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Politics Trudeau rejects calls for apology on SNC-Lavalin in wake of Ethics Commissioner’s report

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during Acadian Day festivities in Dieppe, N.B., where the two were greeting supports on Aug. 15, 2019.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maintains he does not need to say he is sorry for violating the Conflict of Interest Act with his improper involvement in the SNC-Lavalin affair, even as two of his former cabinet ministers say Canadians deserve an apology.

“You apologize when you did something wrong,” Mr. Trudeau said in an interview with The Globe in New Brunswick. “What I did in this situation was do my very best to stand up for Canadian jobs, while at the same time doing everything I could to protect the integrity of our judicial system.”

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion released a report on Wednesday that said the Prime Minister wrongly used his position of authority over Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general in an attempt to get her to override the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions to proceed with a criminal trial against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

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In separate interviews with The Globe on Thursday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and her former cabinet colleague Jane Philpott said Mr. Trudeau owes Canadians an apology for overseeing his government’s efforts to obtain a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for the Quebec engineering giant.

Retired Supreme Court judge John Major says it was only 'logical’ for SNC-Lavalin to seek senior legal help

Opinion: Can prosecutorial independence and the public interest ever truly be reconciled?

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A DPA would allow prosecutors to suspend criminal proceedings against companies charged with white-collar crimes in exchange for a negotiated settlement. The legal tool, which the Liberals enacted into law in 2018, has never been used in Canada.

“Honestly, for a Prime Minister that has been very open and gracious about apologizing for so many things, I can’t understand why this is not something that he would apologize for,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould told The Globe.

“I think the Prime Minister’s defence of jobs seeks to avoid actually having the conversation about what the Ethics Commissioner was speaking about.”

Ms. Philpott, who resigned from cabinet in March saying she had lost confidence in the government’s handling of the matter, echoed Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s comments. “No one would ask an official to apologize for standing up for people’s jobs,” Ms. Philpott said. “That’s not the violation that we’re worried about. It’s the fact that he undertook to advance the interests of a private corporation and use the powers of his office to do so.”

Mr. Trudeau expelled both women from the Liberal caucus in April. They have said they will run as Independents in the Oct. 21 election.

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.

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Mr. Trudeau said he disagrees with the commissioner’s conclusions. Still, he said he accepts the need for “more rigorous protocols” when it comes to communications between government officials and the attorney-general. “When a prime minister wants to say to the attorney-general, ‘You need to take into account this or that,’ that should be in writing,” he told The Globe. “The attorney-general should give a response in writing. Then you don’t get miscommunications, body language, the kinds of things that ended up being very complicated in this situation.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled to Veterans Affairs in January and resigned from cabinet after the SNC-Lavalin affair came to light in February, said she was disappointed to read the Prime Minister’s characterization of her performance as attorney-general in his testimony to the ethics watchdog. The report said Mr. Trudeau called Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s decision-making process “inadequate and infected by legal misunderstanding and political motivation.” In the face of what she described as “continuous personal attacks,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould defended her tenure as attorney-general and said she sought to uphold judicial independence.

The commissioner’s 58-page report, based on the testimony of 14 witnesses and hundreds of pages of evidence, returned the SNC-Lavalin affair to the forefront of political debate with the election looming. The chair of the ethics committee of the House, Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, called an emergency meeting for Wednesday. The goal is to receive a briefing from Mr. Dion, but Liberal MPs could shut the meeting down with their majority on the committee.

The report unearthed communications between top government officials and SNC-Lavalin representatives, including a previously undisclosed 2016 meeting between the Prime Minister and the company’s then-chief executive, Neil Bruce. It introduced new players and fleshed out the role of those whose involvement was on the public record, but whose precise efforts were not known.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is repeating his message on the SNC-Lavalin affair: he’s not about to apologize for what he calls standing up for Canadian jobs, communities and citizens. During an event in Fredericton Thursday, Trudeau reiterated that he accepts the report from the federal ethics commissioner and takes full responsibility for what happened. The Canadian Press

Among those people was Finance Minister Bill Morneau. He initiated at least one meeting with the company and met with SNC-Lavalin representatives in Switzerland and China in 2018.

In Toronto on Thursday, Mr. Morneau reiterated the government’s position that the efforts to spare SNC-Lavalin from a conviction were in the name of saving jobs. “What my role as Minister of Finance is – what the role of my department is – is to look at the interests of Canadians,” he said.

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Montreal’s SNC-Lavalin has more than 50,000 employees, 9,000 of them in Canada. Of those, about 3,400 are in Quebec, 3,000 are in Ontario and 1,000 are in British Columbia. The company, which has a history of legal woes, is facing charges related to its business dealings in Libya between 2001 and 2011. A conviction could lead to a 10-year debarment from federal contracts in Canada, and possibly by the World Bank, which provides financial support to most major infrastructure projects in developing countries. Although such deals are common in the United States and elsewhere, a DPA for SNC-Lavalin would become Canada’s benchmark case.

The company undertook what Michael Wernick, the country’s top civil servant until he retired amid the controversy earlier this year, has called the “most extensive government-relations effort in modern times” to have a DPA law established and work in its favour. Despite the efforts of the company and top government officials, Director of Public Prosecutions Kathleen Roussel opted not to negotiate a DPA with SNC-Lavalin. Ms. Wilson-Raybould had the power to override that decision, but refused to do so.

“The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the director of public prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson-Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer,” Mr. Dion’s report said.

Mr. Dion emphasized that legal opinions crafted by former Supreme Court judges were “circulated, and their contents discussed, during ongoing legal proceedings involving the Prosecution Service … unbeknownst to the attorney-general.” Mr. Dion also found that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was unaware – until he told her – that the Prime Minister’s Office and SNC-Lavalin’s legal counsel had “preliminary discussions” with former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin about the possibility of providing advice or acting as a mediator. (The report said Ms. McLachlin expressed reservations and was not retained by the government.)

Ms. Wilson-Raybould called these communication gaps “troubling,” adding that they lead her to wonder what else might secretly have been under way.

“I was shocked – probably reflected in my demeanour in front of the commissioner,” she said.

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that several witnesses – the report says nine – were not able to provide testimony that they deemed relevant to the investigation because the government refused to waive the principle of cabinet confidence. “There are still questions that have no answers.”

With reports from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa and Matthew Lapierre in Toronto

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