Justin Trudeau welcomed Monday an investigation by the federal ethics commissioner into an allegation that his office pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.
“We welcome the ethics commissioner’s investigation,” the prime minister said following an event in Vancouver, Wilson-Raybould’s hometown.
“This is an issue that has been much talked about over the last few days and I think it’s extremely important that Canadians can continue to have confidence in our system.”
Wilson-Raybould, who was demoted to the veterans-affairs portfolio in a January cabinet shuffle, was a no-show at Trudeau’s events in the Vancouver area, which were attended by a number of other British Columbia Liberal MPs. Trudeau said he met with her a couple of times since arriving in Vancouver on Sunday and said he continues to have “full confidence” in her.
Wilson-Raybould has refused to comment on the allegation since it surfaced last Thursday, citing solicitor-client privilege. Her refusal to deny the allegation has fuelled the controversy, triggered by a Globe and Mail report that the Prime Minister’s Office leaned heavily on Wilson-Raybould to instruct the director of public prosecutions to drop criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin and pursue a negotiated remediation agreement instead.
SNC-Lavalin has been charged with corruption and bribery in a bid to win government contracts in Libya. The public prosecutor has said a remediation agreement would be inappropriate in this case; the company is challenging that decision in court.
Trudeau said the issue of solicitor-client privilege is complicated and he has asked David Lametti, who replaced Wilson-Raybould as justice minister and attorney general, for advice on the matter.
In the meantime, he said Wilson-Raybould “confirmed for me a conversation we had this fall where I told her directly that any decisions on matters involving the director of public prosecutions were hers alone.”
Moreover, he appeared to suggest Wilson-Raybould would have resigned had she felt she’d been improperly pressured.
“In our system of government, of course, her presence in cabinet should actually speak for itself.”
Trudeau’s comments came shortly after federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion confirmed he has launched an investigation into the allegation the PMO improperly tried to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution. The NDP had asked Dion to look into the matter.
Watch the prime minister’s full comments below.
Charlie Angus, the party’s ethics critic, said in a statement that Trudeau promised Canadians he would change the way politics worked in Ottawa, but instead his Liberal government “continues to prioritize helping insiders and the rich get ahead. Canadians deserve better.”
Word of the probe came shortly after a Liberal MP joined opposition calls for a parliamentary investigation into the matter.
New Brunswick MP Wayne Long said in a statement posted to social media that he was “extremely troubled” when the allegation surfaced last week and nothing he has heard since has made him feel less unsettled.
“How the law treats individuals or corporations in our society is not, and should never be, incumbent upon the political pressure they can exert upon politicians,” he said.
Long stressed he’s not “rushing to any judgment,” but believes “a full and transparent investigation” by the House of Commons justice committee is necessary to provide answers in the affair. For that reason, he said he supports an opposition motion to launch an inquiry.
Conservatives and New Democrats on the justice committee joined forces to get an emergency meeting on Wednesday to consider a motion calling on nine high-ranking government officials to testify, including Wilson-Raybould herself. The list also includes Lametti, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and his principal secretary, Gerald Butts.
After speaking to a Canadian Bar Association meeting Monday, Lametti emphasized it would be inappropriate to comment on an issue before the courts. He did say there was nothing wrong with Wilson-Raybould being involved in internal discussions about whether to let SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial.
“It is important to remember that while the attorney general sits at a certain distance from his cabinet colleagues, in Canada – unlike in other countries – he does not work in isolation from them, or the important experiences or considerations that those colleagues bring to the table. These discussions can improve the quality of decision-making,” Lametti said.
“But there is a line that cannot be crossed – telling the attorney general what a decision ought to be. That would be interference. And at the end of the day, I abide by the long-standing principle that when acting as attorney general, I will apply my judicial mind to a decision, and not my political mind.”