Dispatch from the Front Lines: Alright, who's the next-most-eminent Canadian?
Canada's Liberals: shameless, or just really forgetful?
Hey, Line readers. We didn’t publish this week and we apologize. Some weeks are easy, some weeks are hard, and this was a hard week — we had a series of planned pieces fall through or get delayed by news developments. We expect a much more normal week ahead. Fingers crossed.
We got zapped by the news developments late on Friday, of course, with the sudden announcement that David Johnston was stepping down. We’ll have much to say about that, and a few other things too. We hope you enjoy.
Due to a technical problem, our video isn’t ready yet, though we still have hope it soon will be. The podcast, though, is working just fine.
When the news broke late Friday afternoon that David Johnston was resigning from his position as special rapporteur on Chinese interference, the general reaction across the chattering class was a variable admixture of amusement and scorn. There’s probably a German word for it, but the security and intelligence expert Wesley Wark captured the tone of it with the headline on his Substack post, which said, simply: “Gong Show.”
We’re somewhat inclined to concur with Wark, except the three-ring train wreck that has marked Johnston’s time as Justin Trudeau’s moral merkin has been so disastrous that we think apologies are due to Chuck Barris, in light of the relative sobriety of his famous game show.
Reporters at the Globe and Mail and Global News started breaking stories about Chinese interference in Canadian elections a few months back, based largely on leaks from inside the Canadian intelligence apparatus. Almost immediately it was clear that the Liberals had a major problem on their hands, one that was going to require levels of transparency, good judgment and political even-handedness that this government has manifestly failed to achieve during its almost eight years in power.
Yet when Trudeau announced that he was going to appoint an “eminent Canadian” as “special rapporteur” to do an investigation and report back to the government with recommendations for how it should tackle the issue, we gave a collective groan here at The Line. Given the endless similar tasking of retired Supremes passim, it was clear that the pool from which Trudeau was going to fish his eminent personage was very shallow, and pretty well-drained. Indeed, at least one of us here was willing to bet large sums that it would be David Johnston.
What do we make of all this? Here’s the situation as we see it, in bullet form for brevity’s sake:
Johnston should never have been offered the position of special rapporteur
Having been offered the job of special rapporteur, Johnston should never have accepted it
And that is basically it. But given that Trudeau had the poor judgment to ask him, and Johnston had the poor judgment to accept, we think everything that has happened since was pretty much inevitable. We couldn’t have guessed at all the details of how this would have played out, especially the delicious elements beginning with the decision to hire Navigator to provide strategic advice (to manage what, exactly?), the revelation that Navigator had also provided strategic advice to Han Dong (who, recall, Johnston more or less exonerated), the firing of Navigator and the involvement of Don Guy and Brian Topp … this is really just gongs piled upon gongs piled upon gongs.
But the overall trajectory of Johnston’s time as special rapporteur? If you had told us ahead of time that this was more or less how things would go, we wouldn’t have been much surprised. Why? Because we live in Canada. And this is how Canada’s governing class behaves. It is a small, incestuous, highly conflicted and enormously self-satisfied group of people that is so isolated from the rest of the country they don’t even realize how isolated they are.
Honestly. What in heaven’s name gave Trudeau the idea that it would be smart to ask a former governor general to help launder his government’s reputation? And why on Earth did Johnston think it was a good idea to accept? Forget the Navigator stuff, this turkey was never going to fly. Johnston’s report was not accepted as the wise counsel of a wise man; instead it was seen as a partisan favour by a conflicted confidant. Sure, Johnston was subject to some pretty unfair attacks from the opposition, but what did he think was going to happen? Has he paid any attention over the last decade? But pride is a form of stubborness, and even after parliament voted for him to go, Johnston insisted he would stay on to finish his work. Until, on Friday afternoon, he decided he would not.
We’re not going to speculate about why Johnston finally pulled the chute. We’d like to think that the former GG in him thought it best to obey the will of the House of Commons. We rather hope it had nothing to do with some pointed (and unanswered) questions put to Johnston’s office by the Globe and Mail, asking whether Navigator had been given a heads-up on Johnston’s conclusions on the Dong file.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. As Paul Wells put it in a recent column, Trudeau sought to “outsource his credibility by subcontracting his judgment,” where credibility was supposed to flow from Johnston to Trudeau. Instead, and we would say, inevitably, the flow went in the opposite direction. If the prime minister had any credibility to lead the country on this issue, he wouldn’t need a special rapporteur in the first place. The fact that Trudeau felt the need to appoint one is a tacit admission that he knows he doesn’t have the trust of the people.
And that is the real problem here. The Johnston saga has ended where it was always going to, with a once-honorable man’s reputation in tatters and the problem he was brought in to address still unresolved. David Johnston has resigned, as he must have. In our view, that’s one resignation too few.
One thing that's become clear in the hours since Johnston's resignation is that the government was caught by surprise. The prime minister is currently in Ukraine, showing our support for that country's continued war against Russia, and on Saturday, it was left to Dominic LeBlanc to come out and hurl some word salad around Parliament Hill. LeBlanc's remarks could have been contained in the tersest of press releases — there was almost no there there. According to LeBlanc, the government takes this issue seriously, the opposition parties are stinky jerkfaces, and the government now wants input from said opposition jerkfaces and unspecified experts to determine next steps, as quickly as possible. That the man spent almost 15 minutes at a podium saying these things was sheer puck ragging — lots of sound-bite producing jaw-jaw to buy the government time to figure out what the hell to do next.
And … whatever. Fine. Politics is what it is — with the boss out of town, and having apparently been blindsided by this, LeBlanc was clearly tasked with going out and filling the news cycle. We get it. Politics is always going to be at least part performance art.
We couldn't help but laugh a few times during LeBlanc's diversionary action. We really do wonder sometimes which particular affliction our Liberals are suffering from. Is is shamelessness or some kind of memory loss?
LeBlanc repeatedly said it was time to lower the partisan temperature and focus on a serious process. Okay, fair enough. We'd agree with that. LeBlanc interspersed his calls for a lower partisan temperature with blistering attacks on the opposition. So yeah. Forgetful, or shameless?
LeBlanc said, again repeatedly, that his government had no interest in any delays — it was important to move forward with all dispatch. Again, we agree! It just seemed weird coming from LeBlanc, seeing as how it was his party, as readers may recall, that engaged in a multi-week filibuster to try and stop Katie Telford from having to testify at the PROC committee.
Does he not care, or did it slip his mind?
LeBlanc said that it's time to see serious leadership. And hey, that sounds good to us. We hope LeBlanc mentions this to his boss, who allowed the above-mentioned filibuster to continue, and responded to some of the initial allegations here by lecturing the media about anti-Asian racism and implying that Canada's security services were somehow trying to overthrow our democracy. And while we're on the topic of serious leadership, should we ponder what we can glean about the quality of leadership at the top of a government that has now been tagged twice in recent months — first by Justice Paul Rouleau's Public Order Emergency Commission findings and then by Johnston's first report — for being, basically, an absolute shitshow of incompetence?
Perhaps LeBlanc forgot. Or maybe he just doesn’t care.
We aren't here to sing the praises of the opposition. There's been showboating and ugly rhetoric on every side — we are disgusted with the lot. But as much as this seems to bum them out, the Liberals are the government, and the greater burden of seriousness, maturity and — gasp! — leadership rests on them.
They don't have to like it. They very clearly do not like it, and especially don't like being reminded of it. But them's the breaks, folks. The Liberals and the opposition parties deserve each other, quite frankly. But Canada, sadly, needs better than any of them have at late been willing to offer. And while we have blame enough to go around, the lion’s share goes to the ones with the actual power.
Sorry, Mr. LeBlanc. That’s you and yours. Had you forgotten?
All of this raises the question of what the government is planning to do now that their first gambit at addressing the foreign interference file has failed. Your fine Line editors tried their hands at a little amateur political strategist game theory and laid out what we see as the potential options before the Liberal government. We think that there are five paths forward, and we laid them out as follows.
Concede defeat and call a public inquiry. Being journalists, we like public inquiries. Being cynical journalists growing daily more disillusioned with the state of our government's capacity to do literally anything, we think that a public inquiry is crucial.
We don't accept that we, as citizens, don't have a right to know how our governments are run in our name. We don't find Johnston's argument against an inquiry — that so much would have to remain classified that such an inquiry could be neither truly public nor fulsome — to be compelling. This is a country of adults, run by mostly adults. This government treats secrecy as such a default that we don't have trust in its collective judgement to fairly ascertain when something ought to be in the public record: a public inquiry led by an independent judge with security clearance could be appointed to decide what evidence ought to be public. And as noted in previous dispatches, given how much of the story is in the public domain already, we see no compelling reason not hold this inquiry with the highest degree of openness and transparency possible.
This is the only way, we feel, for the government to restore faith in its institutions, and to create real reforms for preventing foreign interference in the future.
Of course, your Line editors don't believe the Liberals will call a public inquiry unless absolutely forced to because they don't actually care about the country more than their own interests — or, rather, that they are incapable of distinguishing between the two; and because this is not a serious country, and we are not led by serious people.
That brings us to the second option: appoint a new special rapporteur, but only with full partisan support. To do this, the Liberals would need to cede some control over this process to the Conservatives and the NDP: perhaps ask them to come up with a short list of replacements for Johnston, and then announce that replacement in an all-party press conference. This would be in line with what LeBlanc said today, when he was bashing the opposition for their reckless stunts, he was seeking their input and guidance. Still, this would require the Liberals to accept any suggestions made in good fait, and we don’t think that’s likely — we think that the Liberals are so bunker-bound and convinced of their own persecution at the hands of a hostile media and a disingenuous opposition that they will be unable to cooperate with other parties.
The rebuttal to this position is that the NDP may be able to force the government's hand. May. We will be watching.
Ignore the problem. Seriously. Just don't re-appoint anybody. Hold no inquiry. Shrug off any additional revelations by claiming that the Globe and Mail is meany-head clickbait. We at The Line are not convinced that this will work to make the story go away — it risks prompting more leaks. But eventually the news cycle will move on, and this is exactly the kind of high-risk stalling tactic that the Liberals have used to their advantage in the past.
Skip the public inquiry and move directly into a package of serious reforms. Imagine Trudeau coming out with something like: "We the government take this problem very seriously and thanks to the work by the commendable David Johnston, we have a path forward for fixing our internal communications problems and streamlining the relationship between our intelligence services and the executive." This path would, of course, require the government to propose and implement serious and well-thought out reforms and we're not convinced they're capable of such a thing.
Quadruple down. This is the most cynical option, and as such, we feel it may be the most likely. We have some suspicion that the Liberals will re-appoint a special rapporteur, but drop any pretence of pan-partisan pandering. Like, appoint Anne McLellan or Martha Hall Findlay and when the opposition rightly screams, respond with "Well, clearly the Conservatives won't be happy with anybody we select. So fuck ’em, we'll appoint one of our own and damn the haters." Said rapporteur will then come up with another report similar to Johnston’s that the Liberals will use to dismiss the whole scandal in the hopes that bitching about the credibility of a special rapporteur will have diminishing political returns for the opposition.
We don’t know which of these paths the Liberals will pick. They may come up with something more novel, yet. But rest assured that we've placed our bets internally and will be coming back to this list in a few weeks.
In non-Johnston related news, your Line editors have noticed a trend that cannot go on uncommented upon. That is, one of your Line editors has a greater tendency than the other to make snarky quips on Twitter, and this leads to said Line editor getting pulled into days-long, often bizarre, usually abusive exchanges about a myriad of subjects. And while said Line editor is inclined to blame Everyday Sexism for the fallout of some of the remarks, she is also an occasional listener of Taylor Swift and therefore cannot totally avoid the conclusion that: "It's me. Hi. I'm the problem, it's me."
Anyway, another example of the aforementioned phenomenon happened this week, and the experience inspired your Line editors to expand it into an entire rant about the Canada-wide forest fires now engulfing America in smoke. The ongoing disaster has prompted some choice U.S. media outlets and politicians to veer into a real South Park-ian "Blame Canada" spirit and your more problematic and self-destructive Line editor decided to clap back in her own small way by noting that said American critics were engaging in quite a bit of disingenuous blame shifting. It's hard to look at the current extraordinary fire season in Canada and fail to conclude that man-made climate change is contributing to the situation. And as America's contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions far outstrip Canada's, so too must any blame be attributed. By this token, Canada isn't blanketing the U.S. seaboard with smoke so much as America is burning Canada's forests down.
Of course, this observation had the entirely predictable response. It pissed everybody off; both the progressives who don't like Canada's relative impotence on greenhouse gas emissions pointed out, and the types who contort themselves into intellectual pretzels to avoid acknowledging that climate change is a thing that is happening. While The Line did get some rather wonderful feedback from actual professional foresters, Twitter being Twitter, the comment drew some real special snowflakes convinced that Canada's historic fire season can be pinned squarely on ecoterrorists who are venturing into the backcountry to set fires en masse. This particular theory even appears to have caught the attention of Alberta premier Danielle Smith, who implied some degree of support for it when she gave an interview on Real Talk Ryan Jespersen. When the host asked how Smith reconciles the current situation with energy policies and climate change, she responded by talking about arson.
"We are bringing in arson investigators from outside the province ... We have almost 175 fires with no known cause at the moment. Sometimes they are very easy to trace — when you have lightning storms, it's easy to trace. When you have a train derailment, that's easy to trace."
So, God help us, this is now something we have to take somewhat seriously, and herein we shall begin our rant on the subject.
Let's start with the obvious caveats: yes, of course, wildfires are complicated. They are a natural and necessary part of the forest ecosystem: they clear overgrowth, and create habitat. Certain native plants actually cannot germinate without fire.
We can pull out all kinds of data to suggest that big smokes are highly variable. Climates are always changing, and given the limited nature of our records, it's possible we're in a longer term wildfire/drought cycle, one that is entirely natural. We can also throw in the usual canards about poor forest management: we don't harvest enough wood in certain circumstances, for example, nor are our prescribed burns adequate, leaving more fuel in the wilderness.
We'll also add that in addition to the typical human accidents and misadventures, there have been several individuals charged with arson in connection to wildfires this season.
However, all of those factors considered, leaning on them to avoid acknowledging climate change is some real self-interested cherry picking. Nobody who studies these issues seriously will fail to acknowledge that human-caused climate change is almost certainly a significant factor in what is shaping up to be an unprecedented wildfire season in this country. What we can't know is precisely how much of a factor: it's not possible to take any individual natural disaster and say with scientific certainty that human-generated fossil fuel discharge is, say, 28 per cent responsible. We lack the ability to extricate the impacts of climate change from all of these other natural factors.
What we can note is that human activity is contributing to a warming climate, one that is less predictable and more volatile than what we have previously experienced. That’s not to say that every year will be successively worse than the one before. One season may be extraordinarily dry. The next, wetter than average. We will also experience normal years. What is probable, however, is that we will experience more extremes within our lifetime. Extremes like, well, this one.
Further, if one wants to claim that "poor forest management" is to blame for fires — akin to Trump's suggestion that California should rake its forests — we should probably be straightforward about what "good forest management" is. Right now, we manage our forestry industries pretty well, and we do prescribed burns around human settlements, key infrastructure, and in areas where we want to maintain ideal animal habitats. But we don't "manage" our forests by raking all the leaves and burning all the deadfall because that kind of "management" of literally all of Canada's natural spaces is impossible. We're not talking about city parks, or even contained forests, here. Most of this country is actual honest-to-God wilderness, places where humans rarely see or venture. Canada has neither the manpower, money, nor the capacity to "manage" all 362 million hectares of its woodlands in this way. No country does. Because that would be fucking insane.
Hell, we don’t have the manpower to put all of our fires out. We triage, and we try to protect human settlements and key habitats, but the scale of natural fires is so large that we usually let them burn, even in a good year.
A couple of other things are worth noting about this specific claim that ecoterrorists and arsonists are to blame. Firstly, this theory requires us to believe that dozens, if not hundreds, of malignant ecoterrorists are hiking deep into the backcountry significant distances from roads or human settlements right across the continent, setting simultaneous catastrophic fires, and then escaping before the ensuing conflagration can burn them to death. There is no evidence for an organized campaign of this kind, but even if there were, the forest would still need to be susceptible to out-of-control wildfires due to the underlying climatic conditions.
Ever wonder why wildfire season ends in fall? Here's a hint:
The terrorists’ greatest enemy is, apparently, the dread snow.
Alas, arsons, unfortunately, happen. Pyromaniacs and bored losers are going to set fires to things, as they always have. Accidents also happen. People leave campfires burning. They throw cigarette butts into the grass. Roughly half of all forest fires are caused by human activity. None of this is new. Dumb is a problem.
But there's no evidence to date that 2023 has witnessed some massive uptick in human stupidity. What is new this year is that the underlying conditions are so poor that human stupidity has greater consequences.
Further, if the response to the current wildfire season is "it's not climate change's fault! It's human activity and arson," well, then, the obvious conclusion would be to boot humans from the forests forever to prevent such catastrophes in the future, no? Or, perhaps, we can just concede the point, acknowledge that a warming climate is a factor that both we and our forests are going to have to adapt to, and come to terms with smokier summers for the rest of our lives. To that end, welcome to the party, America. Y'all started it.
Okay, folks. Thanks for reading. We’ll try and get that video up soon.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org