National Affairs: Popcorn ready for double feature

by Chantal Hebert

For political junkies, a compelling double program is unfolding in Montreal courts this week. In one courtroom, the sponsorship scandal is coming back to life and in another Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s undertaking of a new partnership with Canada’s indigenous people is being put to a test.

More than a decade after justice John Gomery investigated the federal sponsorship program, the Liberal insider he described in his final report as “a central figure in an elaborate kickback scheme” is having his day in court.

Jacques Corriveau is not the first individual to be charged in connection with the failed Liberal program designed to enhance Canada’s visibility in Quebec, but he is as close to an alleged mastermind of the scandal as one is likely to see on the stand.

Corriveau was a close ally of former prime minister Jean ChrÈtien and a driving force behind his two leadership bids. He is accused of having used his contacts to collect $8 million in kickbacks as a middleman in the distribution of sponsorship money.

But those who hope for titillating new revelations about how a program designed to shore up Canadian unity in Quebec ended up bringing the federal Liberal party to the brink of extinction in the province should not hold their breath. Corriveau’s testimony to the Gomery commission featured frequent memory lapses. At the time, he put those down to age. He’s now 83.

Why does it matter? Among the handful of people caught so far in the police investigation’s net, Corriveau is the biggest fish. After having seen its case against Mike Duffy in the more recent Senate spending scandal collapse in court, the RCMP could use a win.

It may seem strange that a case involving a multibillion-dollar mega dam in northern British Columbia is being argued in Montreal but, for scheduling reasons, that is where the Federal Court of Appeal is hearing the latest First Nations challenge to the province’s Site C project.

This summer, the federal government quietly issued two permits crucial to the construction of the dam and, in the process, dashed indigenous hopes that Trudeau would block the project.

The decision was released late in the afternoon of the last Friday in July – a window usually reserved for announcements that governments are hoping to bury. (As an aside, the news that the National Energy Board was scrapping its controversial Energy East panel and asking the government to craft a new one from scratch was also made public at the tail end of business hours last Friday.)

Over the weekend, Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told The Canadian Press that facilitating the completion of a project initially approved by the Harper government went against Trudeau’s pledge to have a nation-to-nation relationship. The issue from his organization’s perspective is the respect of treaty rights.

Why does it matter? Trudeau has made a lot of promises to Canada’s indigenous people, but this is the first time the rubber hits the road on a major energy project. The government will need a lot of aboriginal goodwill if Trudeau is to be able to claim that he has acquired a so-called social licence for one or more pipelines to be built over his tenure.

A decade ago, the sponsorship court case would have commanded the attention reserved for must-watch performances. But in the spirit of 2016, a court battle that finds Trudeau’s indigenous-friendly government and some key First Nations allies on opposite sides of a major energy development issue is of much greater consequence.

A note in closing: a challenge to the Quebec government’s legislative response to the federal Clarity Act was also scheduled to be heard in Quebec Superior Court this week, but it was belatedly postponed for the umpteenth time late Monday afternoon. If there ever was any urgency to having the courts pronounce on whether the federal rules spelled out in the Clarity Act take precedence over the national assembly’s insistence that it alone would be in the driver’s seat of a future referendum on Quebec’s political future, a 16-year wait to argue the case has taken care of it.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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