Political Hay

Canadian Scandals: The Shame of the North

A perfect mess Sen. Duffy has gotten himself into.

By 11.12.13

S Nameirakpam (Creative Commons)

I have been trying to explain Canadian scandals to people here in the United States, and believe me it’s not easy.

Oh, people get Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto. When he said he smoked crack, we understood. We still remember Marion Barry’s encounter with the DEA. And when Ford said he did it in one of his “drunken stupors,” well, we’ve all been there and done things we’d like to forget, haven’t we? I remember, back in boarding school, waking up the junior dorm at midnight. Not my finest hour.

As for “getting hammered down on the Danforth,” I’ll bet that that’s something a lot of Toronto’s Bay Street lawyers do, of a Saturday night. Then there was the "drunken ruckus" during a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game, where he shouted obscenities and insults until he was ejected. Perfectly understandable, if you follow the Leafs.

But let me ask, is that all they’ve got? Nearly 150 years as a nation, and all they have to show for it are a couple of drunks and a Toronto mayor who smoked crack? He’s not even from Toronto. He’s from the suburb of Etobicoke. Different thing entirely.

The real puzzle, however, is Senator Mike Duffy, who was suspended from the Canadian Senate last week. I tell people here that there’s an incredible scandal concerning a Canadian senator, and I get blank stares. “A hockey player?” they ask. No, no, I hasten to explain, they have a real Senate in Parliament too. And then I tell them how Canadian senators are appointed, not elected, and how they can’t block legislation, and watch my listeners slowly nod off.

One perky friend stays interested, however. “All right,” he asks me. “So what’s he done? Were there women or drugs?” Nothing like that, I say. It’s about money. “Ah,” he says. “Must have been a lot! How many millions?” I’m afraid it’s only $90,000. “And they notice things like that up there?” Poor people, he thinks, that’s probably more than most of them make in their lifetime.

“There must have been special circumstances, then.” Tell me, he asks, did he steal from a poor box? Did he take a bribe? Was there some tit-for-tat? No, I explain. Nothing was stolen, and there wasn’t a bribe. As for tit-for-tats, Canadian senators, being powerless, have no tats to trade for tits. Rather, he overcharged for expenses.

Shaking my friend awake, I explain that the senator had a house in Ottawa and a house in Prince Edward Island, which he was supposed to represent in the Senate, and he charged for one of the houses. “I get it,” says my friend. “They don’t allow senators to expense their homes.” No, that’s not it, I explain, they allow exactly that.

“Then what’s the problem?” The problem is that he owned the house in Ottawa before he became a senator. “But after he was appointed he had to travel back and forth and maintain two residences, right?” Now you’ve got it, I tell him excitedly. “I’ve got it, but I don’t get it. Was he somehow charged with wrongdoing?” Not at all, I say. They hired auditors to investigate all this, and the auditors could find nothing wrong.

I can see that my friend seems to be losing patience with me. “All right. The senator expensed $90,000 and he had the right to do so and people are upset because he didn’t pay it back. That’s your scandal.” No, that’s not quite it, I tell him. He did pay it back, and that’s the scandal.

My friend now seems to stare at me in a curious way. “You mean the scandal is he paid back money he didn’t have to pay,” he says slowly. One always talks slowly to people with sub-moronic IQs. Yes, I say, where did he get the money? “You mean that matters?” I’m afraid so, I tell him. You see, it didn’t come out of his pocket. Someone lent it to him. “You mean that matters?”

I could see that I wasn’t getting anywhere with him, and so I tried to lay it out more simply. The people in his political party wanted the whole thing to go away so they pressured him to repay the money. “They don’t do that in Ottawa, do they?” he asks. “Pressure people?” Amazing country, he’s thinking. How do they get anything done?

I was happy that I was able to make at least one American understand the scandal, but came away thinking that my friend had failed to grasp its gravity. He seemed to think the Canadian sense of ethics a little absurd and precious. It was my mistake, really. I should have told him about Justin Bieber.

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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at George Mason School of Law and the author of The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (forthcoming April 2016, Encounter Books).