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Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick waits to appear before the Justice Committee meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 21, 2019.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It was a rare moment in the spotlight for Canada’s top public servant.

Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, was testifying before the House of Commons justice committee, where he confirmed that former justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould was unwilling to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin despite repeated efforts by the Prime Minister and other senior officials to revisit the prosecution of the engineering firm on charges of fraud and corruption.

The testimony was much anticipated. Mr. Wernick was appearing as the star witness Thursday in an unfolding drama that has left the government reeling. He did not ask for the attention, but the entire country was eager to hear what he would say about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

His statements would extend much further than the controversy at hand.

Mr. Wernick, a 61-year-old career civil servant in a role that is traditionally neither seen nor heard – at least not publicly – used the committee stage as an opportunity to sound the alarm on what he sees as histrionic political rhetoric that may well translate into violence. The “vomitorium” of social media is fuelling toxic public debate, he said – to the point that someone might get shot during this year’s federal election campaign.

And so while Mr. Wernick’s remarks confirm that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other senior officials had, in fact, repeatedly raised the national economic ramifications of an SNC-Lavalin conviction with Ms. Wilson-Raybould – his flair for the dramatic was also on the lips of political observers who were taken aback by his forceful candour.

Mr. Trudeau had nothing but praise for Mr. Wernick Friday during a visit to Newfoundland and Labrador. “[He] is an extraordinary public servant who has served this country and continues to serve this country under governments of different political stripes with integrity and brilliance,” the Prime Minister told reporters. “He is someone whom we need to heed very carefully when he chooses to express himself publicly.”

Mr. Wernick’s remarks also cast a spotlight on a man few people outside the Ottawa political bubble had likely heard of, despite his more than three decades in the federal public service in various capacities of escalating responsibility.

He has described his job as running a department with about 900 employees, speaking several times a week with the Prime Minister and sitting in on weekly cabinet discussions. “People do tend to listen to me,” he said in a 2017 speech. “But it is a soft power, not a directive power.”

He has been married for more than 30 years to Wiebke Merck, who owns a career and executive coaching business. They have two children.

On Thursday, Mr. Wernick told the House justice committee that he has known Ms. Wilson-Raybould for almost 15 years. When he was deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs – a lengthy tenure that lasted from 2006 to 2014 – they had “walked the path together … through many episodes in the journey towards Indigenous reconciliation,” he said. He told MPs he considered her a partner, an ally and a friend.

Several people who have worked with him describe him as extremely committed to his career, a strategic thinker and hard worker born into a politically engaged family. His father ran as a federal NDP candidate in the 1960s, and his son worked as a Liberal staffer until last year, when he publicly disclosed his history of depression and suicide attempts in an effort to galvanize MPs to encourage a healthier work-life balance. Mr. Wernick, too, has been outspoken about mental-health issues.

Mr. Wernick studied economics at the University of Toronto, completing his undergraduate studies in 1979 and his master’s degree in 1980. He began his career in the federal public service in 1981, ascending through the ranks and holding positions in various departments, including Finance, Canadian Heritage, Consumer and Corporate Affairs and what was at the time known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Phil Fontaine, who served as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations at the time, said he met with Mr. Wernick on multiple occasions and spoke highly of him, even if the two did not always see eye to eye – such as when the Harper government introduced the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

“He and I had a very solid, productive working relationship,” Mr. Fontaine said. “He’s a serious guy … . He was very focused.” Mr. Fontaine, like others interviewed by The Globe and Mail, said he was surprised to hear Mr. Wernick’s outspoken remarks Thursday.

Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said Mr. Wernick’s opening statement at the committee addressed issues that were much broader and in some ways even unrelated to SNC-Lavalin.

“We have rarely, if ever, seen this from a civil servant in this country,” he said.

Mr. Wernick has taken heat for his rhetoric in the past. In his time as deputy clerk, months before he was appointed to the top post, he faced calls to resign from Carleton University’s board of governors for comparing its students, who were protesting a looming tuition fee increase, to “Brownshirts and Maoists.”

Later, in 2018, Mr. Wernick attacked then-auditor-general Michael Ferguson for his diagnosis of the failure of Phoenix, the government’s troubled new payroll system. Mr. Wernick told a committee of MPs that “the senior leadership community of public service today is as good as, or better, than any that has ever served this country.” Committee members met those assurances with incredulity, with one NDP MP positing that perhaps Mr. Wernick “has his head buried in the sand and is in complete denial about what the cultural problems [within the public service] are.”

In 2016, Carolyn Bennett, at the time Indigenous Affairs Minister, defended Mr. Wernick’s appointment as Privy Council Clerk in the face of outrage from NDP MP Charlie Angus. Five days after Mr. Wernick was made clerk, Mr. Angus told the House of Commons that Cindy Blackstock, the director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, had identified Mr. Wernick as “a key player in fighting her human rights case” – a decade-long, headline-grabbing legal saga that eventually saw the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rule that the federal government discriminated against tens of thousands of vulnerable First Nations children by providing less money for welfare services on reserves than is available elsewhere in Canada.

“[Mr. Wernick] was also lambasted by a parliamentary committee for dragging his feet on the child welfare crisis,” Mr. Angus said. “For reconciliation to be real, action must be louder than words. What kind of message is the Prime Minister sending to Indigenous families by appointing Mr. Wernick to oversee the entire civil service?”

Ms. Bennett came to Mr. Wernick’s defence, telling MPs that the primary goal of the federal public service is “loyal implementation” of the vision of the government of the day. “There is a new government here,” she said, “and the Clerk of the Privy Council is empowered to deliver the work we have promised in the past election and he will do it.”

Mr. Wernick, today fielding accusations of partisanship for his remarks before the justice committee, was mandated by Mr. Trudeau to “move forward with the renewal of the professional, non-partisan public service,” according to the news release announcing Mr. Wernick’s 2016 promotion.

With research by Rick Cash

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