Dispatch from the Front Lines: Welcome to Bonkersville. Population: all of us.
Analyzing the controversy at the national police service. Roe v. Wade is dead. Things will get bonkers now. The state of the CPC, and our institutions.
Line readers, Friday was a hell of a week. Your Line editors decided to hold off publishing this last night for two key reasons. We wanted the news cycle to settle down a bit, and we also wanted time to reflect overnight on said cycle. A lot happened this week.
FYI: We only have one more week to go before a vacation. And in light of the wild news events of this week, we’ve chosen to send this version of the full dispatch to all our readers, paid and freebies alike. If you are receiving this as a free reader, we hope you’ll choose to sign up today.
Alright. Let’s roll.
Please enjoy this week’s unusually exhausted Line editors’ video. (The podcast will be released Sunday.)
To understand the controversy currently surrounding RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, first discussed at The Line by Stephen Maher earlier this week, you have to understand two related but distinct timelines.
The first is the horrific mass-casualty attack that rocked Nova Scotia in 2020. A combined arson and shooting spree left 22 innocent people dead across a broad geographic area, with crimes committed on April 18 and 19. The attacker was killed by police on the 19th. Serious questions about the RCMP's handling of the event began almost immediately. And then the federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new executive order on gun control — an "order in council," in Canadian parlance — on May 1, 11 days after the attacks began.
That's the first timeline here: 11 days from the first killing to the new regulations.
Then there's the second timeline that needs knowing. As noted above, the RCMP's response to the attacks was widely criticized. A joint federal-provincial inquiry, the Mass Casualty Commission, was stood up in the fall of 2020. In June of 2021, the MCC subpoenaed documents, including notes taken by RCMP Superintendent Darren Campbell. Those documents were turned over to the MCC in February of this year. Last week, documents were posted online, including 132 pages of Campbell's notes.
This is where things get interesting: on Tuesday, the MCC published a document summarizing communications between national and local RCMP leadership after the attack. The MCC document included references to a teleconference on April 28th, 10 days after the attacks began, only three days before the new gun control measures were announced, that included Lucki and Campbell. This meeting was described in Campbell’s notes, but these pages were not among the 132 pages released in February. They were held, and released just a few weeks ago.
The notes themselves describe the teleconference as tense, and as reported by the Halifax Examiner, Campbell recorded that Lucki pressured the local RCMP to publicly release information about the specific firearms used in the attack. Campbell wrote that this information was needed, Lucki said, because "the Commissioner said she had promised the Minister of Public Safety and the Prime Minister's Office that the RCMP would release this information ... the commissioner then said .... that this was tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and the public safer." (That quote has been compressed, see the Examiner's article for the full version.) The local commanders had held that information back as they continued to trace the guns, in partnership with U.S. police partners.
This is explosive. It would be wildly inappropriate for the commissioner to pressure her officers to take any action to aid the government's political plan. The political benefit to the Liberals of being able to say, at their May 1, 2020 rifle-ban announcement, that one of the banned rifles had been used in the recent massacre is obvious. There was real, clear political benefit to the government if it could explicitly make that specific claim during their announcement.
It doesn't matter if Lucki thought the rifle ban was the best idea ever. It doesn't matter what your Line editors or any of our beloved readers think, either. The police cannot, ever, for any reason, conduct their official business in any way to aid the political goals of the government. This is a bright red line. If the allegations are true, Lucki should resign, at once. If she won't, she should be sacked. This is that serious. There can be no collusion between police and politicians on political matters.
The Examiner's report, though alarming, was just one report. Parliament intends to interview both Lucki and Campbell next month. We had expected to learn nothing much before then, but on Friday, the CBC added some key info: the RCMP and Justice Ministry had had possession of the missing four pages of notes all along, and had withheld them to, they now claim, review them for privileged information. The Justice Ministry further admitted it had not told the MCC that it had chosen to withhold the four pages, and should have.
This, to put it mildly, friends, is a very, very bad look. The missing four pages, as noted, are explosive. The decision to withhold them is suspect, to say the least.
Based on the evidence available to us, we have no choice but to call for Lucki’s resignation. She has already issued one odd statement in which she admitted regretting her handling of the April 28 meeting, denied jeopardizing an investigation, but did not respond to the specific key allegation made by Campbell — that she brought up having promised the cabinet and PMO that the RCMP would release information that would help the government’s upcoming announcement despite concerns of the local officials that this would jeopardize the investigation.
This is non-recoverable. Lucki must go.
It is an open question whether the rot goes higher. It is possible that there was indeed, as the PM said, no “undue” pressure placed upon Lucki. (We’d be damn curious to know what he considers due pressure, but still.) Lucki may have been freelancing. She might have made a rash promise, unasked, and then felt pressured to deliver. Maybe she wanted to buy some goodwill with her bosses, especially given the fact that it was already clear that the RCMP had not performed well during and immediately after the attacks.
None of these explanations save Lucki. They would confine the damage to her, though. It is possible there was no pressure from above. This is especially true since, as reported by the National Post’s Ryan Tumility, the PMO knew all the details about the guns days before the conference between Lucki and Campbell (and others) on April 28. They’d been told by national security advisor Vincent Rigby, via a memo on April 24.
Tumilty’s report adds vital context, and obliterates one line of defence already seized upon by Liberal supporters. The issue was not the PMO or the federal government themselves needed the information. They had it days before Lucki reportedly pressured Campbell. The issue was the desire of Lucki, and possibly her superiors, for the public to have it, and on a specific schedule — one that aligned with the upcoming political announcement.
Still. It’s possible that the screwup is Lucki’s alone, made to appear worse by the coincidental (if awkward) withholding of the four pages of notes. This might be generous to grant, but we’re generous people. Real life really does work that way sometimes, where a series of small, unrelated things combine to create an appearance of deliberate impropriety out of a series of small screwups.
But this interpretation is also possible: after the attack, the PMO saw an opportunity to further wedge the Conservatives on gun issues using 22 dead Canadians as a useful prop, leaned on Lucki in hopes of getting out key info so as to punch up their big announcement with a conveniently timed reveal by local officials, and then found a way to drag out disclosing potentially damaging documents as long as they possibly could.
Are we convinced this happened? No. For one thing, the Liberals could have easily leaked the info to a friendly reporter. But if you think the scenario above is just somehow beyond them — gee, they’d never cynically exploit a tragedy for political gain or play fast and loose with jurisdictions and norms of executive conduct — then you haven’t spent much time watching these Liberals. This is entirely the sort of thing they’d do to wring another half-point of popular support out of the 905. They wouldn’t bat an eye while doing it, either, having already deemed themselves incapable of such failings.
We need an investigation. Much as with their claims regarding the Emergencies Act, the independence of police from political pressure, and any hint of collusion between political and police leaders, are too important to take Bill Blair or Justin Trudeau’s word for it. They simply haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. Canadians deserve to know whether this serious failure was limited to Lucki or went higher, into the cabinet and PMO.
If it did, she shouldn’t be the only one to resign. But for now, she’ll make a good start.
Back in May, when the draft decision of the American Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, was first released, Jen Gerson at The Line wrote about it.
"Alito makes a compelling case that Roe v. Wade was always a weak ruling ... Passed in 1973, Roe stretched several amendments to establish a constitutional right to abortion that didn't previously exist and wasn’t specifically enumerated.
“Wielding nothing but 'raw judicial power' the Court usurped the power to address a question of profound moral and social importance that the Constitution unequivocally leaves for the people," Alito wrote. "The Court short-circuited the democratic process by closing it to the large number of Americans who dissented in any respect from Roe.”
Now, I have other problems with Alito's reasoning ... However, I have to concede that on this fundamental argument, Alito makes a fair point."
We still think that Alito's fundamental argument here is fair, and pro-choice advocates would be unwise to ignore it. The gazelle that understands the cheetah is less likely to be eaten. Abortion access doesn't necessarily need to be enshrined as a constitutional right in order to ensure access. Indeed, many jurisdictions manage just fine treating abortion like any other plain old legislative problem to be solved by elected officials. (And Canada's decriminalization of abortion hasn't ensured equal access.) It just so happens that this isn't the path that America took in addressing the question.
However, on Friday the full Supreme Court Decision was released — including the dissent which was absent from the leaked draft — and whoo boy is that worth reading in full. Clearly written for posterity, the dissent to the majority decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is as scathing as judicial opinions generally get.
It drips with sarcasm and thinly veiled contempt for both the majority ruling, and for the opposing Justices themselves. It includes lines like: "To the majority 'balance' is a dirty word, as moderation is a foreign concept."
Which is justice-speak for:
Firstly, the dissent delves into areas that the majority dared not; notably, it offered a true analysis on the real-world impact of overturning Roe on actual women. The historic rescinding of abortion as a recognizable constitutional right represents a real affront to the dignity and autonomy of women and, as a class, relegates them to second-class citizens who, in many cases, will not be able to fully participate in economic and civic life. The dissent also notes that what will be left in the wake of this ruling — a hodgepodge of laws regulating abortion access by state — will put poor women at an enormous disadvantage. Wealthy women will be able to travel out of state or obtain medical abortions; it's the poor who will not, and who will likely be disproportionately prosecuted for attempting to end pregnancies, or even miscarrying.
Directly contradicting the assertions of the majority, Roe wasn't some totally novel invention with no grounding in American history; rather it followed on a series of precedents that increasingly respected women as equal members of society, and granted more individual autonomy over crucial and personal matters like who to marry and whether to use contraceptives.
"Those legal concepts, one might even say, have gone far toward defining what it means to be an American. For in this Nation, we do not believe that a government controlling all private choices is compatible with a free people."
The dissent also spells out some real dystopian consequences for the Supreme Court's decision. Removing Roe's protections ensures that there is no moderating principle on States' abortion laws; they could be imposed at the moment of fertilization, for example. They could extend to "all forms of abortion procedure, including taking medication in one's own home." Laws could compel an underage woman to give birth, even if she had been the victim of rape or incest. Bans could force a woman to bear a child doomed by genetic fate to die.
Further, there is nothing now stopping a Republican majority from enacting a nation-wide ban. "If that happens, ‘the views of [an individual State’s] citizens’ will not matter. The challenge for a woman will be to finance a trip not to ‘New York [or] California’ but to Toronto."
It gets grimmer.
The majority, in its opinion, goes to great lengths to confine its rationale and logic to abortion and abortion alone, insisting that the precedent they are now setting does not doom other more modern rights read into constitutional law, ie; same-sex intimacy and marriage. However, the dissent notes that this doesn't make any sense. Present-day courts don't control how future jurists will interpret today's precedents. If this case declares the right to abortion invalid because that right would not have been recognized by those who struck the 14th amendment back in 1868 — when women weren’t equal, and the amendment guaranteeing that no person ought to be denied liberty was ratified — then a whole host of similar rights guaranteed by that provision must also be under threat.
“According to the majority, no liberty interest is present— because (and only because) the law offered no protection to the woman’s choice in the 19th century. But here is the rub. The law also did not then (and would not for ages) protect a wealth of other things. It did not protect the rights recognized in Lawrence and Obergefell to same-sex intimacy and marriage. It did not protect the right recognized in Loving to marry across racial lines. It did not protect the right recognized in Griswold to contraceptive use. For that matter, it did not protect the right recognized in Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, not to be sterilized without consent. So if the majority is right in its legal analysis, all those decisions were wrong, and all those matters properly belong to the States too — whatever the particular state interests involved."
This is all compelling, but to our eyes, the dissent ripped apart the most obvious hole in the majority's reasoning. It’s the flaw that makes the overturning of Roe v. Wade both unreasonable and unconscionable. That is, it violates stare decisis, which is a prevailing doctrine that courts respect precedent when making their decision. Stare decisis is Latin for “to stand by things decided” and it's among the most crucial legal principles.
If jurists fail to respect precedent, then it becomes impossible to expect a continuity of laws. Fundamental rights can be granted or removed according to the whims of judges, because the other team has a majority on the bench, and citizens will not be able to use history to guide their expectations of obligations and regulations of the state. If that happens, then the legal system breaks its faith with the citizenry; it can no longer be trusted to act as neutral arbiters of the rule of law. Everything is reduced to another power play, and the Supreme Court becomes just another legislative branch embroiled in the latest partisan bun fight.
Of course stare decisis doesn't mean can never be overturned. There are, in fact, famous examples of the Supreme Court changing its mind on crucial social issues, ie; most famously, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court unanimously decided that the segregation of schools was unconstitutional. However, stare decisis requires that there must be a deeply compelling reason for going against precedent; a fundamental change in either law or fact that makes the previous precedent both wrong and untenable.
Simply disagreeing with the precedent isn't enough. Roe v. Wade may have been a weak law — and Alito spelled out a rationale for why this was so — but weakness alone isn't enough to justify overturning it. There must be a material reason for undermining the precedent.
In this case, there is no such reason to disregard stare decisis overturning Roe and the 50 years of jurisprudence built upon it. Literally the only thing that has changed is that there is now a majority of conservative judges on the bench.
"The majority has overruled Roe and Casey for one and only one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law."
And herein lies the real problem with Friday's decision. We understand why most will be focused on what overturning Roe will mean for American women; this ruling will have a material impact on their lives, their ambitions, and their role in society. But in the dissent's discussion of stare decisis, we see the real and chilling prophecy of things to come.
Overturning Roe changes the game; it turns legal arbitration into culture war, and it subverts the rule of law and replaces it with the will to power. The result cannot be a fairer or more equal union. The Supreme Court is one of America's defining institutions and one that, for generations, has tied disparate lands and cultures together with the ideal of a neutral legal system. That has not always worked out in practice, of course, but we are not optimistic about a future in which all of the pretence has been stripped away.
Or: "Today, the proclivities of individuals rule. The Court departs from its obligation to faithfully and impartially apply the law. We dissent."
Two related files we at The Line have been watching managed to collide this week: the populist conversion of the federal Conservative caucus, and the Alberta UCP leadership race.
As noted in last week's dispatch, we set our expectations low for the latter file. Right now, premier of Alberta is the worst job in Canadian politics, and we have questions about anybody who would be keen to replace Jason Kenney. Those expectations appear to have been appropriately calibrated.
To put it mildly, the talent pool is thin. Those who are coming into the race with some name recognition either have baggage, or are espousing a quasi-separatist mandate. The reasonable are essentially unknowns. And the establishment favourite, Travis Toews, is literally so boring that we had to Google his name for the 18th time while writing this. (We keep on mixing him up with Vic.)
So we were buoyed by rumours that Conservative MP Michelle Rempel-Garner might enter this race, and suspected she could probably win it.
Well, we discovered this week that she won't. Rempel-Garner announced her decision not to run along with an essay that spells out her rationale.
The short version is that she had allowed her UCP membership to lapse and would need to get a caucus waiver to seek leadership. In the process of that fairly routine bit of business, she discovered that the caucus was so messed up and dysfunctional that she decided to turn her back on the job of leading it like Godzilla backing slowly into the sea.
"Bluntly put, I’m concerned about what would happen if I stepped in as leader under the present internal UCP caucus dynamic, especially considering we would need to govern while preparing for a rapidly approaching general election," she wrote.
In short: don't take a job you can't actually do. And if Rempel-Garner doesn't feel that she can address caucus dysfunction in the next year before a general election, we wonder who will.
Later this week, there was a little more news to relate as it pertains to MRG: according to the Toronto Star, several of her federal caucus colleagues have considered trying to expel her using the Reform Act. Rempel-Garner has responded in turn, arguing that the provisions of the Reform Act allow for a degree of abuse and harassment that ought to be examined through the lens of existing workplace legislation.
Tensions within the federal party go some way to explaining why she was eyeing the Alberta job in the first place. (To say nothing of her support for the more moderate wing of the party represented by Patrick Brown in its current leadership contest.) MRG is an outspoken personality, but her policies have always fallen well within the range of Albertan Red Tory: that is, she is a pro-gay rights, pro-choice moderate who has become increasingly vocal about the Conservative party's turn toward the conspiratorial. (See her piece here in The Line about her time with the WEF.)
This risks putting her into iron major territory; she is someone who has the local support to say what she thinks, but with no real prospect of advancing in a federal party that is increasingly tilting at populist dragons.
We have no concerns about Rempel-Garner's future; she will stay in politics, or she will go off to do something else more interesting, and probably more lucrative. But if someone like her can't find a place in the Big Tent, we do think that says a lot about the state of the Conservative movement, and what it says ain't so good.
We have no desire to further flog dearly departed beasts of burden. We did want to make one further point that wraps up much of the above, and many of the other stories that are currently in the headlines, including inflation, food supply shortages, and even something as relatively banal as the passport office dysfunction Matt Gurney wrote about here earlier in the week.
These things are all apart from each other, of course. And your Line editors both get cranky about the bad habit among many Canadian journalists to forcibly shoehorn American news narratives into a Canadian context. We are different countries with different political systems and different cultures and different societies. The issues that easily translate across the border are massively outnumbered by those that do not. That being said, we do have one meta-caution to offer: things are going to get worse. Indeed, we feel forced to use our strongest possible language. They are going to get bonkers.
You don’t need to limit this comment to either side of the border, or even to this continent. You don’t need to take any of the news stories mentioned above, or a dozen others we could list, and look at them in isolation. We’re asking all of you to take a step back, squint your eyes a bit and look at everything unfolding right now from 40,000 feet up. It’s way too easy to get caught up in the intricate details or emotional passions of the political debate or scandal du jour. It can obscure what we think is actually the broader challenge, one we’ve mentioned to you more than once here before. The various crises we face are compounding, and our governments are falling further behind all the time. The speed of government is simply much, much slower than the pace of events in these blighted 2020s.
We have major state capacity issues in this country, as do most of our peers. Our political leaders and civil servants are exhausted by years of operating on a crisis footing during the pandemic. They will receive no respite; we slipped right from COVID-19 into a war and destabilizing economy. And all of this is happening as the Elderly Boomer demographic shock arrives and as the planet continues heating up — the coal the Germans are now burning will help with that, right?
Meanwhile, key political and societal institutions are in a sorry state — many of them were even before the pandemic. This includes our own home in the media. We are a pretty tattered remnant of our former selves, with far too few people available to properly cover all the stories that urgently demand attention. Airports are weird. You can’t get a passport or a couch. There's labour shortages across the economy and even a major housing correction now would still leave values too high for many to ever afford a home of their own (and would destabilize the economy, as a bonus). The health-care system is a disaster; the best medical advice we can give any of you is to avoid any illness or injury for as long as possible, because we’re not convinced there'll be much help available to you should you fail.
And if you think things are bad now, wait six months and see what skyrocketing prices for everyday essentials such as food and energy does to our political and civil discourse.
We confess to some particular concern for the United States, and we've been saying as much for a while. It's going to get worse now. You thought America was polarized and divided when you woke up on Thursday morning? Just wait, friends. The Democrats will fight the upcoming midterms and 2024 on utterly existential terms, rightly so, and the GOP, which just won the biggest cultural battle of the last 50 years, is going to be energized and keen to pick 50 more fights. All while the price of gas and a loaf of bread soars.
Like we said: it's gonna be bonkers.
We don’t think there’s much we can do about any of this. Some of the forces we face right now are probably cyclical, and must be endured. Other things we probably could have done something about once upon a time, but are now too far advanced to prevent.
Which is why we need our critical institutions functioning better than ever. The best thing we can do to lower the overall societal temperature is demand governments simply provide reasonably effective and efficient service, with minimal inflammatory, self-serving rhetoric, to as many people as possible. This does not describe our country or society today, you’ll note. Also helpful would be not pointlessly vapourizing the credibility of vital institutions, especially those we may need if things continue to get truly weird. Institutions like — just to pluck one totally random example out of thin air — the RCMP.
We can either endure the challenges of the present and the near future collectively through the unifying power of efficient, effective societal and state institutions, or we can try and muddle through as individuals or families or small cliques.
Frankly, we prefer the former. But we won’t lie to you. We're assuming it’s going to be the latter, and planning accordingly.
Okay, everyone. Hope you enjoyed this special edition of the dispatch, made freely available to all. Enjoy your weekend. And wait for the bonkers.
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. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org