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Politics Opposition MPs want ethics commissioner to testify at parliamentary committee on SNC-Lavalin

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion. (File Photo).

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Opposition MPs are putting pressure on the Liberals to hear from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion and up to nine witnesses who have been prevented from testifying because of cabinet confidentiality on the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The Conservative and NDP parties have joined forces to call a meeting of the ethics committee of the House on Wednesday to hear immediately from Mr. Dion, before hearing from other individuals with knowledge of the backroom machinations involving the engineering firm.

In a report released last week, Mr. Dion found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by using his authority over former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to press her to overrule the Director of Public Prosecution’s decision not to negotiate a deal with SNC-Lavalin that would avoid criminal prosecution.

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Mr. Trudeau said he disagrees with the commissioner’s conclusions and has refused to apologize for his actions.

It is not known whether the Liberal MPs on the committee will allow the meeting to occur or whether they will use their majority to shut down the hearing. The justice committee of the House held five days of hearings into the SNC-Lavalin affair in February and March, but Liberal MPs subsequently rejected opposition efforts to hear additional testimony either at the justice or ethics committees.

With an election call coming within the next month, Parliament only has a short time frame to hear from Mr. Dion and other officials before the dissolution of Parliament.

In particular, the opposition parties want to find out more details about nine witnesses who could not provide testimony to Mr. Dion, because they were constrained by the principle of cabinet confidentiality. While Mr. Dion finished his report without hearing from these individuals, the opposition is arguing that Canadians deserve to hear their testimony before they cast their ballot on Oct. 21.

“It’s time to end the cover-up,” Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said. “We want to know what Trudeau was hiding when he blocked those witnesses from telling the truth. … Canadians have every right to see all of the information.”

According to the Ethics Commissioner’s report, the decision on cabinet confidence was made by the Privy Council Office, which is the top bureaucratic agency in Ottawa. Last week, Mr. Trudeau said he agreed with the approach taken by his government officials.

“The decision by the Privy Council to not further extend into less relevant or non-relevant elements of cabinet confidentiality or solicitor-client privilege is an important one that maintains the integrity of our institutions and our capacity to function as a government without setting troublesome or worrisome precedents,” he said at a news conference.

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NDP MP Charlie Angus said that Liberal MPs must uphold tradition and agree to hear from Mr. Dion. The previous ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson, spoke at the committee last year after she found Mr. Trudeau broke ethics rules by accepting a free family vacation in the Bahamas on an island belonging to the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims.

“At the very least, they need to allow Mr. Dion to testify, otherwise they are turning our ethics committee into a kangaroo court,” Mr. Angus said. “It would look very bad for them to carry on this pattern of interference with the work of Parliament to protect the Prime Minister’s involvement in this scandal.”

Most Liberal MPs on the committee could not be reached for comment. In an e-mail, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who represents the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, said he will not make any comments before Wednesday’s meeting.

The Ethics Commissioner’s report provided new details on the extent of the involvement of the Prime Minister and his top officials, including previously undisclosed meetings with SNC-Lavalin representatives, and discussions – unbeknownst to Ms. Wilson-Raybould – with a former Supreme Court chief justice.

Jane Philpott, the former president of the treasury board, refused to state last week whether she was one of the witnesses who could not speak with Mr. Dion. She resigned from cabinet earlier this year over the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin matter.

“When the Ethics Commissioner contacts people, it’s my understanding that ordinarily he asks them not to reveal that he has made a request and so none of those people are at liberty to say whether or not they were contacted," she said.

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Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who did participate in the investigation, said he agreed with the decision to limit who could speak to the Ethics Commissioner.

“The decision to waive some cabinet confidentiality and attorney-client privilege is a tough decision, but we did that carefully to make sure that we had the right information and at the same time make sure that our system works for the long term. So I think we’ve struck an important balance,” he said last week.

With reports from Matthew Lapierre and Michelle Zilio

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