It is wrong to conclude, based on allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office pressured the Justice Minister to drop bribery and fraud charges against SNC-Lavalin, that ours is no longer a country governed by the rule of law. Don’t write that letter of apology to Xi Jinping just yet.
But what has been called into question is whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is as committed to its defence as he likes to boast, and whether his office tried to pressure the cabinet minister responsible for upholding the law into bending it.
The Prime Minister must explain what happened, but so far he has only made matters worse by playing semantic games. Mr. Trudeau said repeatedly last week that his office did not “direct” the former justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to cut a deal with SNC-Lavalin so it could avoid prosecution on charges of bribery and fraud related to business dealings in Libya between 2001 and 2011.
The Globe and Mail report that he was responding to didn’t make that claim. It said that Ms. Wilson-Raybould “came under pressure to persuade the Public Prosecution Service of Canada" to let SNC-Lavalin reach a negotiated “remediation agreement” instead of going to trial.
Last October, the federal director of public prosecutions declined to negotiate a remediation agreement, putting SNC-Lavalin in a difficult spot. If convicted on the bribery charges laid under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, current federal policy says it could be banned from doing business with Ottawa for 10 years.
That might result in such a significant loss of business for the Montreal-based engineering giant as to put its continued existence into question.
Those worries explain why, starting in 2017, SNC-Lavalin repeatedly lobbied PMO officials on the topics of “justice” and “law enforcement," according to the federal lobby registry. The company held 14 meetings with various PMO officials, including Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary.
It didn’t work. Sources told The Globe that Ms. Wilson-Raybould “blew off” requests from the PMO to get the federal prosecution service to accept a remediation agreement.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould is the other key person who must explain what happened. In her dual role as justice minister and attorney-general, it was her responsibility to advise the government to follow the law. Was she pressed to do anything contrary to law or ethics?
Ms. Wilson-Raybould was widely seen as a solid justice minister, shepherding such complex legislation as the law on assisted death and the legalization of marijuana. Then, in January, she was abruptly demoted to Veterans Affairs.
As she left, she wrote an unprecedented public letter in which she spoke of how it is a “pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference,” and hinted that she was speaking from recent experience. It was hard to understand what she was talking about.
Until last week, that is, when the allegations about SNC-Lavalin and the PMO provided a new context. Her demotion is the smoking gun in this scandal.
The federal government has a legitimate reason to be concerned about what might happen to SNC-Lavalin in the event of a conviction. There are jobs in Quebec at risk and innocent shareholders to protect.
And there are legitimate questions worth debating about whether a company should be prosecuted criminally for actions taken many years ago under different management.
But if the goal was a deferred prosecution, there were better ways of getting that result. For instance, Ms. Wilson-Raybould could have overruled the prosecution office, as long as she did it in writing and a notice about it was published in the Canada Gazette. It would have been controversial, but it would not have been a case of underhanded subversion.
The government could have also allowed the prosecution to proceed but reconsidered the policy that bans companies convicted under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act from doing business with Ottawa.
Instead, we have evidence that the Prime Minister and his office chose subterfuge over sunny ways.
The principles of justice are still intact in Canada, thanks to Ms. Wilson-Raybould. What has been called into question is Mr. Trudeau’s reputation as their defender. He has a lot of questions to answer. He owes Canadians a full explanation.