice was never done, most of all, not by the international criminal court. The series suggests that the ICC is the only way to go to obtain justice. French justice was just an effort to cover up French complicity. Rwandan justice was really an exercise in revenge. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha trying the genocidaires offered the template for a solution.

However, nothing can be further from the truth. The suggestion that the West can make up for its total irresponsibility by not intervening when it easily could to stop the genocide in its tracks by afterwards creating a system of international justice that is detached, that is purportedly fair and that follows all the rules of a liberal system, is just so much hogwash.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha that tried the leading perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide lasted 21 years. The result – 61 convictions. Yes, 61, Yes, just 61. 93 individuals were tried. The trials cost US$2 billion dollars, or just about $330 million per conviction – $330,000,000. That is the total value of the GDP for the Philippines.

True, Jean-Paul Akayesu was convicted of nine counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. He had been charged with 15 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity – that included rape. He was a former Hutu mayor of Taba in Gitarama prefecture in the year prior to and ending with the termination of the genocide. He was a former teacher and school inspector and considered fairly intelligent.  But he was not simply a passive bystander, but personally engaged in the supervision of murdering Tutsi. He provided the lists to the militias who went house-to-house searching out victims.

The ruling is important in the history of international law. He was not found guilty of breaches of the Geneva Convention concerning war crimes, but was found guilty in accordance with the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was unprecedented and offered an historical landmark. However, this significance in meting out international human rights justice is ignored in the series.

Former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, a banker in his earlier life who was sworn into office when President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash and Prime Minster Agathe Unwillinglyimana was assassinated, was convicted. He was the first ever head of state to be tried by an international criminal court is the name of ending immunity for the powerful. He pled guilty. But the trials of the mass murderers after World War II had already established that principle, and at immensely less cost. And with far greater public education – for after all, these were show trials, but of victors.

The Eichmann trial by an Israeli court was a show trial, but hardly a victor’s trial when six million Jews had been murdered. But it was even a greater show trial to demonstrate that Jews could no longer be killed with impunity. The trial initiated the awakening of historical consciousness and an historical conscience of the evils of the Holocaust fifteen years after WWII had ended – a result that Hannah Arendt not only ignored, but implicitly deplored.  Show trials raise the level of awareness. They introduce us to the horrors committed. But there is no evidence they serve as a deterrent. The ICTR’s president, Danish Judge Vagn Joensen, opined that the convictions served as “powerful deterrents to those committing similar crimes in the future”.

Nonsense! Absolute nonsense. Nonsense without a scrap of evidence to support such a conviction about the effects of convictions on the global scale. Contrast the results with those of the Rwandan gacaca courts (“justice among the grass” rather than from the black earth) that tried over 130,000 and meted out not only justice but a foundation for reconciliation. While far from perfect to say the least, while sometimes the courts were used for vengeance rather than justice, while the court was sometimes abused by providing opportunists an excuse to seize property, these local communities processed over 100,000 convictions. However. Like the ICTR, the Rwandan courts failed to communicate that any understanding was gained about the cause of genocide at a deeper level. If I were to weigh the ICTR against the Rwandan court system, with all of its enormous flaws, the latter would win hands down, the exact opposite message of Black Earth Rising.

But the most serious injustice of the series concerned the implicit suggestion that the post-genocide crimes in the Congo by Tutsi “rogues” – the series at least did not trace them back to the Rwandan government – were equivalent to the crimes committed by the genocidaire in Rwanda. This is just a great historical lie. The claim is often made that over 600,000 Hutu were killed mercilessly by Tutsi in the Congo, more or less balancing the 800,000 murdered in the genocide. But this ignores a number of facts.

The 600,000 figure came about because the number of Hutu refugees remaining in Congo after the 1996 return was an illusion, a grossly exaggerated figure based on totally false counts of the number of Hutu refugees living in camps in the Congo. Certainly, atrocities were committed against those Hutus. Perhaps as many as 60,000 innocent civilians were murdered in crimes against humanity. But the murders were not part of a genocidal effort.

Certainly, more died in the Congo compared to Rwanda, about twice the number. Not over 10 weeks but over 10 or more years. They were casualties of disease, of hunger and of atrocities, casualties in the midst of war rather than results of intentional mass murder with the goal of absolutely exterminating the Other. There is no comparison and no balance by setting the two situations side by side. In my conviction, this was the greatest atrocity committed by the series.

Thus, whatever the power of the series, in fact, precisely because of its power, the reprehensible falsification of history and ethical distortions emerge as an abomination rather than some form of revelation that contributes to reconciliation.

Pain must be felt and expressed and not buried deep under moral claptrap and technical wizardry.

Black Earth Rising – Part I

This morning I woke very early as usual. In the evening, I escape these days by watching an Israeli romantic comedy series called Shtisel (I hope I spelled it correctly) about a rabbi’s family in Mea Shearim, the ultra-orthodox part of Jerusalem. But I don’t escape. I can’t escape.

As my brother Stan says, “We are all tied up.” There are clues that I too am somehow all bound up. Three obvious ones. I was washing my hands after brushing my teeth this morning. I just turned the hot water on without diluting it with cold. And then was startled that hot water was burning my middle finger. I had forgotten that I was holding my hand under the hot water to remove the shaving cream from my Bic shaver and hand. It is a good thing that our hot water is not heated to a higher temperature.

Then I nicked my chin with my razor as I shaved. I rarely do that, especially since I am on a blood thinner and the bleeding always takes a while to stop. The worst is, I took 42 minutes to take a shower. A shower usually takes 3-5 minutes at most. I was in the shower for 42 minutes. And I did not know it. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing. I don’t know what happened to the time when I was in the shower.

Perhaps I am just very tired. Can you sleep standing up in the shower? Perhaps I have the abilities of a horse. I think I am very tired from dreaming. Because of my sleep phase cycle – I have sleep phase disorder – I rarely remember dreaming. When I wake up, I am wide awake and at my computer in 15 seconds. But last night, I only slept for little more than two hours. When I saw the time, I went back to bed. But I don’t know whether I slept or not. I seemed to be half awake. But I was dreaming. I know because when I dream, I wake up highly disturbed and upset – unusual for me.

I also know because I remember fragments of the dream. It was a long epic. In one scene, I walked onto the wing of a float plane and helped two people disembark. I do not know who the two were and could not remember their faces. In another scene, I was rafting down rapids – sometimes the big tube seemed overflowing with people. At other times, I turned around and there was no one there in the boat with me. In another scene, I was in a sling hanging from the hospital ceiling zipping along hospital corridors as if I was on a zip line. I could not make sense of the narrative. I just know that it seemed to go on and on.

However, the ending was hyper-realistic. I was in the hospital with Stan. I think highly of the nurses and doctors, the dietician and the social worker, who have looked after my brother. But not in the dream. The cardiac doctor came by to boast at the great success they had in removing the blood clot from Stan’s anterior coronary artery and inserting a stent. I burst out: why didn’t you puncture the artery? What the fuck is it worth making his heart hum like a well-oiled pump if you cannot get rid of the blood now collecting in his stomach? As I raged away at this very considerate but now bewildered professional, he slunk out of the room looking back in fear and trembling at this wild raging elephant who would squash him if he could.

The neurological team were in the room next. Stan, what day is it. Fuck, I don’t know what day it is. Why should Stan? Why are you asking him? What is your name? Stan muttered his name. Where are you now? I don’t know. How old are you? Silence. And on and on they droned. Why are you asking him all these questions? You know he has lost his short-term memory. And I told them that he had been very disruptive and active that morning. He had asked me to call mom, or Ma as Stan always called my mother. He had fallen out of bed at 1:00 a.m. and the nurses found him on the floor. We will prescribe him with a regular dose of hydro-morphine instead of only administering it when he was in great distress and requested it, they promised.

Can’t you give him something to restore his dignity? Then the psychiatric team arrived. I had seen the intern three or four times, but that was the first time I met the psychiatrist. He tried to speak to Stan to determine whether he was delirious. Stan totally ignored him.

Then the palliative care team arrived. They too tried to question Stan to determine whether he could pass the test for MAID, medical assistance in dying. Two separate physicians would have to interview him for an hour each to determine whether he was in full possession of his mental facilities, sufficiently to be legally capable of deciding whether to ask for help in dying. But if he was, and he had been, then we believed that there was a slim possibility of recovery. Therefore, we did not search out the assistance of MAID. And when we learned survival was not possible, it was too late. That is the Catch-22 in which the law places patients. And we wonder why so few apply for MAID.

Choose death when you are not dying because you may not be able to do it when you are. For leaving a living will to that effect was useless. The two doctors were sweet. They were solicitous. They were unctuous. As the honey flowed from their mouths, it gradually filled the room and drowned us all in the sticky thick molasses. But at least death had then been sweet.

Finally, the social worker arrived. Lucky for her, she never actually did. She announced that she had finally been able to make arrangements to transfer Stan to the hospice. They lifted Stan out of bed with a sling, packed him into a wheel chair, put on a seat belt and propped him up with pillows on all sides. As they wheeled him into the elevator at the sixth floor, down to the first floor and out to the waiting ambulance, I asked if I could accompany Stan and hold his hand as we travelled the short seven blocks to the hospice. It was against regulations. I would have to travel by TTC or take a cab. I stood by as the ambulance pulled out of the semi-circular driveway onto Bathurst Street and plowed into the path of a tractor trailer. Stan must have died instantly.

And I woke up.

However, it really was not the vivid scenes that crowded into my head that I remembered most. I remember the smell. I remembered it acutely. I thought dreams were always visual. But this one had been pungent. It was the smell of decaying corpses. I not only smelled it in my dream. I smelled the odor in the shower. I knew what that was. I knew it very well. It was a smell from 1995 when we were double-checking the body count of over 17,000 men, women and children that had been dug up from a mass grave at a technical school in Rwanda. Because the corpses were packed so tightly, they had barely decayed. The bodies were laid out on the benches in the school rooms. Some women’s bodies still had the staves that had been stuck up their vaginas.

What was that smell? A mixture of noxious gases and decaying flesh, so putrid and rotting that it crashed through all the antiseptic smells of the real hospital. As the fluids leaked from Stan’s body, those liquids covered the tile floors. The poor cleaning ladies that would have to mop up that mess. Stan’s sumo wrestler’s diaper was overflowing at the edges. They’ll never be able to clean the floor.

I began imagining the enzymes eating through Stan’s flesh like a swarm of locusts as I stood on that hillside to escape the stench from inside those school rooms. I was back there. I was here. I was nowhere. The odours were distinctive. I had never smelled them before or since, except when the memory recurs. Rot, feces, must, the sulphuric smell of rotting eggs, the foul smell of meat kept too long in the fridge, mothballs and the garlic odour that seemed to be the only really welcome smell, even a sweet scent, as these odours mixed and crowded into my brain, as they infused my memory with that recurrent experience, lately very rare, but now back with the power of a cyclone.

It was the smell much more than what we saw that was embossed on my memory from Rwanda. The gravesite had been dug out with a bulldozer by a French contractor three weeks before the genocide began. I estimate that the mass grave was about twenty feet deep. It was quite a contrast with the shallow graves you see in films that prisoners or concentration camp victims are forced to dig before they are shot and fall into the graves they had just dug. In Rwanda, death had been industrialized in a very different way than in the Holocaust.

The stench! The horrid stench! 

April 6th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide that killed from 800,000 to one million Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutu over ten weeks, a rate far faster than the murder of the Jews in the Shoah. In 1995, counting over 17,000 corpses in a technical school in Rwanda was incomparably the most searing experience of my whole life. How can you marry such a profound episode in human history with the genre of a murder mystery and a trial movie packaged as a thriller and use the combination to unpack both the problem of applying universal human rights law to a most sordid historical event and an African tragedy that was followed by what Gerard Prunier called, Africa’s first world war?

Black Earth Rising is an 8-part 2018 BBC-Netflix co-production that appeared on Netflix in North America at the end of January 2019 and which I watched last week. It was an accident. I had not read what the series was about.

Kate Ashby, played magnificently by Michaela Coel, is a genocide survivor. She is the not only the heart and soul of the film, but the brain as well. And she is courageous beyond belief. This is the story of an athletic wonder woman with the body of an Olympic athlete and the fiery intensity of a volcano. She was rescued and adopted by a British human rights attorney, Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), who appears only in the first two episodes. As cool and collected as Eve is, Kate is incendiary.

Eve’s partner is Michael Ennis, an internationally-renowned attorney, played by John Goodman with snide humour and cynical asides. Kate works for Michael as an investigator. Hugo Blick directed the award-winning 2014 series, The Honourable Woman, that probed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wrote and directed this tale about the prosecution of international war crimes. Blick in the series plays the role of a villain, an unscrupulous and cynical defence barrister, Blake Gaines, who defends Patrice Ganimana (Tyrone Huggins), an alleged war criminal and genocidaire living in safety and luxury in London. Blick not only plays but delights in revealing the dark side of humanity. His doppelganger is Lucian Msamanti (David Runihura), the Rwanda president’s consigliere who delivers a brilliant performance well matching Blick’s. Within both, evil is at war with goodness, only Blick thrills in the victory of evil at the same time as he deeds goodness to a posthumous life. Msamanti, in contrast, tries so hard, and often fails to have goodness checkmate the evil of instrumentalism.

The story begins when Eve Ashby agrees to prosecute Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani). Simon was a Tutsi general in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that defeated the Hutu-led genocidaires in Rwanda in 1994 but subsequently evolved into a warlord and mercenary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ostensibly responsible for many slaughters there. Eve is torn between the calling and mission of her adopted mother to prosecute war criminals whomever and wherever they are and Kate’s demand that her mother expend her talents and energy on making sure that all the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide are brought to trial. The main target, according to Kate, should be Patrice Ganimana.

The plot is propelled by the pursuit of justice for Ganimana as secrets are gradually revealed about the shape shifting among the esteemed human rights lawyers and Kate’s parallel pursuit of her own identity – British or Rwandan – but revealed over the course of the series as a much deeper tension. There is a parallel external divide between two “sisters, one the current President of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi (Abena Ayivor) and the other, a Rwandan general in the RPF, a hero in the rescue of her people, Alice Munezero played by Noma Dumezweni. The unveiling of the narrative is really propelled when Kate pursues the truth about a Roman Catholic French priest, Father Patenaude (Pascal Laurent) whom Alice Munezero allegedly murdered in cold blood. 

The use of dual tracks is also employed as the legal case against the Hutu Genocidaire, Ganimana, and parallels the effort to bring Alice Munezero to justice. Unfortunately, in spite of the intensity and the suspense, the criss-crossing of dual paths sometimes obscures and even buries the character of the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the Congo. Even on the surface level, I sometimes had difficulty following the plot.

The parallelisms between Hutu and Tutsi criminality, authoritarianism and the defence of human rights, traditional and contemporary colonialism, British dedication to human rights versus French and Belgian perfidy in supporting a genocidal regime, an orderly and prosperous but dictatorial Rwandan state versus the vision of Rwanda as, not the Singapore of Africa, but of much more fully democratic and prosperous alternative.

I got lost in the plot sometimes. At other times, I became angry at the plot as it uses stereotypical thriller devices to excite the viewer, but devices which have nothing to do with the themes of the series. And I was devastated to see Kate disappear so early in the second episode. She was such a wonderful personality and I barely got to know her.

But I did get to renew my acquaintance with the genocide. Once again, I was in touch with my rage at those who stood by and did next to nothing. In spite of the excellent acting and production values, in spite of the intrigue and the mystery, I felt my insides turning out as one again I watched a deformation of both history and the judicial system in the name of humanitarianism and justice.

To be continued.

TO BE NAUGHT or NOT TO BE Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker” – Part II

Magnified, sanctified
Be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified
In the human frame

A million candles burning
For the help that never came

You want it darker

Psalms Chapter 92 תְּהִלִּים

א  מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר, לְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת. 1 A Psalm, a Song. For the sabbath day.
ב  טוֹב, לְהֹדוֹת לַיהוָה;    וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיוֹן. 2 It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High;
ג  לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ;    וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ, בַּלֵּילוֹת. 3 To declare Thy loving kindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness in the night seasons,
ד  עֲלֵי-עָשׂוֹר, וַעֲלֵי-נָבֶל;    עֲלֵי הִגָּיוֹן בְּכִנּוֹר. 4 With an instrument of ten strings, and with the psaltery; with a solemn sound upon the harp.
ה  כִּי שִׂמַּחְתַּנִי יְהוָה בְּפָעֳלֶךָ;    בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ אֲרַנֵּן. 5 For Thou, LORD, hast made me glad through Thy work; I will exult in the works of Thy hands.
ו  מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה;    מְאֹד, עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ. 6 How great are Thy works, O LORD! Thy thoughts are very deep.
ז  אִישׁ-בַּעַר, לֹא יֵדָע;    וּכְסִיל, לֹא-יָבִין אֶת-זֹאת. 7 A brutish man knoweth not, neither doth a fool understand this.
ח  בִּפְרֹחַ רְשָׁעִים, כְּמוֹ עֵשֶׂב, וַיָּצִיצוּ, כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן:    לְהִשָּׁמְדָם עֲדֵי-עַד. 8 When the wicked spring up as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they may be destroyed for ever.
ט  וְאַתָּה מָרוֹם–    לְעֹלָם יְהוָה. 9 But Thou, O LORD, art on high for evermore.
י  כִּי הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ, יְהוָה–    כִּי-הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ:
יִתְפָּרְדוּ,    כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן.
10 For, lo, Thine enemies, O LORD, for, lo, Thine enemies shall perish: 
all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.
יא  וַתָּרֶם כִּרְאֵים קַרְנִי;    בַּלֹּתִי, בְּשֶׁמֶן רַעֲנָן. 11 But my horn hast Thou exalted like the horn of the wild-ox; I am anointed with rich oil.
יב  וַתַּבֵּט עֵינִי,    בְּשׁוּרָי:
בַּקָּמִים עָלַי מְרֵעִים–    תִּשְׁמַעְנָה אָזְנָי.
12 Mine eye also hath gazed on them that lie in wait for me, 
mine ears have heard my desire of the evil-doers that rise up against me.
יג  צַדִּיק, כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח;    כְּאֶרֶז בַּלְּבָנוֹן יִשְׂגֶּה. 13 The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
יד  שְׁתוּלִים, בְּבֵית יְהוָה;    בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱלֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ. 14 Planted in the house of the LORD, they shall flourish in the courts of our God.
טו  עוֹד, יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה;    דְּשֵׁנִים וְרַעֲנַנִּים יִהְיוּ. 15 They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness;
טז  לְהַגִּיד, כִּי-יָשָׁר יְהוָה;    צוּרִי, וְלֹא-עלתה (עַוְלָתָה) בּוֹ. 16 To declare that the LORD is upright, my Rock, in whom there is no unrighteousness. 

The brutish and the foolish and the wicked and the evil-doers spring up, creep out of the grass and from behind rocks, but they are not destroyed forever. They reappear in every age. The workers of iniquity flourish. God creates human suffering. Humans are the mere implementers.

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

We are forced to live in that darkness, accepting our mortality, but unable to understand suffering.

Psalms Chapter 39 תְּהִלִּים

א  לַמְנַצֵּחַ לידיתון (לִידוּתוּן),    מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד. 1 For the Leader, for Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
ב  אָמַרְתִּי–    אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי, מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי:
אֶשְׁמְרָה לְפִי מַחְסוֹם–    בְּעֹד רָשָׁע לְנֶגְדִּי.
2 I said: ‘I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue; 
I will keep a curb upon my mouth, while the wicked is before me.’
ג  נֶאֱלַמְתִּי דוּמִיָּה, הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי מִטּוֹב;    וּכְאֵבִי נֶעְכָּר. 3 I was dumb with silence; I held my peace, had no comfort; and my pain was held in check.
ד  חַם-לִבִּי, בְּקִרְבִּי–בַּהֲגִיגִי תִבְעַר-אֵשׁ;    דִּבַּרְתִּי, בִּלְשׁוֹנִי. 4 My heart waxed hot within me; while I was musing, the fire kindled; then spoke I with my tongue:
ה  הוֹדִיעֵנִי יְהוָה, קִצִּי–וּמִדַּת יָמַי מַה-הִיא;    אֵדְעָה, מֶה-חָדֵל אָנִי. 5 ‘LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short-lived I am.
ו  הִנֵּה טְפָחוֹת, נָתַתָּה יָמַי–    וְחֶלְדִּי כְאַיִן נֶגְדֶּךָ;
אַךְ כָּל-הֶבֶל כָּל-אָדָם,    נִצָּב סֶלָה.
6 Behold, Thou hast made my days as hand-breadths; and mine age is as nothing before Thee; 
surely every man at his best estate is altogether vanity. Selah
ז  אַךְ-בְּצֶלֶם, יִתְהַלֶּךְ-אִישׁ–    אַךְ-הֶבֶל יֶהֱמָיוּן;
יִצְבֹּר,    וְלֹא-יֵדַע מִי-אֹסְפָם.
7 Surely man walketh as a mere semblance; surely for vanity they are in turmoil; 
he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
ח  וְעַתָּה מַה-קִּוִּיתִי אֲדֹנָי–    תּוֹחַלְתִּי, לְךָ הִיא. 8 And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope, it is in Thee.
ט  מִכָּל-פְּשָׁעַי הַצִּילֵנִי;    חֶרְפַּת נָבָל, אַל-תְּשִׂימֵנִי. 9 Deliver me from all my transgressions; make me not the reproach of the base.
י  נֶאֱלַמְתִּי, לֹא אֶפְתַּח-פִּי:    כִּי אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ. 10 I am dumb, I open not my mouth; because Thou hast done it.
יא  הָסֵר מֵעָלַי נִגְעֶךָ;    מִתִּגְרַת יָדְךָ, אֲנִי כָלִיתִי. 11 Remove Thy stroke from off me; I am consumed by the blow of Thy hand.
יב  בְּתוֹכָחוֹת עַל-עָוֺן, יִסַּרְתָּ אִישׁ–    וַתֶּמֶס כָּעָשׁ חֲמוּדוֹ;
אַךְ הֶבֶל כָּל-אָדָם    סֶלָה.
12 With rebukes dost Thou chasten man for iniquity, and like a moth Thou makest his beauty to consume away; 
surely every man is vanity. Selah
יג  שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי יְהוָה,    וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה–
אֶל-דִּמְעָתִי,    אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ:
כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ;    תּוֹשָׁב, כְּכָל-אֲבוֹתָי.
13 Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry; 
keep not silence at my tears; 
for I am a stranger with Thee, a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
יד  הָשַׁע מִמֶּנִּי וְאַבְלִיגָה–    בְּטֶרֶם אֵלֵךְ וְאֵינֶנִּי. 14 Look away from me, that I may take comfort, before I go hence, and be no more.’ 

Stan really asks now for only one thing: “Remove Thy stroke from off me; I am consumed by the blow of Thy hand.” Stan, to his very end, remains a sojourner, as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were. Stan remains a Jew. He remains one who says both “Hineni” Here I am, and “Ein ani,” “Eineni,” “I am not,” “I’m no more.” “I’m in the dark.”

Matthew 6:19-24 advised that we not store up treasures on earth “where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” But it is humans who destroy other humans and regard them as vermin. (Verse 22)

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Stan is legally blind now. His eyes are unhealthy. Those eyes are no longer the light of the body that brighten the page of a book, but unhealthy as his whole body fills with darkness.

Matthew advised, “You cannot serve both God and money.” But Stan served neither. Nevertheless, in the end, the lord of death forced him to submit. But he never did worry about his life, never worried about what he could and would eat or drink. Life was more than food for the body; it was food for his love for the printed page. And movies.

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:23)

To be continued – Black Earth Rising

TO BE NAUGHT or NOT TO BE – Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker” – Part I

Three weeks ago, my brother Stan suffered a stroke. Two days later, he had another in the hospital Then two days later, he had a very serious one. During that same week, he had a heart attack. I have been spending much of my time in the hospital during the last two weeks as I watched my brother generally deteriorate, though sometimes rally. My family debated whether we should help and, if so, how we should help, fulfil his final wish. On Friday afternoon, we learned that Stan had terminal cancer. That explained why, towards the end of last week, he was no longer eating and drank very little. Metastases had spread to his liver. We no longer had to debate. We no longer had to decide.

During this period, in the evenings, I watched an 8-part thriller, the Netflix 2018 series, Black Earth Rising. Out of curiousity, I had turned the first episode on. It was a fictional narrative set in the present against the background of the Rwanda genocide and the war that followed in the Congo in the 1990’s. I could not help but watch. Those events had scarred me.

I had been a member of an international team in 1995 that studied the Rwanda genocide for the international community. In 1996, I and my Norwegian partner, Astri Suhrke, authored the second volume of the five-volume report entitled, Early Warning and Conflict Management, Volume 2 of The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, Copenhagen: DANIDA. Our volume was focused on the role of bystanders.

In 2003, I co-edited a volume of essays with Govind Rao, including two of my own, on the follow-up to the Rwanda disaster in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was called: War and Peace in Zaire/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention 1996-1997, Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press. I also wrote the essay, “The use and abuse of refugees in Zaire,” in the 2003 S.J. Stedman and F. Tanner (eds.) volume, Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering (Washington, DC, 2003), 95–134.

Why I watched Black Earth Rising as I gradually learned that my brother would soon die, I do not know. I believe I am writing this short series of blogs to discover why.

The Netflix series begins with Leonard Cohen’s dirge, You Want it Darker. The lyrics follow. (You can see the performance of the song on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YD6fvzGIBfQ.)

[Verse 1: Leonard Cohen]
If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game

If you are the healer
It means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory then
Mine must be the shame

You want it darker
We kill the flame


[Verse 2: Leonard Cohen]
Magnified, sanctified
Be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified
In the human frame

A million candles burning
For the help that never came

You want it darker

[Chorus: Leonard Cohen]
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my Lord


[Verse 3: Leonard Cohen]
There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

I had met Leonard Cohen in 1960 in Montreal when he was a poet and had not yet become a troubadour. Over fifty years later, in 2016, as a singer/songwriter, Leonard wrote a letter to his female lover from the 1960s, Marianne Ihlen, made eternally famous by his song “So Long, Marianne.” In it, he penned, “Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine…Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” He was tying up the strings eternally to his age-old love as he claimed to be “ready to die,” which he soon did.

We can be ready to die, but none of us, I believe, is ready for the sheer awfulness of dying, the suffering, the pain, the utterly abysmal loss of autonomy and dignity. My brother was not angry that he was going to die. He sure was enraged about the process.

Late Friday afternoon, the palliative care doctors entered the picture. At one point, one of the doctors asked Stan directly, “What do you want to happen?” Stan barked back in a clear loud but raw voice, “I want to die.” The doctor asked, “When?” Stan angrily insisted, “Now!” It is one thing to surrender to death. It is quite another to be captured and bound up, made immobile and impotent as death advances. He kept saying to me last week, “I feel all tied up.” Two days before, in a delirium, he confided, “Howie, they are out to get us.”   

I now regularly attend synagogue. I do not believe Stan has seen the inside of a synagogue in decades. But Stan was Job, yelling at God, “let me go.” Stan has been a very good and kind person, if somewhat gruff and sometimes contentious. He did not deserve the torture of losing total control. God’s original identity had been that of a joyful creator; everything He created was pronounced good. Observing suffering on both an individual and mass scale, God assumed the identity of a ruthless tyrant.

If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game

If you are the healer
It means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory then
Mine must be the shame

You want it darker
We kill the flame

God’s ruthlessness was not just individual. It was collective. Who else was responsible for allowing the destruction of almost one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu who were slaughtered in ten weeks in Rwanda?

Magnified, sanctified
Be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified
In the human frame

A million candles burning
For the help that never came

You want it darker

Astri and I wrote about the help that never came, of the UN with 2,000 peacekeepers in Rwanda who were not allowed to intervene, and how the international community stood by as “Never again” became “Ever again.” In his own way, Stan was answering, “I am here.” “I am ready.” Hineini! But instead of death, agonizing deterioration and suffering. Stan, without addressing or acknowledging his lord, the lord of death, the lord who sometimes sanctified and magnified the individual and a community, recognized that, at other times, He vilified them. He allowed humans to be treated as inyenzi, cockroaches. He allowed them to be crucified. He allowed them to be slowly squashed rather than allowed to die with dignity.  

In Matthew 6:9-13, Jews were instructed to pray, familiar to us oldies who once had to say the prayer at the beginning of each school day.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.

Instead of “hallowed be your name,” Leonard commanded God to “be your holy name.” You are supposed to be the God of goodness. Live up to Your holy name. Instead of our regarding God as holy, we demand at death’s door that God be holy. Thus, chapter 6 of Matthew is inverted. Instead of the instructions being directed towards believers in Christ, they are directed towards God.

Matthew 6:1 “Be careful not (my italics) to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” In Cohen, this becomes, “God, practice Your righteousness so that it can be seen by me. Otherwise You will receive no recognition, the reward You seek, on earth.” Matthew 6:2 begins advising the “hypocrites in the synagogues” not to seek out acknowledgement and recognition for their gifts to the poor. In Cohen, the words become, “to be honoured by me, You must trumpet Your gifts to the needy, to the sick and to the dying.  Laud transparency, not secrecy.”

Matthew 6:5-8 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

But what does Stan need? Yesterday, I prayed for Stan. I recited, “Mi shebeirach.”

Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah,
Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim

. HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam
ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah
r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim,
r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal those who are ill [names]. May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.

But I was being a hypocrite. Not because I said my prayer aloud rather than in secret. But because I wanted the opposite. I did not want Stan to be healed. I knew he could not be. I did not want his health restored. I wanted him to have as peaceful and untroubled a death as possible.

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

While You, God, want it darker, we kill the flame. We administer as humanely as possible the means to extinguish the spark of life with the least suffering.

In Matthew 6:16-16, we are instructed to fast so that it will not be obvious to others. The latter is unseemly. The unseen is to be esteemed. But you cannot hide that Stan is fasting, that he is starving to death. It is written in his face and in his grimaces.

What has all of this to do with the Rwanda genocide? Listen to and do not just read Leonard’s next verse.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

The inaction of the powerful bystanders gave the Hutu permission to murder and to maim. “You want it darker. Hineni. I’m ready my lord.” Ready, aye, ready, said the average middle-class Hutu extremist following the commands of the Akazu, the leading genocidaires. They were taught to say, “Hineni, I’m ready, my lord.” The genocidaires killed innocents in God’s name, with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church at the local level. Some priests and nuns even participated in the butchery – in God’s name. God allows Stan to suffer a debilitating demise and, in doing so, permits genocidaires to carry out their slaughters. That evil is also the responsibility of God.

To be continued

The SNC-Lavalin Affair and Jane Philpott

In the issue of Maclean’s Magazine out this week (21 March 2019), Paul Wells interviewed Jane Philpott, the former president of the Treasury Board who resigned her federal cabinet post following the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR). Before I respond to the content of that interview, it might be helpful to introduce Paul Wells first. It is relevant.

Wells, an award-winning journalist (3 gold National Magazine Awards), has written at least three books on Canadian politics and a number of articles on the SNC-Lavalin affair. Before the affair broke, he had a lot to say about Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. For example, in a 13 December 2018 issue of Maclean’s Magazine, he published, “In Trudeauland, who makes all the decisions?” In that article, in spite of the many Liberal advantages in going into the next election – precedent for first term governments to be reelected, low unemployment, the $40 billion dollar liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat, NAFTA – Wells pointed out what he believed to be a fundamental problem.

Trudeau was criticized for engaging in “impatient rhetoric,” adopting one position only to subsequently be reversed by one of his own cabinet members. “In 2015, Trudeau offered hope; now he carries baggage,” including a series of embarrassing moments and promises unkept. Trudeau was accused of being “unable to make the most basic decisions” and guilty of “unmistakable confusion and disappointment” in, for example, his science policy where a “Rube Goldberg” form of confused governance and “multiple redundancy” ruled the roost.

It is no hyperbole to conclude that Trudeau is not viewed favourably by Wells, not because JT is a pretty boy celebrity, but because, in Wells’ words, “phoniness is a trait he shows all too often” and Justin is an “imposter,” the “phony-in-chief.” He runs a “bully club” of “hucksters,” is incompetent at governing and leads a government suffering from “moral collapse.” Justin Trudeau’s government is guilty of running “a sickeningly smug protection racket” vis-à-vis SNC-Lavalin by rewriting “the Criminal Code to get out of a trial whose start date was set before the legislation was drafted, all because a doomed Quebec government has its appointment with the voter.”

With regard to an expensive transit plan around Montreal, Wells concluded that, “It is now impossible to believe on faith that the Canada Infrastructure Bank is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ben Chin, Mathieu Bouchard, Katie Telford and Justin Trudeau.” Wells never met a Liberal who did not confuse party electoral interests with the national interest; it is part of the Liberal Party’s DNA. Such is “The moral catastrophe of Justin Trudeau.” (Maclean’s 27 February 2019)

Had he never met Jody Wilson-Raybauld or Jane Philpott before he conducted his interview with her? What seems clear is that those repeatedly raising the issue of a possible DPA (deferred prosecution agreement) for SNC-Lavalin were “all” concerned with the Quebec election and not the public policy issue of a potential loss of jobs. The first is illegitimate; JWR was correct to judge it as such. The second was simply the politics of different ministers with different priorities. Further, raising the issue of an election by someone who was not Justice Minister and Attorney General was understandable, even if it would have been illegal as well as improper for JWR to offer a DPA for that reason.  

The inclusion of the provision of a DPA in Canadian criminal law for the offences committed may have been a product of a concern with the SNC-Lavalin charges, but, as documented in an earlier blog, the legal change had long been advocated by both OECD and Transparency International. Other jurisdictions even had experience in utilizing a measure which, at least on the surface, seemed directly suited to the criminal behaviour of SNC-Lavalin.

It is not clear why Wells is so obtuse or selective in reasons for offering a DPA to SNC-Lavalin. The issue is not whether the work of SNC-Lavalin was not so good it could not be replaced or that a trial would wreck it. The reality was that the criminal behaviour and the cloud of criminal charges had already reduced an estimable company (admittedly with a disgraceful record of criminality over a decade) to half its size. Would it be ripe for a takeover by a foreign firm? Jobs had clearly already been lost to foreign competition.

The fact that all such discussions went on behind closed door is precisely how plea bargains are discussed. The “consent of the governed” is about the electorate consenting to the democratically elected officials making the decision, not the electorate knowing about and confirming a specific decision. Is Wells so obtuse about how democracy works? Wells writes with invective and sarcasm and gross distortion. “(T)he most innovative thing he (Trudeau) can think to do when it comes to Quebec is to prop up the local construction firm.” That, of course, was precisely what a DPA was designed to do – to allow punishment of a corporation critical to the economy to be proportionate and just if it had reformed its culture while avoiding putting a Scarlet Letter of a criminal conviction on its back.  

The problem is not that Wells dislikes Trudeau or even that he strongly disagrees with his policies on everything from the legalization of cannabis to Trudeau’s reneging on his promise of electoral reform. The question is why Jane Philpott, ostensibly a loyal Liberal with the interests of her party at heart, would agree to have this particular journalist interview her. I do not believe in any way that it was because she or JWR have political ambitions to lead the Liberal Party, as many have alleged. I believe both are women of principle and not political opportunists.

In my reading, the German eighteenth century poet, Friedrich Schiller, in his essay, “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” captured the motivation through his marriage of the thought of Immanuel Kant and that of Karl Leonhard Reinhold. JWR and Jane Philpott aspired to have beautiful souls and experience the highest emotions governed by reason. A given principle taken to be universal must stand in sharp contrast with the artificial, with artifice, with the opportunistic, that if the latter are allowed to govern our behaviour, will bring us shame. It is a principle of a shame rather than a legal guilt culture where fault is first determined by high moral principle before any determination in a court of law, when, as Schiller wrote, nature and naïveté are treated as identical, when behaviour is governed by “unalterable laws” rather than ones made by humans, a situation made possible by “the imitation of the naïve in morals up to the highest illusion.”  

The pleasure that results is moral “produced by means of an idea” which we possess that exists under its own laws governed by an inner necessity with an eternal unity unto itself. Such laws are not about who we are, but about who we should be, what we ought to become once more, in the absolute vision of a long-lost natural paradise in which we find guidance for our actions. In such a naïve view, “our culture should lead us back to nature, upon the path of reason and freedom.” It is an illusionary dream of recovering a lost childhood which represents “our highest perfection in the ideal” producing in us a “sublime emotion.”

The point is that such a position is not a product of choice, but a result of a belief that there is no choice. The absolute, a constant divine appearance, must govern. Humans are free. What is divine is unchanging. It is not a god of revelation who reveals his or herself as history unfolds, but an eternal being for all time. Necessity rules, not freedom of choice. JWR’s only choice was to surrender to necessity and cling to high principle to ensure that the will freely obeys the law of necessity as we perceive truth and justice to reside in the eternal that is missing in us and demonstrably missing in the vast majority of Liberal colleagues who surrounded JWR and Jane.

It should be no surprise that ordinary politicians would be blindsided by politicians wearing these intellectual clothes. A realist would have spotted their danger. But Justin Trudeau tries to marry idealism in service to practical politics and is caught between the Scylla of idealism and the Charybdis of pragmatic politics. Wells totally misrepresents both the issues and Trudeau as a cynic. Jane Philpott’s naïveté, not her political ambition, delivered her into Wells’ cynical embrace.

Jane believed, contrary to her cabinet colleagues, that evidence existed of “an attempt to politically interfere with the justice system in its work on the criminal trial that has been described by some as the most important and serious prosecution of corporate corruption in modern Canadian history.” Jane was right in that the evidence already has shown efforts to influence how justice is meted out.  But the effort emerged from two very different concepts of justice, a highly principled and romantic version versus a pragmatic one that takes into consideration a much wider gambit of influences.

But influence is not interference. Interference takes place if the independence of the justice system is compromised, usually through payoffs to judges, but also by political pressures on prosecutors. Bringing reasons to bear on an issue, even ones that are irrelevant or even possibly contrary to law, is not interference. Instructing or directing JWR to decide not to back her prosecutor’s decision would have been interference. The effort to influence JWR to act contrary to her beliefs was both naïve and stupid but, as JWR herself said, not illegal.  

In any case, the SNC-Lavalin case is not by any stretch of the imagination “the most important and serious prosecution of corporate corruption in modern Canadian history.” By any index, Canada is among the least corrupt in the world. However, a number of essays published in 2016 and 2017 indicate a record of widespread corruption amongst First Nations (cf. Tom Flanagan 2017 essay “Corruption and First nations of Canada”), in the armed forces (Allan English’s 2016 essay, “Corruption in the Canadian military? Destroying Trust in the Chain of Command”), in the delivery of foreign aid (cf. Ian Smillie’s 2017 essay, “Institutional corruption and Canadian foreign aid”), in the defence industry (cf. Ellen Gutterman, “Beyond LAVs: corruption, commercialization and the Canadian defence industry”) and in the conduct of Canadian corporations both overseas (cf. Frederick Stapenhurst “The supply and demand sides of corruption: Canadian extractive companies in Africa”) and domestically (the McGill University hospital scandal in which SNC-Lavalin was involved). Any quick reading of these essays should indicate that SNC-Lavalin’s corrupt conduct in Libya over a ten-year period was far from “the most important and serious prosecution of corporate corruption in modern Canadian history.”

Further, from the testimony thus far, we have some idea of why Jane felt JWR should not be shuffled out of her cabinet position. Much more could be told. And Jane was right, perhaps not for all the right reasons, that it was wrong to remove JWR from her position as Justice Minister. As Jane pictures it, JWR was singlehandedly holding her finger in the dike “upholding the independence of the justice system.” Except the independence of the justice system would only be compromised if JWR’s decision had been cancelled. It was not. Pressure was brought against a minister to consider alternative approaches. She repeatedly refused to take up those suggestions. Had she resigned and stated that it was because of interference, there would have been absolutely no chance that SNC-Lavalin would have been granted a DPA. If she truly wanted and thought she needed to protect her independence and the independence of the DPP, she would have resigned. What she wanted to protect was her idealistic vision of the criminal law.

As Jane suggests, the real issue was that she felt harassed. And even if there were only 20 contacts over four months, she undoubtedly experienced those efforts as harassment. But Jane is absolutely incorrect. The harassment, however unseemly and blind, was not political interference. It is not at all self-evident that, based on JWR’s testimony that the efforts to influence crossed “ethical and constitutional lines”. They crossed the ethical line of the idealism of both JWR and Jane, but it was neither the only nor the ruling ethical order.

Jane asked, “If nothing wrong took place, then why don’t we waive privilege on the whole issue and let those who have something to say on it speak their minds and share their stories?” First, they can in parliament, in spite of Jane’s protestations that this would be an inadequate platform. Second, there are a host of reasons why privilege ought not to be waved, if only because whatever is revealed will cause a further feeding frenzy in which the government would be subjected to further irrelevant claims, all the while allowing the important principle of privilege to be really seriously breached, a political principle as important as the constitutional one of legal independence, which was never really in danger when JWR was AG.

Nowhere does Jane adequately deal with the wounds she and JWR have inflicted on the Liberal Party. She only reiterated that in the name of their ideal, wounding the party was a necessary cost.   

Let me conclude by reiterating that the issue is not one of legal independence but of an absolute romantic idealism about the nature of politics and the law in contention with a pragmatic one. The latter walks a fine line between idealism and the practical. If the war had been between a hard realist and JWR and Jane, the two women would never have been given cabinet portfolios and, if incidentally they had been, both would have been crushed by an enormous political machine. The ineptness of the Trudeau government in walking the fine line between idealism and pragmatism, the failure to read the inherent incompatibility between that position and that of romantic idealists, and the fumbling in contending with the issue competently when it emerged make up the real issue.

It is about competent political management and the whole affair has been incompetently dealt with by the Trudeau government. But in the overall scheme of things, it is all very small potatoes. One has to weigh whether this area of display of incompetence is serious enough to risk alternatives that would be worse or even much worse.

I have concluded that it is not. That Jane Philpott would provide a serious distorter of the shortcomings of the Liberal Party with a further platform to advance his criticisms is alone proof of her extreme naïveté.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The SNC-Lavalin Affair as a Political Management Crisis

Two events took place the past few days related to the SNC-Lavalin affair. Yesterday, Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes resigned from the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent for the rest of this session following her criticism of Justin Trudeau. In an interview the week before with The Globe and Mail, she accused Justin of raising his voice to her, a charge which the PMO denied. She had tweeted that Justin had failed to live up to the principles of teamwork and transparency that he espoused. “Real leadership is about listening, learning and compassion.” She did not respond yesterday when asked if her decision had anything to do with the alleged pressure on ex-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybauld (JWR) and her, along with ex-Treasury Board president, Jane Philpott’s, resignations from cabinet after the effort to get SNC-Lavalin a DPA, that is, a deferred prosecution agreement.

A second event: The day before yesterday, SNC-Lavalin was awarded the Compliance Leader Verification from Ethisphere Institute of Scottsdale Arizona. The Ethisphere Institute is advertised as an independent centre for research, best practices and thought leadership. The institute defines and measures corporate ethical standards, recognizes companies that excel, and promotes best practices in corporate ethics. The Compliance Leader Verification award is claimed to be prestigious and “is awarded exclusively to companies with the best industry ethics and compliance program that are proactively investing resources in compliance.”

“SNC-Lavalin’s performance was specifically evaluated on six main areas: program resources and structure, perceptions of ethical culture, written standards, training and communication, risk assessment, monitoring and auditing, enforcement, discipline and incentives” and its performance was benchmarked against the 2018 World’s Most Ethical Companies data set. “The structure of the program [at SNC-Lavalin] is exemplary, adopting many leading practices that reflect the company’s genuine commitment to integrity in all of its actions. In addition, the visible leadership provided by Neil Bruce and Dr. Hentie Dirker at the helm reflects true adherence to doing business the right way, and communicates that message to SNC-Lavalin employees around the globe.”

This suggests that SNC-Lavalin should have passed one of the major tests for a DPA if it has indeed reinvented itself to ensure a culture of honesty and transparency.

However, as many now recognize, the SNC-Lavalin affair is really not about corporate governance but about political governance. One of my readers in his colorful style put it this way:

As you stated in the beginning, whether or not to issue a DPA is largely irrelevant to the scandal or to Canadians. We were NOT privy to the department’s information or deliberations. Even the fact that SNC has a reputation is irrelevant to the larger, more philosophical point: did the PMO exert undue pressure on what should have been entirely JWR’s jurisdiction. Key word: undue. As in; too much. Inappropriate. Wrong.  

Oddly, even that question is over our (your reader’s heads). Too much and inappropriate are subjective and, in law, are determined by a judge and only a judge.  

So. what REALLY is the issue? If the SNC part is not relevant (and it is not).  And the influence has yet to be ‘judged’ by a court…why all the fuss and bother?

The real issue is JWR being demoted. Punished. Humiliated (in her own eyes, anyway). And the “perceived sense” of Trudeau and Gerry NOT managing their ministers well. Right or wrong on the decision re SNC is – to the average Canadian – simply a “he said, she said” issue. We don’t care.

And – this is sad, really – we don’t too much about the “influence or pressure” exerted. In fact, most Canadians WANT their MP/MLA to ‘exert some pressure’ now and then on the usually unfeeling, inhuman, glacial pace of the bureaucracy. That Trudeau ‘politicked’ some raised his stature in my eyes. ESPECIALLY because he said, “Ultimately the decision is yours”. 

So, we are back to the real issue. And that, to me, is that JWR was picked for reasons sexist and racist. She had only 3 years experience practicing law. I have more experience than that and I am not even a lawyer! She was chosen “cause she looked good” and that is the real crux of the issue. Trudeau got elected on saying and looking good. Which is fine but, not if you don’t back that up. He reneged on promises and he pulled the carpet out from under an unqualified AG. He rode the image, but put her down when she proved ultimately inadequate. You cannot have it both ways.

JWR should have been kicked out long ago. She implemented a policy of “lending support to all issues of indigenous nature – regardless.” She, essentially put indigenous issues above the law. That was bias. That was wrong. But that is NOT the reason given for her demotion…why? Because that might not look good (assuming Trudeau even knew).  

The issue, Howard, is NOT SNC or DPAs. It is NOT even the rift between the ministers and the PMO. It is that Trudeau is running the government like a spoiled brat “millennial” elitist picking people based on image, saying the light and frothy happy-boy things, apologizing to everyone for everything and NOT keeping the promises he made to get in and constantly relying on good looks to get out of trouble. Philpott and JWR (despite her inadequacies) do not like being lead by a teen idol. 

I am also a bit peeved that he resorted to “dropping” JWR without saying the ONE GOOD REASON to do so.

Remember: JWR deferred to her deputy because she REALLY HAD TO. JWR does not know enough to argue a good defense of a parking ticket. The Deputy does.   

David Cox

There it is, the crux in its briefest and perhaps colorful form. The issue is not about the corruption within and of SNC-Lavalin or whether it has reformed sufficiently. It is not even about whether other ministries and the PMO pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR) inappropriately. They unequivocally did not apply pressure illegally. They did repeatedly push the issue of reconsidering offering a DPA or, at least, having an external senior judicial figure undertake an independent review of whether one could and should be offered.

The real issue, for Cox, is Justin Trudeau’s style of governance. Justin is accused of choosing ministers, not based on talent, skills, professional and political experience, but on the basis of appearances. That is then compounded by both a mushy unwillingness to bring his ministers in line and a refusal to be direct and honest about why JWR was demoted to Veterans Affairs.

Another reader sent me an email with a letter that he had sent in response to a column of Tom Walkom. It reads as follows:

Hello Tom,

I read your column, agreeing with parts of it, disagreeing with others, until I reached your final sentence. At that point I almost choked on my morning coffee. You write that if Justin Trudeau’s wounds become mortal, “Wilson-Raybould is primed and ready to replace him.”

This is a delusional fantasy, either hers or yours. One thing that JWR has guaranteed by her actions is that she will never be the Liberal leader or, indeed, the leader of any political party except one that she may found herself. She has demonstrated that she cannot be trusted and is prepared to damage her party to satisfy herself. That is a political no-no, no matter what the motive.

In politics, loyalty is of central importance. As Sir John A. is supposed to have said: “I don’t need your support when I’m right, I need it when I’m wrong.” To put it crudely, you don’t piss inside the tent. Those who do may have a future in politics, but as a rule that future is not in the party whose brand they have damaged. That JWR is still in the Liberal caucus is due to an unwillingness to make a martyr of her. But if she loses her seat in the next general election, I doubt that many of her colleagues will grieve.

I write this not as a Liberal but as a historian of Canada. My opinion is shared by several acquaintances, among them lawyers, journalists, academics, business people, and a union executive, with whom I’ve discussed this matter over the last couple of weeks. Let it be added that everyone of them thinks that frustrated ambition has more than a little to do with JWR’s actions. Several fault the PM for appointing a political neophyte to a senior portfolio that she was unready for. Most think that she used the Globe and Mail for her own ends, and that the Globe allowed itself to be used. I heard especially strong criticism of John Ibbitson.

No doubt we will hear more about and from JWR, but not as Liberal leader. My own guess as to whom will succeed JT when he goes: Chrystia Freeland.

This suggests that the issue goes even beyond Justin Trudeau’s style of governance but to the very heart of governance in a parliamentary democracy, namely party loyalty and cabinet confidentiality. How do the actual events stack up against these possibilities?

The crisis of the SNC-Lavalin affair was not about SNC’s criminal behaviour, nor about how the government should treat that behaviour judicially. The difference of opinion and interpretation only became a “scandal” when Trudeau was forced to undertake a minor cabinet shuffle after one of his ministers, Scott Brison, told the PM that he would not be running again for a seat in parliament. The liberal domination in Nova Scotia was at stake. Reluctantly, in spite of attempts to avoid a shuffle, Trudeau was forced to undertake one. In doing so, Gerry Butts declared that the SNC-Lavalin issued was never even considered in deciding on cabinet changes. Matching skills, commitments, regional considerations to positions was the problem. If political management was the central problem, the following questions need to be answered:

  1. Was Justin Trudeau (JT) premature in appointing JWR to cabinet and to such a senior role given her absence of political experience?
  2. Did JT and Gerry Butts (GB) fail to read JWR’s determination to stand behind her decision and fail to understand both her character, her strong commitment to principle and her experiencing those “requests” as inappropriate pressure?
  3. Did JT and GB forget what JWR had said about indigenous affairs and how she would respond, if offered that responsibility?
  4. When Veterans Affairs was substituted, why did Gerry and Justin decide to effectively demote her; why did they not anticipate how she would eventually react?
  5. Why did JT boast of JWR’s confidence in himself when challenged, rhetoric which supposedly “forced” JWR to resign lest her staying in cabinet be misinterpreted?

The resignation of Gerry Butts, since he was only very peripherally involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair, but was centrally involved in the cabinet shuffle, indicates that he really resigned because he was responsible for advising on the shuffle and his experience and instincts had failed him.

To be continued

The SNC-Lavalin Affair: Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR) Part II

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has the responsibility for determining whether a corporation (a partnership or an unincorporated entity) should be offered a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA). The DPP has the benefit of the full police investigation, other court records, documents and witness interviews, including material that may never be publicly disclosed, that enable her to draw her conclusion. The public has no such access so I will not even try to second guess whether the DPP’s decision not to offer a DPA to SNC-Lavalin was a reasonable one.

A DPA cannot be offered to an individual, only to an artificial person for which any sanction would be financial. Like any plea bargain, the possibility and terms of a DPA negotiated between the accused and the prosecutor are subject to court approval. The DPA must “be in the interests of justice.” Its terms must be fair, reasonable and proportionate. Reasons must be given for declining a DPA. If a court does not approve a DPA, the possibility of prosecution is not jeopardized because the DPA terms are not yet public.

The SNC-Lavalin affair never came nearly that far since the DPP refused to negotiate a DPA and Attorney General (AG) Jody Wilson-Raybound (JWR) refused to intervene in the decision. JWR reviewed the DPP’s decision and concluded that she would be wrong to intervene. That is virtually all we know about why the AG declined to overturn the decision of Kathleen Roussel, Canada’s DPP, to proceed to trial.

The only substantive complaint that’s been made over this whole supposed “scandal” seems to be that the AG was not sufficiently persuaded by concerns about job losses to overturn the professional opinion of Canada’s most senior prosecutor. Further, it is helpful to keep in mind the OECD anti-bribery framework to which Canada has long been a signatory. Our legislation, including DPAs, is modeled on that framework. We also have a record of the criminal activities for which SNC-Lavalin has been convicted.

We do know the following. SNC-Lavalin has been guilty of the following overseas infractions and has:

  • been banned from bidding on Asian Development Bank projects because SNC fabricated qualifications and documents (2004);
  • agreed to a settlement with the African Development Bank over corruption allegations because of bribes in Mozambique (2008) and Uganda (2010);
  • determined by the World Bank as having credibly participated in high-level corruption in Bangladesh in 2009-2010;
  • entered into a voluntary debarment from World Bank-financed projects.

Within Canada, SNC-Lavalin has been found to have

  • bribed Canadian officials to the extent of $22.5 million in relation to the McGill hospital contract I wrote about in my initial blog in this series (2009);
  • agreed to voluntarily compensate seven Quebec municipalities for obtaining contracts through questionable means (1996-2011).

There is a widespread belief that general guidelines for issuing a DPA include the principle that it should be the exception and not the norm and that a DPA should only be entered into when the offences are not very serious. Neither consideration is correct. DPAs are negotiated worldwide for extremely serious crimes. They need not apply only in exceptional cases, but may, in the interests of justice, especially when there are effects on the innocent, be entered into. On appearance, SNC-Lavalin’s behaviour would seem to fall into this category since the point of a DPA is, according to OECD guidelines, to minimize consequences to innocent third parties, including employees. Therefore, the PMO and the Minister of Finance had every right and even duty to raise the possibility.

Canada can look to the UK for precedents where the issuance of three DPAs have been concluded. I have chosen the Rolls-Royce (R-R) case rather than SFO v Standard Bank plc and SFO v XYZ Ltd because R-R and SNC-Lavalin are most similar. In Britain, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO – presumably there is fraud that is not serious), following a four-year investigation, entered into a DPA with R-R approved by the President of the Queen’s Bench on 17 January 2017 following criminal conduct by R-R over three decades in seven different jurisdictions (Nigeria, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, India, China and Malaysia). R-R agreed to reimburse SFO for its costs, thirteen million pounds, and to repay “disgorged” profits of £258,170,000 and a financial penalty of £239,082,645. R-R was also required to pay interest on those sums. (For full details of the agreement, go to https://www.sfo.gov.uk/cases/rolls-royce-plc/.

SNC-Lavalin’s crimes in Libya did not seem nearly as serious as those of R-R, certainly in monetary terms. They took place over a shorter time span, in one specific location, and did not seem to entail such enormous repayments or penalties. The R-R case seemed to offer a precedent for a DPA for SNC-Lavalin. However, as already stated, we do not have access to the evidence collected.

In Sir Brian Leveson’s ruling, he noted that R-R “is properly considered to be a company of central importance to the United Kingdom, with a reputation in the field of engineering second to none…[R-R] is a global company providing highly-efficient integrated power and propulsion solutions. [Its] power systems are predominantly used in aerospace, marine, energy and off-highway applications [locomotives…R-R is] one of the world’s leading producers of aero engines for large civil aircraft and corporate jets…, the second largest provider of defence aero engines in the world…well established in the marine sector where [the company] designs vessels [including nuclear submarines and luxury yachts] and integrated power systems.”

Worldwide, R-R employs 50,000 compared to SNC-Lavalin’s 9,000. If the UK system could balance the positive role of the company against its criminal deficiencies and take into account effects on employment, why could the Canadian legal system not do the same? One easily understands why the PM, the PMO, the Finance Ministry of the people working there all wanted the AG to consider the wider picture. On the other hand, it is also totally understandable why JWR wanted to protect the independence of the DPP, not intervene unless there was overwhelming evidence to do so, and why she would regard the repeated “pressures” as “inappropriate,” though not illegal.

Sir Brian Leveson ruled that the role of R-R in the world had to be considered when examining its criminal behaviour. There was one major difference, however, R-R voluntarily owned up to its sins, though the investigation initially was not taken as a result of self-reporting; Swiss authorities first uncovered the crimes. To the best of my knowledge, SNC-Lavalin also did not self-report. Cooperation in the criminal prosecution seemed to provide some mitigation for R-R’s serious breaches of criminal law in the arena of corruption and bribery since the conduct of the investigation was enormously assisted by R-R. Further, Leveson, while considering the impact of prosecution on employees and other innocent parties and the impact on whether R-R could continue to function in its areas of specialization, but none of these factors, and certainly the impact on national economic interests, were determinate in approving the DPA for R-R. Serving justice in a fair and reasonable way were.

 What about the issue of R-R’s or SNC-Lavalin’s responsibility for causing “serious bodily harm or death”? In such cases, DPAs are not considered to be applicable. In the SNC-Lavalin case, no professional killers were evidently involved, though, indirectly, many deaths might be attributed to the record of corrupt activities. Further, SNC-Lavalin fired its key leadership and undertook to thoroughly clean house and establish a culture of honesty. Did it do the latter? I have no way of knowing to judge the appropriateness of a DPA. We do know that Riadh Ben Aïssa has been cooperating with the prosecutor.

All this must be kept in mind as we review the events that took place after 20 September 2018. As you will see, contrary to what has often been claimed on media, there is no evidence whatsoever that the government tried to obtain lenient treatment for SNC-Lavalin or even influence the terms of a DPA, but only to influence whether and how a DPA could be offered. The issue was whether the government applied pressure in such a way as to compromise the independence of the AG.

On 18 October 2018, a new effort was launched into influencing the AG to change her mind and consider offering a DPA. The method of getting around the determination of the DPP was that the AG seek an independent advisory from an eminent jurist given the lack of precedent for a DPA. Mathieu Bouchard called JWR’s Chief of Staff and requested consideration of the option of seeking an external legal opinion on the DPP’s decision not to extend an invitation to negotiate a DPA.

On 20 October 2018, SNC filed a federal court application seeking to quash the DPP’s refusal to enter into a mediation agreement and a judge was now asked to examine the DPP’s discretion. On 26 October, JWR’s chief of staff communicated to Mathieu Bouchard that the possibility of the AG intervening was moot since the matter was now before the court.

Gerry Butts in his testimony confirmed that Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques had a discussion on 22 November with the former AG about a memo prepared by lawyers in the Department of Justice discussing the option of seeking counsel from an eminent jurist. JWR was irritated about even holding a meeting and insisted that the DPP Act. Section 15, Section 10 ensured prosecutorial independence as a constitutional principle. JWR insisted that Bouchard and Marques were interfering. She had made a decision not to intervene.

JWR concluded that representatives from the Ministry of Finance and the PMO were kicking the tires; she had said no and her mind had been made up; they needed to stop; this was enough. As JWR argued, “We either have a system that is based on the rule of law, the independence of prosecutorial functions and respect for those charged to use their discretion and powers in a particular way, or we do not…The consistent and enduring efforts, even in the face of judicial proceedings on the same matter and in the face of a clear decision of the director of public prosecutions and the attorney general to continue and even intensify such efforts, raises serious red flags.”

At the end of a two-hour meeting over lunch between JWR and Gerry Butts at the Château Laurier Hotel on 5 December requested by JWR, she asked for Butts’ opinion on the SNC-Lavalin file. He insisted he had no expertise on the issue but understood that the prospect of appointing a retired Supreme Court Justice to advise on the situation was being discussed between the PMO and her office. Though what Elder and Mathieu had proposed was unprecedented, so were DPA remediation agreements. The referral for advice would help clarify the AG’s powers in this and any subsequent case. Nevertheless, it was her call. Gerry insisted that he had not applied any pressure while JWR recalled that he had.

What then followed was the ignition key which eventually blew the whole dissension over how to handle the DPA into the open with the minor cabinet reshuffle, a matter that I will visit in my next blog.

With the help of Alex Zisman