Justin Trudeau rose to become Liberal Leader with the help of an inner circle of advisers who cut their teeth on Ontario politics. The absence of Quebec heavyweights on his team has been apparent from the beginning of his tenure as Prime Minister.
So it is beyond ironic that the overwhelming impression left by former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony before the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday is that the Prime Minister was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to win votes in Quebec. There was a pathetic air of desperation in attempts by Mr. Trudeau and his staff to get her to change her mind about prosecuting SNC-Lavalin.
The greatest damage done by this affair, then, may not be the threat to the independence of the judicial system that it has raised. By serving to perpetuate every negative stereotype the rest of Canada holds about politicians pandering to Quebec, the SNC-Lavalin scandal will further inflame regional resentments – and may even backfire spectacularly.
As Ms. Wilson-Raybould described it in her testimony, the Prime Minister, his political staffers and even the assumed-to-be non-partisan Clerk of the Privy Council repeatedly impressed upon her the electoral consequences in Quebec of failing to offer a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) to Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin. The engineering giant, facing fraud and corruption charges, had been seeking a deal under new federal legislation that allows companies to defer prosecution in exchange for making amends.
The political pressure from above began soon after the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, informed the then-attorney-general on Sept. 4 that she would not “invite” SNC-Lavalin to negotiate a DPA. Ms. Roussel did not provide any reasons for her decision, other than to say she considered it “inappropriate” to defer prosecution.
Two days later, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s chief of staff, Ben Chin, contacted his counterpart in Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s office. “He said to her,” according to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, “that if [SNC doesn’t] get a DPA, they will leave Montreal, and it’s a Quebec election right now, so we can’t have that happen.”
By Sept. 17, Ms. Wilson-Raybould had thoroughly reviewed Ms. Roussel’s decision and decided she would not intervene to overturn it, even though the law allowed her to do so. She said the principle of prosecutorial independence guided her decision.
In a meeting that day with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Mr. Trudeau and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick apparently would not take “no” for an answer. Mr. Wernick alluded to the Oct. 1 election in Quebec. The Prime Minister piped up: “And I am an MP in Quebec.”
The Quebec election came and went without any word of Ms. Roussel’s decision leaking. It was not until Oct. 10, when SNC-Lavalin revealed her decision, that the news became public. The attempts by the PMO to put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould only intensified after that.
Instead of the Quebec election, the political imperative now involved the federal Liberals’ own “need to be re-elected,” in the words of PMO senior adviser Mathieu Bouchard. A lawyer who had teleguided his friend Mélanie Joly’s 2013 failed bid for the Montreal mayoralty, Mr. Bouchard had been recruited to join the PMO in 2015 to manage the Quebec file. But the former sovereigntist was outranked in power, influence and experience by chief of staff Katie Telford and then-principal secretary Gerald Butts, both high-powered veterans of Ontario Liberal politics who know little about Quebec.
In the following weeks, until Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted from the justice portfolio in January, she and her then-chief of staff Jessica Prince were repeatedly badgered by Mr. Butts, Mr. Wernick, Mr. Bouchard and other senior political staff to “find a solution” to the SNC-Lavalin problem. During what she described as “the final escalation in efforts by the PMO to interfere in this matter,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould faced “veiled threats” that she might lose her job.
Meanwhile, frustrations in Canada’s Western provinces have only intensified since the demise of the Energy East pipeline, which TransCanada decided to abandon after Mr. Trudeau imposed an upstream carbon-emissions test on the project. Western Canada has been smarting ever since at what it interpreted as a backhanded move to kill a pipeline unpopular in Quebec.
But it is an insult to the intelligence of Quebec voters to think they would be any less outraged than other Canadians at the prospect of a Prime Minister and his staff intervening in the independence of the judicial system for political ends. The PMO’s slimy attempts to bring political pressure to bear on Ms. Wilson-Raybould will not win Mr. Trudeau any votes in Quebec – and will likely cost him many.
By sickening everyone, Mr. Trudeau might have just united the country – against him.