Headlines quickly filtered through the return of Gerry Butts to the Liberal Party campaign braintrust. Several news stories used similar headlines touting “Lavscam cloud lifts…”
It was only a few months ago Butts resigned as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Principal Secretary, a role in which he, Trudeau, and Chief of Staff Katie Telford formed the three-headed Cerberus guarding entrance to the halls of power in Ottawa – or so parliamentary prosecutors for #LavScam would submit. In the investigative efforts of parliamentarians, to get to Cerberus one first had to get past now-retired Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick. Like Butts, Wernick departed his senior role in government after his efforts to influence Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould became transparent in public light.
Telford managed to keep her record relatively clean, although referenced in regard to PMO and other ministerial staff efforts to sway Wilson-Raybould’s opinion.
Trudeau fumbled for words in self-contradictory public statements over several weeks, ending in neither admission nor apology but rather evocation of another learning experience.
And, Butts? He appeared to fall on his own sword for the benefit of his boss and long-time friend, the Prime Minister.
Little attention was given to Butts’ testimony of secretly listening to a phone call between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, including taking and disclosing notes he identified were written while on the call. The potential heat for that legal breach was relieved when Wilson-Raybould revealed, having no such confidante to listen in on a call with Clerk Wernick, she had resorted to recording the call. Somehow, the conspiracy to have a good friend and senior political officer listen in on a private call was determined by press and public to be less egregious than the self-protecting audio verification confessed by the Attorney-General.
In an interesting legal twist, under Canadian law, Wilson-Raybould’s recording was legal. However, Butts listening in, recorded or not, is considered “intercepting” a private communication, which is a violation of the Criminal Code. His handwritten notes are evidence of the interception. Still, it’s unlikely criminal charges will ensue. The RCMP, Canada’s national police force, is either quietly investigating, awaiting the report of the Ethics Commissioner, who signalled in February that an investigation had been commenced, or quietly hoping none of us will remember the potential criminal implications of the efforts made to influence (obstruct?) the Attorney-General’s decision regarding a potential deferred prosecution agreement for Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin. Hopefully, both the Ethics Commissioner and the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are sensitive to the fact we are within months of a scheduled election and will declare their intentions soon.
But this is not a retelling of the #LavScam story. This is, instead, a reflection on Gerry and Justin’s continuing friendship, and Butts’ return to Trudeau’s political flank with the 90-day countdown clock ticking down on the upcoming federal election.
I opened with #LavScam, however, because in addition to, as the CBC put it, Trudeau “putting the band back together for October” and the “new-old Liberal crew” leading the political charge, media coverage of the story is unanimous in noting the Liberal leadership seems unconcerned about revisiting the scandal, or any public interest that Butts’ admitted severance package remains undisclosed. And, Butts’ return did trigger a brief social media revival of the #LavScam hashtag.
Is it remarkable or regrettable that Gerry Butts is back in the public eye? The Liberal Party may come to regret the decision, particularly in light of the announcement in May that Butts would not be involved in the 2019 election campaign. But the basis for his return to the frontlines is remarkable. It’s a remarkable story of an enduring close personal friendship.
Gerry and Justin met in university, at McGill in Montreal. One, the son of a coal miner from Nova Scotia. The other, the son of a multi-millionaire former Prime Minister from Quebec, a 1971 Christmas baby and only the second child born to a sitting Prime Minister; the first since Sir John A. MacDonald’s daughter was born in 1869. The two became fast friends, and have remained best of friends for decades.
They were in each other’s wedding parties. Butts, the two time national university debating champion, helped Trudeau prepare the eulogy delivered at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral that propelled Justin back into the national spotlight, and his soon to follow political career.
Even when living in separate parts of the country, both attest to near weekly contact. According to Butts, their most significant gap in conversation took place during the official no-contact period following his resignation and prior to his testimony before the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Although, Butts admitted, his friend breached the two week long no-contact period to check in and see how he was doing.
The closeness of their relationship reminds me a little of the friendship between the shepherd-anointed-to-be-king David and Jonathan, the crown prince son of Israel’s first king. In the biblical instance, Jonathan recognized David had been revealed as God’s anointed leader by the prophet Samuel. Jonathan committed his life to his friend, and to facilitating David becoming king. In Gerry’s case, he would be the architect of Justin’s ascension to leadership of the Liberal Party and then national premiership.
When the King was after David’s head, Jonathan was forbidden contact with his friend. But Jonathan alerted David to the threat, protected him, before eventually meeting his own death in battle. When Parliament was pursuing Justin, Gerry protected him, necessitating resignation from the most powerful unelected position in Canadian government.
It is remarkable that these two men have maintained such a, well, remarkable friendship. I dare say that many men would envy having this kind of friend-closer-than-a-brother, one with whom they might have conversation more frequently than with their mother, one with whom they might share confidences they would not trust any other ears to hear.
Has this friendship survived the challenge of betrayal and extension of forgiveness, or has their friendship survived the offer, or ask, that the Principal Secretary take responsibility for a series of detrimental decisions in order to protect an unapologetic Prime Minister?
Either way, it is indeed remarkable, not just that their friendship has survived, but that both Butts and Trudeau are comfortable overtly exhibiting its durability in the context of the very political battlefield on which it initially rose to popular prominence and was then subjected to public scrutiny.
There is little danger on this particular battlefield that one or other will be cut down, as was Jonathan. But Trudeau and Butts do take a certain measure of risk by entering together into the fray that a not-too-distant past may present itself at a most inopportune time and in very public manner.
Win, lose or draw this October, one cannot but hope theirs will be a friendship that, like Jonathan and David, lasts a lifetime. Gerry and Justin have already accomplished more by remaining friends, and together as friends, than many.