In June of 2017, Kathleen Roussel sat before a House of Commons justice committee with a promotion on the line.
Having served as deputy director of the Public Prosecution Service for four years, and already acting as top prosecutor, Ms. Roussel had all but been formally appointed as the service’s next director.
She faced an array of questions that day including one about the independence of her office.
“The Attorney-General is kept informed of issues of general interest, but unless she chooses to intervene, the final decisions on how to bring matters forward and the guidance to give prosecutors are mine," she replied.
“In terms of assuring the independence, I think the statute has set that up quite nicely, and in practice it’s not an issue that arises very often.”
Fast-forward to 2019 and Ms. Roussel has been thrust into the national spotlight over the very issue of independence. Ms. Roussel’s name has featured prominently in testimony from high-profile officials over her role in SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.’s attempt to avoid a criminal trial on fraud and bribery charges. And her office has come under fire in an Ottawa court in recent months, with defence lawyers in the trial of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman questioning the independence of Crown prosecutors.
The 51-year-old lawyer is described by colleagues as someone who cares deeply about the law and also someone who wants to do the right thing.
In the case of SNC-Lavalin, Ms. Roussel made the decision not to grant the company a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA). Former attorney-general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she faced pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office and other government officials to intervene in the matter.
In an e-mail exchange with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Roussel would not comment on any matters involving SNC-Lavalin because the criminal proceedings against the company are currently before the courts.
But those who know Ms. Roussel say that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have understood that the top prosecutor considered the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution with great care.
Her job is a weighty one. As the director of public prosecutions, she’s also responsible for more than 1,000 employees.
Her mandate includes initiating and conducting federal prosecutions, issuing guidelines to federal prosecutors, intervening in proceedings that raise a question of public interest that could affect the conduct of prosecutions or investigations, and providing advice to law-enforcement agencies on matters relating to prosecutions and on investigations.
Paul Boothe, a former deputy minister of Environment Canada who worked with Ms. Roussel from 2010-2012, said she is “very fair” and someone who can see all sides of an argument, but is “very focused on the law.”
“The other thing I would say about her is she is fearless,” he said.
Mr. Boothe said that when the department was dealing with hot files with private-sector firms, Ms. Roussel was never intimidated or unsettled, even during tough discussions.
“Over all, I would say I worked with some great lawyers during my career in Ottawa but none better than Kathleen,” he said.
A public prosecutor, granted anonymity by The Globe because they were not authorized to speak about Ms. Roussel, said she comes from humble beginnings. The prosecutor described her as a small-town girl who moved around − a hard worker and a straight shooter.
There’s a strong sense among public prosecutors, the individual said, that she has their back. The prosecutor said she’s independent and accountable.
In her decision on SNC-Lavalin, Ms. Roussel was considering a relatively new tool, with the DPA Act only recently receiving royal assent in June.
Earlier this month, as part of a series of House of Commons justice committee hearings on the SNC-Lavalin affair, deputy minister of justice Nathalie Drouin, told MPs that when the DPA Act was developed, “it was clear for everyone that the authorities under the act should be used on an exceptional basis, not to put in danger the independence of any prosecutors.”
“I think this is why we don’t have any precedents at the federal level or in Quebec, where we do have a similar regime. That does not mean that it should never be used, but it should be used with a lot of care,” she said.
Ms. Roussel told The Globe that she spent the majority of her youth in Hawkesbury, a small town about an hour east of Ottawa.
“I will say that it had the advantage of allowing me a bilingual upbringing, such that I was able to learn English at an early age. That has obviously served me well,” Ms. Roussel said.
Ms. Roussel said that by the time she graduated high school, she wanted to become a lawyer and focus on criminal law.
“While I have practised in other areas in government, I have never lost that interest,” Ms. Roussel said.
She defended the independence of her office last month after allegations of political interference were raised in an Ottawa court by one of Vice-Adm. Norman’s defence lawyers.
Defence lawyer Christine Mainville questioned the independence of federal prosecutors by taking issue with the fact that notes from meetings between the prosecutors and the Privy Council Office had been redacted. Justice Heather Perkins-McVey weighed in, saying, “So much for the independence of the PPSC.”
The PPSC issued a statement seeking to clarify the context of the conversations between its counsel and the counsel for the Privy Council Office. And for her part, Ms. Roussel stated that she is “confident that our prosecutors, in this and every other case, exercise their discretion independently and free from any political or partisan consideration.”
Stephen Kelly said he worked with Ms. Roussel at Environment Canada while he was chief of staff for a former environment minister – the late Jim Prentice – in 2008, and called her “very impressive.”
“She was always sort of straight up in terms of her advice for the minister, unwavering in terms of her commitment to adhere to the letter of the law and very persuasive in terms of her arguments and in support of the positions that she would adopt,” he said.
“If you had any discussions on matter of law, Kathleen is very clear and articulate in terms of where she’s coming from on any given case and is very consistent in terms of her character.”