Will the SNC-Lavalin scandal bring down the Canadian government?
What You Need To Know About SNC-Lavalin And Jody Wilson-Raybould
This could be the biggest political story of the year.
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.
“For a period of approximately four months, between September and December of 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada,” she told the committee.
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. She accepted a move to veterans affairs on Jan. 14 and did not resign from cabinet until Feb. 11, five days after an anonymously sourced allegation that she’d been improperly pressured first surfaced in the Globe and Mail.
The pressure campaign culminated on Dec. 19, she said, with what she deemed three “veiled threats” that she could lose her job from the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, who last week told the committee he believes there was no improper pressure applied to Wilson-Raybould.
According to Wilson-Raybould, Wernick told her that Trudeau wanted to know why SNC-Lavalin was not being offered a remediation agreement, a kind of plea bargain that would allow the company to avoid the potentially crippling impact of a criminal conviction. He told her that the prime minister was “going to find a way to get it done one way or the other” and that it was not good for the attorney general to be “at loggerheads” with the prime minister.
But Wernick wasn’t the only one accused of pressuring her. Wilson-Raybould said pressure was exerted on her or her staff by 10 other people in the Prime Minister’s Office and the finance minister’s office through approximately 10 phone calls, 10 meetings and numerous emails and text messages. They repeatedly raised concerns about the risks to SNC-Lavalin’s viability if it were convicted of corruption and fraud in relation to work it sought in Libya.
Moreover, she said they were worried that the company might decide to move its operations out of Quebec, affecting last fall’s provincial election in Quebec and potentially hurting more Liberals in the province, including Trudeau himself, in the coming federal election this fall.
She said she was told repeatedly the decision was up to her, but attempts to talk her into a remediation agreement were relentless.
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.
What did Trudeau say in response to Wilson-Raybould’s explosive testimony?
“I completely disagree with the former attorney general’s characterization of events,” Trudeau said in Montreal, shortly after Wilson-Raybould concluded her four hours of testimony. “I strongly maintain, as I have from the beginning, that I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally.”
The prime minister said the federal ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, will settle disagreements over what happened. “Canadians need to know that we have an officer of Parliament who is tasked with a specific role to make sure that in questions where there are disagreements amongst politicians, amongst elected officials, there is an arbiter who is empowered to be like a judge, who is an officer of Parliament, who will make a determination in this issue,” Trudeau said after an announcement at the Canadian Space Agency. “So, while political parties and various people are making, or trying to draw a lot of attention to this issue, there is a process, both at the justice committee and indeed at the ethics commissioner, that will make a determination on what actually happened here.”
As for Wilson-Raybould’s future as a Liberal, Trudeau said he is still mulling over whether she will be allowed to remain in caucus.”I have taken knowledge of her testimony and there are still reflections to have on next steps,” he said.
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.
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). Then, 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 past and 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 else is the government saying in its defense?
Trudeau has been clinging to one phrase since the story broke: that he didn’t “direct the attorney general, current or previous, to take any decision whatsoever in this matter.”
Whether there’s a difference between “directing” and “pressing,” as the Globe reported, he hasn’t clarified. “Direct” is the only verb he’s used.
During an event in the Ottawa suburb, Trudeau said “We take very seriously our responsibility of standing up for jobs, of protecting jobs, of growing the economy, of making sure there are good jobs right across the country as there are with SNC-Lavalin. But as we do that, we always need to make sure we’re standing up for the rule of law and protecting the independence of our justice system.” He added that “there were many discussions going on. Which is why Jody Wilson-Raybould asked me if I was directing her, or going to direct her, to take a particular decision and I, of course, said no, that it was her decision to make and I expected her to make it. I had full confidence in her role as attorney general to make the decision.”
While the prime minister has been making public statements, unnamed Liberals appeared in a scathing story 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.
What is the opposition saying?
On February 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 February 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 mos—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?