Trudeau in the hot seat over SNC-Lavalin allegations, as former justice minister heads for the exit
By Joan Bryden, The Canadian PressInfrastructure
WINNIPEG—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he was surprised and disappointed by Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation Feb. 12.
The former justice minister resigned from the federal cabinet one day after Trudeau suggested her continuing presence there was proof she didn’t think she’d been improperly pressured to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.
At an appearance in Winnipeg late Tuesday afternoon, Trudeau said the government did its job on the SNC-Lavalin file and if anyone in the cabinet thought anything improper had happened, they had a duty to raise it with him at the time. Wilson-Raybould never mentioned it, he said.
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Nevertheless, her departure added fuel to opposition accusations of political interference in the justice system. And it left Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples in tatters.
Wilson-Raybould had been Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister and the face of Trudeau’s commitment to make reconciliation his top priority.
In a letter to Trudeau published on her website, Wilson-Raybould said she was resigning “with a heavy heart” but did not explain why.
However, she said she’s aware that “many Canadians wish for me speak (sic) on matters that have been in the media over the last week” — referring to the furor that erupted after a news report last Thursday alleged she was demoted to veterans-affairs minister in January from the prestigious justice and attorney general portfolio because she had refused to give in to pressure last fall from the Prime Minister’s Office on the SNC-Lavalin case.
As the former attorney general, Wilson-Raybould has refused to comment on the allegation, citing solicitor-client privilege.
In her letter Tuesday, she said she has hired former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to advise her on “the topics that I am legally permitted to discuss in this matter.”
Wilson-Raybould said she intends to continue serving as the MP for the riding of Vancouver-Granville. For the time being at least, she remains a member of the Liberal caucus.
Her exit came less than 24 hours after Trudeau said he had “full confidence” in her and suggested she would have resigned from cabinet on principle if she had felt anyone had tried to improperly pressure her.
“In our system of government, of course, her presence in cabinet should actually speak for itself,” he said following an event in Vancouver — one that Wilson-Raybould didn’t attend, unlike a handful of fellow Liberals from the city.
Trudeau’s office issued a terse statement that made no attempt to put any gloss on Wilson-Raybould’s departure from cabinet or to thank her for her service.
Wilson-Raybould informed the prime minister on Monday night of her intention to resign, the statement said. Trudeau informed the rest of his cabinet Tuesday morning about her decision and named Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to take over responsibility for the veterans-affairs portfolio.
Trudeau was scheduled to take questions from the media later Tuesday after an event in Winnipeg.
In Fredericton, N.B., Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Wilson-Raybould’s resignation proves there’s more to the SNC-Lavalin story than Trudeau has been letting on.
“Yesterday, he said that her presence (in cabinet) speaks for itself. Well, today, her resignation speaks for itself,” Scheer said. “Clearly, there is something more than he has been forthcoming with.”
Trudeau has denied Wilson-Raybould was pressured to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin rather than pursue a criminal trial on charges of corruption and bribery related to the company’s efforts to secure government contracts in Libya. On Monday, after meeting with Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau said she confirmed to him that he had specifically told her it was entirely up to her whether to prosecute the Montreal-based engineering giant.
The Trudeau government passed a law last year which allows for remediation agreements in cases of corporate corruption, wherein a company pays reparations but does not wind up with a criminal conviction that would bar it from bidding on government contracts, potentially throwing thousands of employees out of work.
Government insiders have said Wilson-Raybould was involved in internal discussions last fall about whether to instruct the director of public prosecutions to pursue remediation, as is allowed by law, but they’ve insisted those discussions were not tantamount to pressure.
Scheer called on Trudeau to waive solicitor-client privilege to allow Wilson-Raybould to speak freely on the matter.
“The longer he refuses to do this, the more guilty he appears to Canadians.”
Scheer also wrote to Trudeau, calling on him to ensure that all documents — including “memos, letters, emails, PINs, SMS messages and handwritten notes” — pertaining to the case are preserved.
Both Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Liberals to support an opposition motion to have the House of Commons justice committee investigate the allegation that Wilson-Raybould was pressured. The committee is scheduled to consider the motion on Wednesday.
“Now more than ever, it is imperative that the Liberal government support the work of the justice committee that will be looking into whether there was illegal interference with the independent exercise of the former attorney general’s responsibilities,” Singh said in a statement.
“If Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government shut the justice committee’s work down, it would send a dangerous signal to Canadians about the state of our democracy.”
Liberals, who hold the majority on the committee, appear to be open to conducting an investigation. And on Monday, Trudeau said he welcomed news that federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has initiated his own investigation into the matter, specifically whether there’s been a violation of a Conflict of Interest Act provision which prohibits a public office holder from seeking to influence a decision so as to improperly further another person’s private interests.
Some Indigenous leaders have been highly critical of Trudeau’s decision to demote Wilson-Raybould and those criticisms escalated Tuesday.
Shortly before her resignation announcement, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs issued an open letter to Trudeau demanding that he publicly condemn “the racist and sexist innuendo” that’s circulated about Wilson-Raybould since her demotion, suggesting that she’s difficult to work with and not a team player.
The union attributed these anonymous, “cowardly” attempts to discredit Wilson-Raybould to Trudeau’s staff and said they “perpetuate colonial-era, sexist stereotypes that Indigenous women cannot be powerful, forthright and steadfast in positions of power.”
Garrison Settee, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., a group representing 30 First Nations in northern Manitoba, echoed that sentiment. And he called Wilson-Raybould’s resignation “a significant step backwards in our long-standing efforts to advance reconciliation.”
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement that he was “saddened” by Wilson-Raybould’s departure, noting that many First Nations people celebrated her appointment to the justice portfolio as a “testament to her expertise, experience and intellect.”
He said he’s “concerned about the many unanswered questions” surrounding Wilson-Raybould’s resignation and added that this is “echoed by many First Nations across the country.”
In her letter, Wilson-Raybould thanked her staff, officials and Canadians who supported her while in cabinet and concluded: “Regardless of background, geography, or party affiliation, we must stand together for the values that Canada is built on, and which are the foundation for our future.”