Canada, you have a problem. A big one.
You have a prime minister in office — a position that wields tremendous, almost dictatorial powers — who still believes (despite overwhelming scholarly and expert legal opinion to the contrary) it’s perfectly acceptable for a first minister to politically interfere in a criminal prosecution case.
No matter an explosive and damning ethics commissioner report released this week confirms everything about how Trudeau, his staff, political staff from other departments, at least two other cabinet ministers, and the highest-ranking civil servant in the government of Canada at the time, doggedly went after then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to overrule a decision in the criminal prosecution of Montreal-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
No matter ethics commissioner Mario Dion found Trudeau’s attempt to influence the case was improper and violated the basic tenets of prosecutorial independence, as well as section 9 of the federal Conflict of Interest Act.
Trudeau, like a poker-faced child with crumbs smeared all over his cheeks insisting he didn’t touch the cookie jar, still says he did nothing wrong. He was just "standing up for Canadians."
Not surprisingly, the prime minister won’t apologize for his role as ringleader.
Even if he did, Canadians need a lot more than an apology at this point.
They need an assurance the highest-ranking officials in the federal government respect the rule of law and the independence of the prosecution branch. They need an iron-clad commitment from government that they don’t live in a banana republic, where politicians can direct criminal prosecutions to punish their enemies and protect political friends. They need to know the integrity of the justice system and the independence of the judiciary is intact.
They can’t get that assurance from Trudeau, because he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.
Trudeau believes it’s perfectly acceptable for a prime minister to repeatedly badger an attorney general — and by connection, the director of public prosecutions — to alter a decision on whether to prosecute someone, or some entity, that has been charged with a serious criminal offence.
He also believes there’s nothing wrong with his office meeting secretly and regularly with a company facing such charges that is trying to find a way out of them (one of the many revelations in the Dion report).
If prosecuting an alleged crime means losing jobs (especially if the accused is a large, influential corporation), it’s perfectly legitimate — in Trudeau’s world — for the prime minister to get personally involved in the case.
“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. The evidence abundantly shows that Mr. Trudeau knowingly sought to influence Ms. Wilson-Raybould both directly and through actions of his agents.” — Ethics commissioner Mario Dion
There’s no longer any doubt Trudeau improperly interfered in the SNC-Lavalin case. By his own admission, as far back as March, Trudeau said he tried to change Wilson-Raybould’s mind on the decision not to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
Now, after reviewing hundreds of pages of documentation and interviewing numerous witnesses — including Trudeau — Dion has confirmed virtually every aspect of the story, and uncovered more.
"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," wrote Dion. "The evidence abundantly shows that Mr. Trudeau knowingly sought to influence Ms. Wilson-Raybould both directly and through actions of his agents."
Was that improper? Did it violate prosecutorial independence and undermine the integrity of the attorney general’s office?
Yes and yes, according to Dion.
Are there any circumstances where it’s acceptable for a prime minister or cabinet to interfere in a criminal prosecution, to initiate repeated contact with an attorney general with the goal of changing a decision on a prosecution? For any reason? No.
"It is not for Mr. Trudeau, or for me, of for any other administrative body to judge whether an attorney general has properly or sufficiently considered the public interest in matters of criminal prosecution or, for that matter, any other aspect of their decision-making process" wrote Dion.
"Absent an abuse of process, even courts are reluctant to adjudicate on issues involving the exercise of prosecutorial discretion."
Yet, Canada’s prime minister still responds with his best "who, me?"
If Trudeau believes what he did is acceptable, given the opportunity, he may try it again.
That’s the scary part of this affair.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.