Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario. CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

Peter Stockland: Trudeau fails acceptance test

  • August 24, 2019

Early in junior high school, I watched a kid named Frank play out what I was certain, even then, would be a pattern for his life.

We were waiting outside a classroom for the teacher to arrive. There was an old concentric circle air duct in the low ceiling. Someone had jammed a floor hockey stick into one of its vents. Frank just had to jump up, grab it and try to wrench it out. He was a hefty kid, heavy enough to pull the whole contraption down with an ungodly smash on the floor … just as the teacher turned the corner to witness all his guilty glory. 

I don’t remember if he was expelled or just suspended, but I remember pondering about the balance between agency and accident, responsibility and blame, justice and injustice. Without knowing how I knew, I felt Frank would frequently get the wrong end of the stick for each of them in his life. Having known many similar souls since, I still hold him as the image of the would-be helper made hapless by his own hand.

Recently, one of the wisest people I know, raised in far more plush circumstances than I, described a group that is the mirror image of Frank. They are, she said as one who knew many of them growing up, people who always have someone to help them out regardless of what they’ve done. In fact, they come to take it as a right. Their actions and reactions become based on their right to certainty of escape. Think, she said, of Justin Trudeau. 

Certainly, Canada’s prime minister showed why he deserves consideration to be in that number with his response to the recent finding of culpability in the SNC-Lavalin scandal. The PM accepted the finding of the federal ethics commissioner that he’d broken the law by putting improper pressure on then Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould in the matter. He also, he said, disagreed with it. 

The formulation is a form of semantic imbecility, of course. Beyond the irrelevancy of disagreement — the ethics commissioner’s finding was his finding, full stop — you have not accepted that with which you then declare yourself in disagreement. You might be obliged to submit to it as an injustice or even a torment. But acceptance, by definition, requires the willing receiving of the whole steaming, greasy plate of enchiladas. 

The Franks of the world understand, either intuitively or by hard experience, the only real option is “I ain’t done nuttin’ wrong” or “Guilty, and gimme my lumps.” Those habituated to being helped out of every jam are more likely to voice their plight with variations on the immortal lyrics of the late, great Warren Zevon: “I was gambling in Havana/I took a little risk. Send lawyers, guns and money/Dad, get me out of this….”

A case could be fairly made that Trudeau’s entire first term as prime minister, with two findings of ethics violations in less than four years, fits that mould. It might, or might not, be a sound political evaluation. It is not, I think, the proper Catholic response. 

Our first move, I would argue, should be to look into our own hearts to see how often we assume a kind of Christian “right” to have God send the spiritual equivalent of “lawyers, guns and money” to get us out of our own wrongs. In the old days, this was commonly known as blasphemy for its presumption of knowing God’s mind. Today, it feeds into our capacity to see ourselves as perpetual victims of bad circumstances and poor timing rather than, like Frank, self-inflicted culprits of our own base instincts and worse judgment.

None of that is meant to let the PM off the hook, politically or spiritually, for his misdeeds in the SNC-Lavalin affair. I’ve been a stringent critic of his conduct since the story broke. Canadians will have to decide in October how much weight to give it in their democratic judgment of him. 

A key to that judgment — here the spiritual and the political intersect like a Venn diagram — is how truly he accepts what he did as wrong. That was the rule for Frank. It must be the rule for all of us. No caveats. No fudging. No “right” born of privilege to be saved.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible, which has become acutely important amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.