OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that Jody Wilson-Raybould will be able to “address relevant matters” when she appears before the House Justice Committee as part of its study into the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“Later today the government will confirm that the member from Vancouver-Granville will be able to address relevant matters at the committee while ensuring that the two active court cases are not jeopardized,” Trudeau said during question period.
“We obviously take very seriously the right of everyone to share their perspectives in various ways,” Trudeau told reporters on his way to the Commons.
The prime minister has faced calls to waive solicitor-client privilege in the matter to allow Wilson-Raybould to speak publicly about allegations of political pressure being placed on her by members of the PMO in regards to an ongoing criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Citing unnamed sources, The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that Trudeau’s office pressed Wilson-Raybould to drop a criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin when she was attorney general. It was alleged that the PMO wanted Wilson-Raybould to instruct federal prosecutors to change course and pursue a remediation agreement rather than criminal prosecution in the corruption and fraud case against the Quebec engineering and construction giant. CTV News has not independently verified the story.
When she was attorney general, Wilson-Raybould had the ability to direct federal prosecutors to take a different route with the charges against SNC-Lavalin but she did not, despite several meetings and conversations on the matter before and after federal prosecutors decided to carry on with the criminal case in the fall.
In January, Wilson-Raybould was shuffled into the veterans affairs portfolio, and was replaced as attorney general and justice minister by David Lametti, a Quebec MP. Wilson-Raybould accepted her new position, but then resigned from cabinet days after the Globe story broke. So far, she’s maintained solicitor-client privilege as the reason she’s yet to speak out publicly about the allegations, though she’s signaled a desire to “speak my truth,” and reportedly told cabinet members when she met with them last week at her request, that the pressure was improper.
According to minister Jane Philpott, who is a close friend of Wilson-Raybould, her former cabinet colleague is “doing very well.”
Philpott said the two have been in “regular communication” and denied that there’s any division within cabinet as the affair continues to unfold.
Wilson-Raybould wants half an hour to speak
This comes as Wilson-Raybould is expected to appear before the committee this week. While it was thought that she might testify on Tuesday, CTV News has been told that she is not scheduled to appear then.
Wilson-Raybould has sent a letter to the committee’s chair saying that she is “anxious” to appear but wants to make sure she has legal clarity on what she is able to comment on before making herself available. She’s suggested the committee get legal advice on the parliamentary convention known as “sub judice” which deals with speaking about cases currently before the courts.
In the letter she has asked to have an “extended opening statement” lasting 30 minutes during which she would be able to go through everything she recalls about communications she was involved in regarding SNC-Lavalin. Most opening statements at committees are limited to 10 minutes.
Wilson-Raybould wrote that she’d be happy to stay for as long as the committee wishes to answer questions.
The committee will be discussing her letter, likely behind closed doors, Tuesday morning.
The committee has so far heard from Lametti, his deputy minister, and top bureaucrat Michael Wernick, who gave blunt and detailed testimony.
Wernick disputed the allegations reported in the Globe and sought to reframe them, saying that while it’s likely Wilson-Raybould could have felt pressured, it’s a question of whether that constitutes as “inappropriate pressure,” or pressure that comes with being part of the inner circle that makes key decisions with national implications. In his view, the pressure was “lawful and appropriate.”
The committee study continues Monday afternoon with testimony from academics who will chime in on the underlying legal aspects at the heart of the affair. These include the legal provision known as remediation or deferred prosecution agreements, which were tucked into a recent omnibus bill following heavy SNC-Lavalin lobbying, the Shawcross doctrine—which has to do with the independence of the attorney general in making decisions—and the discussions between the AG and government colleagues on SNC-Lavalin.
Asked about the letter, and Trudeau saying that Wilson-Raybould will be permitted to speak to “relevant” aspects of the scandal, Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt said it’s just another example of Trudeau speaking for her.
“What we’re saying is, fine, if that’s the way it’s going to be you should come in Mr. Prime Minister and tell us what you know because clearly you’re doing a lot of the talking right now,” Raitt said.
Opposition motion calls for PM to talk
Meanwhile in the House, the Conservatives have focused in on Trudeau in and are forcing the Commons to spend the day debating their motion to have him testify at the justice committee.
“Quite simply what we’ve seen unfold over the last two weeks is a textbook case of government corruption with those at the very top of the prime minister’s office implicated in what could very well be the obstruction of justice,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters on Monday.
The motion specifically invokes some of Trudeau’s own remarks on the case of alleged PMO political interference. The full text reads: “That, given the Prime Minister’s comments of Wednesday, February 20, 2019, that the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights is the appropriate place for Canadians to get answers on the SNC-Lavalin affair, and given his alleged direct involvement in a sustained effort to influence SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution, the House order the Prime Minister to appear, testify and answer questions at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, under oath, for a televised two-hour meeting, before Friday, March 15, 2019.”
Scheer said that should the House order Trudeau to appear, he would have to testify at the committee.
In presenting his motion in the Commons, Scheer implored Liberal MPs to vote in favour of it.
“I invite all members of the Liberal Party to do the right thing. We know that you’re under tremendous pressure from political operatives within your own party who are trying to protect themselves,” Scheer said. “You have an opportunity and a responsibility to do the right thing, to stand up for the independent system of justice to prove that no one in Canada gets a special deal just because they’re rich and powerful. There’s one set of rules for every Canadian. You have the opportunity to do that today and I invite you to do the right thing.”
Responding to Scheer’s remarks, Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary for justice Arif Virani cited the ongoing study, in which members have said there is still a possibility for new witnesses to come forward. “Why the distrust in allowing the committee to simply continue to do its work?” he asked.
Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, Kevin Lamoureux, joined the debate by invoking former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, saying that for years the party has had “one focus, one agenda item and that is to personally attack members of this government and to take what I believe a course that is not in the best interest of Canadians.”
Scheer said Wernick’s testimony laid out the extent of unsolicited and co-ordinated efforts to have Wilson-Raybould change her mind.
In his response to Scheer’s opening remarks in the Commons, Virani quoted a part of Wernick’s testimony that supported the government’s position that Trudeau was consistent in telling Wilson-Raybould that offering a remediation agreement to SNC-Lavalin was her decision alone.
“The prime minster said at every occasion, verbally and in writing, she was the decider, so she was not giving legal advice to the prime minister. She was the decider, the full and final decider,” Wernick said at committee last week.
The motion is scheduled to be put to a vote at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Two previous opposition attempts to have senior PMO staff testify at the committee have been unsuccessful, as was a motion to compel Trudeau to waive solicitor-client privilege and have a public inquiry launched.
NDP MP Tracey Ramsey used her time in the debate to bring up the perceived “racist and sexist undertones” of the ongoing affair, citing the personal attacks against the woman who was Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister and attorney general by unnamed Liberal sources in the days after the SNC-Lavalin controversy began unfolding. Trudeau has since apologized for not being quicker to condemn those comments.
To date, the government maintains that nothing improper occurred, though Trudeau’s principal secretary resigned over the matter on Feb. 18, denying any wrongdoing.
Since the scandal hit Parliament Hill, federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has launched an investigation, which Liberals continue to point to as the best avenue for examining the case, though such probes can often take months to complete.
“We continue to welcome the studies by the committee and by the ethics commissioner,” Trudeau said Monday.