So, the SNC-Lavalin saga has kinda become a firestorm threatening to engulf Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government, huh? There has been a flurry of resignations, and The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is investigating the Liberal government over allegations published in the Globe and Mail that the PMO tried to interfere with the potential criminal trial of Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
On Feb. 12, Jody Wilson-Raybould—the former justice minister, and former minister of veteran affairs—announced she was resigning from Trudeau’s cabinet amid allegations the government pressured her to cut a deal with the company. On Feb. 18, Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and long-time friend, also resigned, saying his presence in the PMO’s office had become a distraction. In a statement, Butts unequivocally denied the accusation that he or anyone else in the office improperly pressured Wilson-Raybould. THEN, on March 4, treasury Board president Jane Philpott—who is good friends with Wilson-Raybould—also resigned from the cabinet, saying she’s lost confidence in the way the Trudeau government has dealt with the SNC-Lavalin affair.
While all of that is going on, Wilson-Raybould and Butts were also talking to the House of Commons justice committee. On Feb. 27, Wilson-Raybould made stunning and detailed accusations in testimony before the committee, and Butts appeared before the committee on Wednesday, March 6 to tell his side of the saga.
What is Justin Trudeau saying about all of this?
In an early morning press conference on March 7, Trudeau said he should have been aware of an “erosion of trust” between his office and Wilson-Raybould over the SNC-Lavalin controversy, but he stopped short of apologizing to her. “Over the past months, there was an erosion of trust between my office and specifically my former principal secretary and the former minister of justice and attorney general,” Trudeau said. “I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have been.”
Trudeau was asked directly whether he was apologizing for what unfolded in the SNC-Lavalin case and he stressed that he continues to believe there was “no inappropriate pressure.” Though, he said, “I’m obviously reflecting on lessons learned through this.”
The prime minister also shed light on a meeting he had with Wilson-Raybould and the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, on Sept. 17 where he raised the SNC-Lavalin file. He did confirm that he raised being a Quebec MP representing the federal riding of Papineau during the discussion, but he said the comment wasn’t partisan in nature.
“It is our job as parliamentarians to defend the interests of the communities we were elected to represent, to be the voices of those communities in Ottawa,” Trudeau said. “I stressed the importance of protecting Canadian jobs and reiterated that this issue was one of significant national importance.”
Wilson-Raybould left the meeting saying she would speak with her deputy minister and the clerk about this matter, Trudeau said, adding she stressed the decision was hers alone.
“In the months that followed that meeting, I asked my staff to follow up regarding Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s final decision,” Trudeau said. “I realize now that in addition, I should have done so personally given the importance of this issue and the jobs that were on the line.”
Last week, shortly after Wilson-Raybould concluded her four hours of testimony, Trudeau said “I completely disagree with the former attorney general’s characterization of events. I strongly maintain, as I have from the beginning, that I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally.” He added that the federal ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, would settle disagreements over what happened.
The Liberals earlier came under fire after a scathing Canadian Press story on February 9 had unnamed Liberals painting Wilson-Raybould as a “thorn in the Liberals’ side.” They variously described her as selfish, hard to work with and suggested she didn’t really care about Indigenous affairs since one source “saw her at Indigenous caucus just once.” The piece set off backlash among those who saw it as “racist and sexist innuendo” and another example of how women in power are lambasted for acting like it.
The former principal secretary said Wilson-Raybould never complained about improper pressure to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin until Trudeau decided to move her out of her coveted cabinet role as justice minister and attorney general. Butts’ testimony offered a very different version of events from those described last week in Wilson-Raybould’s explosive testimony.
Butts repeatedly said he believes nobody from the Prime Minister’s Office did anything wrong and if Wilson-Raybould felt she’d been inappropriately pressured to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case, she had an obligation to let Trudeau know as it was happening.
He said Wilson-Raybould didn’t raise any concerns about what was happening until the prime minister told her on Jan. 7 that he was shuffling her out of what she called her “dream job” as justice minister and attorney general.
Butts said he and others in the Prime Minister’s Office only wanted Wilson-Raybould to seek independent legal advice on the matter, given the potential impact on the company’s 9,000 employees and the fact that remediation agreements are a new feature in Canadian law.
Butts said he reviewed all the emails and texts he received from Wilson-Raybould going back to the summer of 2013. “There is not a single mention of this file or anyone’s conduct on this file until during the cabinet shuffle,” he said.
According to Butts, Trudeau told Philpott on Jan. 6 that he had decided to move Wilson-Raybould into the Indigenous Services slot because he wanted to “send a strong signal” that he remained personally committed to his reconciliation agenda. Philpott worried that Wilson-Raybould would view the move as a demotion and might wonder if it was “connected to the ‘DPA’ issue”—a reference to deferred-prosecution agreements, as remediation agreements are also known. They’re a legal mechanism that SNC-Lavalin is hoping to use “to escape criminal prosecution for alleged fraud and bribery in Libya,” according to a recent explainer from Maclean’s.
Wilson-Raybould refused the job, saying she had opposed the Indian Act her entire life and wouldn’t administer it. Butts said he advised Trudeau that he couldn’t set a precedent by allowing a minister to refuse a move. Wilson-Raybould was ultimately shuffled to Veterans Affairs on Jan. 14.
What did Wilson-Raybould tell the House of Commons justice committee when she finally broke her silence on the case on February 27?
Wilson-Raybould said she came under relentless pressure—including veiled threats—from Trudeau, his senior staff, the top public servant and the finance minister’s office to halt the criminal prosecution. And she said she believes she was shuffled out of the prestigious justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs in January because she refused to give in to it.
Wilson-Raybould told the committee she was “hounded” to end the prosecution for months after the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, had rejected the idea of negotiating a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin and long after she had unequivocally declared that she would not direct Roussel to reverse her decision.
Nevertheless, Wilson-Raybould said she didn’t consider resigning at the time and didn’t directly raise her concerns with Trudeau after Sept. 17, when she first informed him that she believed it would be inappropriate for her to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin matter. She didn’t speak directly to Trudeau about SNC-Lavalin again until Jan. 7, when he informed her he was about to move her out of the justice portfolio and she told him she believed the move was the result of her refusal to intervene in the prosecution.
Wilson-Raybould reiterated her intention to remain part of the Liberal team as she exited the committee room, even though she refused during questioning to say whether she still had confidence in the leader of that team.
“I’m not sure how that question is relevant,” she said when asked by a Liberal colleague if she still has confidence in the prime minister.
Is the prime minister himself facing an ethics investigation?
Yes, and so is the Prime Minister’s Office. The ethics commissioner Mario Dion believes the government might have ran afoul of the Conflict of Interest Act, and his office has launched an “examination,”as described to CTV News.
The move comes after the NDP asked the commissioner to step in and after opposition parties called for an investigation (even one Liberal MP joined that chorus). Trudeau then said he “welcomes” such oversight.
The Big Story: Jody Wilson-Raybould: The woman in the eye of the storm.
Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.
How is Jody Wilson-Raybould in the middle of this? Wasn’t she one of the party’s rising stars?
She was—a former B.C. Crown attorney and B.C. regional chief for the B.C. Assembly of First Nations tapped for the high-profile role of Justice Minister and Attorney General, amid the fanfare of the new Liberal government’s promise to advance the equality of women and embrace true reconciliation with the country’s Indigenous peoples (promises that critics argue haven’t been kept). But that seemed to change when Wilson-Raybould was demoted mid-January to Minister of Veterans Affairs (yes, it was viewed by many as a “demotion,” since it’s considered a less-powerful position in the government).
Didn’t that raise any flags?
At the time, the Liberals portrayed the shuffle as just one of many moves as Trudeau prepares for the fall election. But that perception changed dramatically with the Globe’s bombshell article. It used unnamed sources to report that the PMO wanted Wilson-Raybould to step in and help SNC-Lavalin negotiate a “deferred prosecution agreement”—essentially, a way for companies to pay their way out of criminal trials. Those agreements only became law this fall, causing some to question whether the Liberals tailor-made this law for SNC-Lavalin. The company’s employees have made illegal campaign donations to the party in the pastand had lobbied Trudeau’s government on exactly this point.
Wait, what did SNC-Lavalin allegedly do, again?
In 2015, the RCMP charged the company—a major employer in Quebec—with corruption for allegedly paying various Libyan government officials nearly $48 million in bribes, and defrauding other Libyan entities to the tune of nearly $130 million, all between August 2001 and September 2011 (former employees were also charged in the investigation).
SNC-Lavalin has been arguing (and heavily lobbying) that it’s far too big an employer and too important to the Quebec economy to endure a trial and the potential financial fallout. When the government announced in October 2018 the case would go to court, SNC-Lavalin shares fell to their lowest since 2016. SNC-Lavalin also faces the possibility of being banned from federal contracts—a key portion of its work — for a decade if the company is convicted
The company had reportedly been continuing to look for a way out of a trial—a fate that now appears unlikely.
What is the opposition saying?
On Feb. 27, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called on Trudeau to resign, saying Wilson-Raybould’s troubling testimony about SNC-Lavalin proved the prime minister has lost the moral authority to govern.
“Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this country now that Canadians know what he has done,” Scheer said. “And that is why I am calling on Mr. Trudeau to do the right thing and to resign.”
On the evening of Feb. 28, there was an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, as requested by the Conservatives and supported by the NDP.
What does this mean for the election?
The government’s sunny, squeaky clean image that swept it to victory in 2016 has been sullied on environmental issues, international relations, and Indigenous relations. But these allegations go to the very heart of Trudeau’s more-ethical-than-thou messaging.
“The allegation involving Jody Wilson-Raybould and its aftermath has effectively kneed the Liberal government where it hurts the most—squarely in its Real Change™ optics,” wrote Anne Kingston.
It could also severely undermine government’s “rule of law” argument in the controversial detention of a Chinese businesswoman, Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou.
“They have built up this rule of law so high and so mighty, and it will fall flat on its face if we can connect the dots if we find out they have tipped the scales of justice,” noted CTV Ottawa bureau chief Joyce Napier.
If the allegations are proven true, it all bodes extremely ill for Trudeau’s re-election bid. The questions go something like this: How can he be a feminist if he demotes a key female star in the party for standing her ground—a star who then resigned from his cabinet? How can he have integrity if he’s allegedly working behind the scenes for corporate interests? What political change is there in a prime minister who apparently doesn’t want to answer fully the question of whether, or how much, he may have pressured Wilson-Raybould?
With files from Rosemary Westwood, the Canadian Press and Maclean’s.