In the Hollywood movie version of the SNC-Lavalin affair, the part of Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick will be played by a man dressed as a traffic cop. Standing in front of what looks to all the world like a 10-car pileup, his character will repeat the following catchphrase: “Move along people, nothing to see here.”
In his appearance last week at the Commons justice committee, Mr. Wernick said the machinery of government was working as intended, traffic was flowing normally and there was absolutely no car crash to be seen. It was just journalists and opposition politicians rubbernecking at a lot of nothing.
He insisted that nobody had sought to unduly or inappropriately influence then-justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould, in an attempt to get her to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s recollection of what happened at the intersection of Justice and SNC-Lavalin could not be more different.
On Wednesday afternoon in Ottawa, the former attorney-general described “a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”
She said the pressure to intervene in the criminal case came from 11 different people. She said it was conveyed via approximately 10 phone calls and 10 meetings, some directly with her and some with her senior advisers. She said the pressure came from the very top – the two most senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Clerk, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.
It is hard to exaggerate the seriousness of this. Her allegations go to the foundations of the Canadian justice system’s independence, and they rise to the highest levels of the government. They are all the more powerful because this accusation against the Trudeau government is being made by one of its most senior members.
Until Wednesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould had said almost nothing since her removal as justice minister and attorney-general, citing limitations placed on her by solicitor-client privilege and by cabinet confidentiality.
She had not said what was behind her unprecedented public letter, issued in January after she was shuffled out of the Justice ministry, in which she felt the need to express the view that “our system of justice must be free from even the perception of political interference,” thereby hinting that during her time in office this had been an issue of more than just theoretical interest. Nor had she explained why, after the Prime Minister said that her continued presence in cabinet as Veterans Affairs minister proved nothing was amiss, she immediately resigned from cabinet.
As a result, although The Globe and Mail had reported on Feb. 7 that Ms. Wilson-Raybould had been put under pressure to intervene in the case of SNC-Lavalin, it was until now unknown precisely who she felt had put pressure on her, or when, where and how this pressure was applied.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Canadians know rather a lot more. Ms. Wilson-Raybould laid it out, chapter and verse.
She said that she and her senior staff were repeatedly contacted by other senior officials, urging her to reach a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin. The law offers the option of crafting such an agreement in corporate criminal cases but, in this instance, the prosecutor and the Director of Public Prosecutions had declined to offer the company such a deal, and Ms. Wilson-Raybould decided against overruling them.
She also believed – correctly – that an attorney-general must not be subject to political pressure from her own government to intervene in matters before the courts. Yet what she described on Wednesday was a sustained, four-month-long campaign to influence her, first to intervene and then, once she had decided not to intervene, to get her to change her mind.
It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of these allegations. All of the people she has named, including the PM’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts, his chief of staff Katie Telford and the Prime Minister himself, must give a full and complete answer. There is no avoiding it.
Canadians can neither move along nor look away. Nor can the government. What has been alleged is just too big.