Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s close friend and most trusted adviser, Gerald Butts, resigned abruptly as principal secretary Monday, 11 days after The Globe and Mail reported that senior officials put pressure on former justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to shelve criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
With a federal election in the fall, Mr. Butts’s departure deprives the Liberal government of the architect of not only the party’s leap from third-party status to majority government in 2015 but also of Mr. Trudeau’s political career.
Mr. Butts, who wielded more power than any cabinet minister in Ottawa, said he resigned to protect the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) from charges of political influence in a criminal case. This “accusation,” as he called it, “should not take one moment away from the vital work the Prime Minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.”
The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that when she was justice minister and attorney-general, Ms. Wilson-Raybould came under pressure from the PMO to instruct federal prosecutors to offer SNC-Lavalin a a remediation agreement – also known as a deferred prosecution agreement – in order to avoid a trial.
Those discussions took place before and after SNC-Lavalin announced on Oct. 10 that Kathleen Roussel, the director of the Public Prosecutions Service of Canada, had rejected such an agreement. The Montreal-based engineering and construction giant faces bribery and fraud charges stemming from an RCMP investigation into its business dealings in Libya.
Mr. Butts rejected any suggestion he or anyone in the Trudeau PMO put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
“I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in his office pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould,” Mr. Butts said in a statement. “We honoured the unique role of the Attorney General. At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, whom Mr. Trudeau demoted to Veterans Affairs in a shuffle in early January, resigned from cabinet last Tuesday, saying she had retained former Supreme Court of Canada justice Thomas Cromwell to determine what she can talk about within the confines of solicitor-client privilege over the SNC-Lavalin affair.
She resigned within hours of Mr. Trudeau telling reporters that her continued presence in cabinet showed she was not unhappy with his government. Ms. Wilson-Raybould could not be reached for comment on Mr. Butts’s resignation.
Along with chief of staff Katie Telford, Mr. Butts has been at Mr. Trudeau’s side since he ran for the Liberal leadership in 2013, and was a key architect of the party’s election victory in 2015. The two top aides had planned to take a leave of absence from the PMO this summer to run the October election campaign.
A senior government source said no decision had been made on a replacement for Mr. Butts. The source did not know whether Mr. Butts would now play a formal role in the election campaign.
In the past month, Mr. Trudeau has also lost his ambassador to China, John McCallum, over comments on detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and Treasury Board president Scott Brison, who departed for a job with a major bank.
In a tweet on Monday, Mr. Trudeau saluted his long-time friend, saying Mr. Butts served “this government – and our country – with integrity, sage advice and devotion.”
Mr. Butts’s departure comes just as the Commons justice committee is to begin hearings into deferred-prosecution agreements and opposition parties had been asking for the now-former principal secretary to answer questions on political interference in the SNC-Lavalin case. The committee is meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday to discuss other possible witnesses, the timeline for the meetings and the potential effect on continuing court proceedings of this probe.
Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has also launched his own probe into the matter.
A senior government official, speaking on background because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the matter, said Mr. Butts was willing to testify for Mr. Dion’s probe – which is conducted behind closed doors – but he could not say if the former Trudeau aide would answer questions for the House justice committee if he was asked to testify.
Deputy Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt said Mr. Butt’s departure makes it look as though the Liberal government is worried about what Ms. Wilson-Raybould might say if she were allowed to speak.
“Clearly something Jody Wilson-Raybould is going to say is going to be impactful and that is why the No. 1 guy in Justin Trudeau’s office has taken upon itself to resign,” Ms. Raitt said.
Mr. Butts’s exit is renewing efforts by opposition parties to persuade Mr. Trudeau to waive solicitor-client privilege so Ms. Wilson-Raybould tell Canadians what happened.
“The sudden resignation of Justin Trudeau’s closest political adviser is the clearest indication yet that there is much more to the SNC-Lavalin Affair than the Prime Minister has so far admitted,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in a statement. “It is now more important than ever before that Mr. Trudeau waive solicitor-client privilege so Jody Wilson-Raybould can tell her side of the story to Canadians.”
Conservative senators are also seeking to persuade independent senators to conduct a separate inquiry and to use the Senate’s subpoena powers to call all the key players in the SNC-Lavalin affair to testify.
Quebec Senator Claude Carignan said Monday in an interview that it was clear to him the Commons justice committee was unable to hold unbiased hearings into the affair. The Conservative senator described that committee’s preliminary hearing last week as “a zoo.” At that hearing, the Liberal majority voted to hold the committee’s next meeting in secret and did not agree to invite Ms. Wilson-Raybould to testify.
“The Senate is more appropriate, because it is more non-partisan,” Mr. Carignan said. Mr. Scheer has also suggested the Senate might be a better forum for examining events surrounding Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s departure.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his MPs will table a motion in Parliament seeking a public inquiry headed by an independent judge.
“We’re calling for an independent public inquiry into this corporate prosecution scandal – because Canadians deserve to know if their government is working for them or for a massive corporation with deep ties to the Liberal Party,” Mr. Singh said.
New Democratic Party MP Nathan Cullen said Mr. Butts’s resignation and denials will do nothing to convince Canadians that there was not untoward pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
“He should expect to be subpoenaed” by the Commons justice committee, Mr. Cullen said in an interview. “If you are innocent of all accusations, you don’t tend to quit your job. And this was the most powerful person within this government outside of the Prime Minister himself. The Liberals keep denying with their words but keep convincing me with their actions that this scandal is real and this goes deep.”
Bill Wilson, Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief and Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s father, said what has unfolded over the past week is an indication that “pressure was applied to his daughter.”
“I was extremely surprised that the senior most powerful unelected official in the Canadian government should see fit to resign, but obviously we are getting closer and closer to the truth,” he said. “For him to resign from something I am sure he worked all his life to [attain] is incredible.”
Mr. Trudeau acknowledged last week that he had direct talks with Ms. Wilson-Raybould on Sept. 17, but said he never directed her to abandon the prosecution; he said he merely expressed concerns from Quebec about possible job losses if SNC-Lavalin was convicted of allegations of paying bribes to Libyan officials in exchange for contracts. A conviction would mean a 10-year ban from federal contracts.
Mr. Butts, who had met with representatives of SNC-Lavalin, discussed the deferred prosecution agreement with Ms. Wilson Raybould on Dec. 5 in the restaurant of the Château Laurier hotel.
The PMO said Ms. Wilson-Raybould raised the deferred prosecution agreement with Mr. Butts and he told her to take the matter up with Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council.
Earlier last week, the Prime Minister told reporters that she had a responsibility to raise concerns with him if she was being put under pressure but she did not say anything.
On Friday, he added that he only removed Ms. Wilson-Raybould from her job as justice minister and attorney-general because of the departure of Mr. Brison from cabinet. He did not explain why it was necessary to move Ms. Wilson-Raybould in the Jan. 14 shuffle.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said the resignation of a top political official will do nothing to end the controversy.
“This issue is clearly on the doorstep of the Prime Minister himself,” he said in an interview Monday. “This is a desperate move by the Prime Minister’s office to put this scandal to bed, but it is not going to work. Canadians deserve answers.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould has received strong support from Indigenous leaders, particularly in B.C., where she served as the regional chief for the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. Her treatment by the Prime Minister is damaging to Indigenous relations, Chief Phillip said.
“She is held in the highest regard that one could imagine,” he said. “Her successes are celebrated across the country, right down to the grassroots level.”
With files from Justine Hunter, John Ibbitson and Les Perreaux