One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s priorities after he shuffled his cabinet in January was to discuss the matter of SNC-Lavalin with his new Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, a parliamentary committee has heard.
The wheels were set in motion on Friday, Jan. 11 for the discussion to happen, according to former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was officially demoted three days later. On Jan. 14, Mr. Trudeau promoted Liberal MP and lawyer David Lametti of Montreal to the position of Justice Minister and relegated Ms. Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs.
According to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, the deputy minister of justice was informed before the shuffle of the need to get ready to brief a new minister on SNC-Lavalin by Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, who is the most powerful bureaucrat in Ottawa.
“The Clerk tells the deputy [Nathalie Drouin] that one of the first conversations that the new minister will be expected to have with the PM will be on SNC-Lavalin," Ms. Wilson-Raybould said, quoting information obtained by her chief of staff at the time.
The revelation by Ms. Wilson-Raybould fuelled the notion that she was moved out of Justice because the government wanted a new minister who would be more responsive to calls for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for the engineering firm that is facing charges of fraud and corruption.
“Her testimony disclosed a constitutional crisis far worse than what I envisioned,” said Michael Bryant, a former attorney-general of Ontario and the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “She says it was a bald attempt by the Prime Minister to exercise his cabinet-making power over her quasi-judicial authority. I am personally very familiar with the tactic, but have never seen evidence of it used on an attorney-general in this brazen, reckless fashion.”
John Whyte, a former deputy attorney-general of Saskatchewan, said there may have been a reason for Mr. Trudeau to discuss SNC-Lavalin with Mr. Lametti, but the perception is bad.
“When you have the demonstration effect of a firing, and the first thing that happens after the demonstration effect of a firing is an issue that is sensitive to government, what is the new minister to take from it?” he said.
Legal experts and former attorneys-general who listened to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony said they were astonished to discover the political pressure that was placed on her even after she said she had made up her mind against a DPA. According to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, senior government officials invoked the Quebec election and the electoral prospects of the federal Liberals in an attempt to get her to change her mind on SNC-Lavalin.
“What makes it problematic here is the fact that these discussions persisted long after the attorney-general had made it clear she had made her mind up on the case,” said Geoff Plant, a former B.C. Liberal attorney-general. “This observation crosses the line between inquiries that relate to the public interest, which are legitimate, and partisan political considerations, which are not. She was right to say that this was inappropriate. The fact that this consideration was raised again and again is very disturbing.”
The independence of prosecutors and the attorney-general is important “so that political power isn’t used to punish political enemies,” said Mr. Whyte. “So that, more profoundly, the population can believe the coercive power of the state through criminal law is exercised in a politically neutral way."
If she was removed from her position as attorney-general because of her refusal to give in on SNC-Lavalin, that would send a dangerous signal to all future attorneys-general, Mr. Whyte said.
“If it’s a decision in an individual case, that sends an incredibly strong message to the next attorney-general, or any attorney-general down the line, that if you want to keep your job, you should find out what the government wants and do it," he said.
In the matter of pressure being placed on Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Mr. Whyte said, “it does appear to me to be going beyond the conversation … to lobbying for a particular result. That’s bad. We believe that the criminal justice system should unfold without any notion of political favour.”
Kenneth Jull, an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and counsel at Gardiner Roberts LLP, said he was disappointed with the way many government officials approached the possibility of entering into a DPA with SNC-Lavalin.
“It seems to me there was a lack of respect for the law. Comments that she said that people made … these are troubling things because to my mind, they are about things that have nothing to do with the law,” he said.
Asked by Conservative MP Lisa Raitt for any lessons to be drawn from the current controversy, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said it might be a good idea to separate the responsibilities of the minister of justice and of the attorney-general. According to Justice Canada, the minister of justice oversees the administration of justice and policy matters, while the attorney-general is the “chief law officer” with responsibility over federal litigation.
“I believe and I have believed this for some time, even before I became the attorney-general, that our country would benefit from a detailed study and consideration around having the attorney-general not sit around the cabinet table like they have in the United Kingdom," she said.
During her testimony, Ms. Wilson-Raybould received praise from opposition MPs for her stand on SNC-Lavalin.
“What I heard today, should make all Canadians extremely upset," said NDP MP and lawyer Murray Rankin. "I believe that if we believe you, which I do, that there is no other conclusion that one can reasonably draw but there was a sustained, consistent effort to interfere politically with the critical role that an attorney-general must play in our legal system.”
With reports from Janice Dickson