The Liberal MP who will oversee hearings into the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair raised the possibility Thursday that she was removed as justice minister and attorney-general earlier this year because she couldn’t speak French.
Anthony Housefather, the chair of the House of Commons justice committee, was speaking to a Montreal radio station, trying to address allegations that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was moved out of the justice portfolio over her refusal to ask prosecutors to shelve a prosecution against Montreal engineering-construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that when she was attorney-general, Ms. Wilson-Raybould had come under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to override the decision of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and stay prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement that would avoid a trial. The company faces fraud and bribery charges stemming from an RCMP investigation into its business dealings in Libya.
SNC-Lavalin is seeking a judicial review of the director of public prosecutions’ decision to move toward a criminal trial.
In mid-January, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted to Veterans Affairs after more than three years as Canada’s justice minister and attorney-general. Opposition parties have alleged Ms. Wilson-Raybould lost her job as justice minister for refusing to grant SNC-Lavalin what amounts to a plea deal.
Mr. Housefather, who represents the Montreal riding of Mount Royal, questioned this accusation.
“The Prime Minister has the undisputed right to choose who is in what cabinet position,” he told radio station CJAD Thursday. “And there’s millions of reasons [why] … people can be shuffled from one position to another.”
He said the federal Justice Department will be required to address numerous matters in Quebec in the months ahead and suggested this might be the motivation for the shuffle: that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needed a fluent French speaker.
“For example that there’s a lot of legal issues coming up in Quebec and the Prime Minister may well have decided he needed a justice minister that could speak French,” Mr. Housefather said. “So the idea that she was shuffled because of this unproven allegation to me is quite ridiculous.”
Later Thursday afternoon on Twitter, however, Mr. Housefather said he had erred by making the comments and that he had no “specific knowledge” of the reasons behind Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s removal from the justice portfolio. In a follow-up tweet 36 minutes later, he apologized to Ms. Wilson-Raybould. “I never should have tried to speculate about something like this.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould has good comprehension of French but cannot speak the language fluently, according to two people familiar with her proficiency.
Deputy Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt said she doesn’t believe Mr. Housefather could be an impartial chair into the hearings regarding the former minister.
“The chairman of the justice and human rights committee told Canadians that the former A-G was not suitable for the job because she didn’t speak French,” Ms. Raitt said. “As every day goes by, he shows his bias in this matter.”
NDP MP Nathan Cullen characterized Mr. Housefather’s comments as desperate.
“This tactic of trying to slander Jody Wilson-Raybould rather than pay attention to the real scandal strikes me as weakness and desperation from this government,” Mr. Cullen said.
Mr. Housefather, reached by phone later Thursday before he had apologized on Twitter, emphasized he had no idea why the MP from British Columbia was moved to Veterans Affairs and was merely hypothesizing.
“All I am saying is there were other logical reasons,” he said.
He listed several matters he considered significant justice issues developing in Quebec, including the Legault government’s proposal for a secular charter that would bar people in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. Another one is the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s plan to raise the minimum age to buy and possess cannabis from 18 to 21.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet earlier this week, only hours after Mr. Trudeau told reporters that her continued presence in cabinet was an indication she was not unhappy with the government.
She said solicitor-client privilege prevents her from speaking publicly on the matter.
On Wednesday, the governing Liberals used their voting majority on the House of Commons justice committee to quash opposition efforts to name several key players as witnesses in hearings on the Wilson-Raybould controversy, including the former minister herself, as well as Mr. Trudeau’s two most senior staff members.
Liberal MPs declined to hear the opposition proposal for the hearings and rejected all attempted amendments by the Conservatives and NDP. The opposition parties had wanted to call Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and chief of staff, Katie Telford, among others, as witnesses.
Instead, the Liberals passed a motion that would broaden the hearings – away from strictly targeting accounts that the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to shelve a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a negotiated settlement. This issue will now be folded into a larger study that includes an examination of the settlement option and the Shawcross doctrine, a legal standard the Liberals have invoked in defending their conduct in the Wilson-Raybould matter.