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Trudeau has no one to blame, but himself

By Michael Harris      

Jody Wilson-Raybould has come off looking like a leader in all this, Justin Trudeau a mere cheerleader. The question is, a cheerleader for what?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured Feb. 20, 2019, on his way into a cabinet meeting in the West Block. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—This was the worst week of Justin Trudeau’s short prime ministership, and he has no one to blame but himself.

Not that there haven’t been other bumps along the road. People laughed at ‘Justin Does New Delhi,’ cringed at his luxury holiday on the Aga Khan’s island, and shook their heads over unique coinages like “peoplekind.” But the SNC-Lavalin issue is making them wonder who this guy really is.

If Trudeau and his band of Liberal toadies on the House Justice Committee don’t change course, which means ditching the cynical and insulting attempt to blame Jody Wilson-Raybould for the current crisis, Gerald Butts won’t be the only ex-denizen of the PMO treehouse looking for work.

For almost four hours, Wilson-Raybould surgically and dispassionately removed the inner organs of the government’s claim that nothing untoward has happened here. The ex-minister calmly named names, offered quotes, and gave dates, all the while respecting the quasi waiver that Trudeau claimed “allowed” her to speak freely.

Really? Trudeau, did not, as was widely reported, waive solicitor/client privilege and cabinet confidentiality at all. He merely left the impression that he had. What kind of a “waiver” would silence Wilson-Raybould from speaking about relevant events after she became minister of veterans affairs? Or prevent her from telling Canadians why she resigned? A waiver with no-go zones is not a waiver at all; it is a political dodge.

Nevertheless, Wilson-Raybould sat alone at the table for hours, stoically, patiently, and with pinpoint precision answering questions that were often loaded or ill-informed. The people who asked them on the Liberal side were the prisoners of their talking points. They looked less like truth-seekers than people auditioning for a seat at the Big Table.

Despite their robotic attempts to advance the spurious proposition that Wilson-Raybould was the author of her own misfortune by not reaching out to others about what was bothering her, (she most certainly did) the ex-minister refrained from casting personal aspersions. Instead, she repeatedly stressed that her chronology spoke for itself.

It did.

This is what it said. Several of the most powerful people in this country, including the PM, his most senior PMO staff, the clerk of the Privy Council, and the minister of finance badgered then attorney general Wilson-Raybould about a decision she had already made in the SNC-Lavalin case—a decision perfectly in keeping with her constitutional authority. And they did it long after it was appropriate to do so. You’d think they would realize that no means no.

Simon St. George is a Montreal lawyer and policy analyst who just happens to have written his master’s thesis about deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs). This is what he told me about how the government has conducted itself in this matter:

“I don’t feel this has been normal, especially once the prosecutor has decided to proceed. Let the judicial actors do their jobs, that is what the Supreme Court has said. The alleged crimes of SNC-Lavalin may have been too egregious to justify an invitation to negotiate a DPA.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus shakes Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould’s hand before the House Justice Committee heard her explosive testimony on Feb. 27, 2019. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Both opposition leaders were quick to seize on the gravity of Wilson-Raybould’s stunning testimony. But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pole-vaulted way over the top in his response: the PM had lost his moral authority to govern and ought to resign. Perhaps, but that has hardly been established.

Looking impressive in his first trial by fire, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh acknowledged the seriousness of what happened to Wilson-Raybould. He portrayed Trudeau as the crony of corporations, not the champion of the middle class he is always claiming to be. Unlike Scheer, though, Singh nailed what the response to all this should to be: a public inquiry.

By comparison to the other political leaders,Trudeau’s reaction to Wilson-Raybould’s sober and sobering testimony resembled a stand-up comic who had stumbled into a funeral. The tone was all wrong.

With the now familiar human props representing his rainbow coalition as backdrop, he met the cameras by praising his government’s accomplishments, showing off his new Quebec MP, and babbling about the “clear choice” Canadians would soon have in the coming election.

Although Wilson-Raybould produced credible accounts of multiple “veiled threats” against her when she was AG in charge of the SNC-Lavalin case, Trudeau decided to go into campaign mode. Perhaps he didn’t want to explain why he and several of his most senior officials had raised political issues in an attempt to get Wilson-Raybould to change her mind about negotiating a DPA with Lavalin. The Quebec election, the PM’s own Montreal seat.

Almost as an afterthought, the PM said that he strongly disagreed with Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of the crisis, reassuring Canadians that the Ethics Commissioner was on the case with his investigation. This he managed to say with a straight face.

As for his noncommittal answer on his ex-minister’s future with the party, I would wager there will soon be an empty seat in the Liberal caucus. Some reconciliation.

While the PM was quick to judge Wilson-Raybould, he was more forgiving to the other key player in Jodygate. Totally missing from Trudeau’s support of SNC-Lavalin is any sense of what kind of corporate citizen it has been.

Yes, it employs 8,762 people in Canada. Yes, it is important to Quebec’s economy. But that is the same rationale that prompted the PM to ignore the Khashoggi atrocity—jobs over justice.

SNC-Lavalin is the company that in 2013 agreed that its subsidiary would be banned for 10 years from bidding on any projects funded by the World Bank. That is a rejection of sleaze.

It is the company that was alleged by a former employee to have put a member of the Gadaffi family on the payroll during the Libyan civil war.

And it is the company that allegedly paid for Saadi Gadaffi’s energetic dalliance in the high-end commercial fleshpots of the Great White North in 2008.

As one Independent Senator put it to me: “This is the company who can call upon the federal government to enact legislation in their favour? Should we peons be outraged or just jealous?”

Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, pictured on Feb. 27, 2019, preparing herself before the House Justice Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

As for the argument that SNC-Lavalin has reformed its erstwhile ways, and is therefore eligible for a DPA, Simon St. George made this observation: “The argument by the company that they have cleaned up their act is only one criteria for qualifying for a DPA. In these types of cases, it is more the barrel than bad apples. It is a corporate culture problem, not one of individuals.”

St. George also had this observation about any further fiddling with this file under a new minister.

“It is possible for the minister of justice to intervene, but it is now problematic since the DPP has already decided. Such an action now wouldn’t meet the international standards of judicial independence. There would be political consequences.”

It didn’t take long.

According to the most recent Angus Reid poll on Feb. 26, two-thirds of Canadians think this controversy is a deeper scandal than has so far emerged. The Liberals have dropped seven points behind the Conservatives in this national poll.

Jody Wilson-Raybould has come off looking like a leader in all this, Justin Trudeau a mere cheerleader.

The question is, a cheerleader for what?

Michael Harris is a bestselling author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker.


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