November 15, 2019

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Trudeau ready to fire back following Wilson-Raybould's resignation

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/2/2019 (275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/2/2019 (275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was with some measure of irony Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose a Winnipeg Transit garage to throw his former justice minister under a bus.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trudeau stood in the middle of Winnipeg Transit's Fort Rouge garage, near a podium festooned with a "Building Canada" sign, to confirm a federal grant to modernize the facility.

The event was a pretty lame example of pre-fabricated political theatre. Lamentably for Mayor Brian Bowman and other city officials in attendance, nobody wanted to talk about transit.

Instead, the journalists who had gathered wanted to talk about Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice and veterans affairs minister, and her announcement that morning that she was resigning from cabinet.

For several days, Trudeau has faced hard questions about whether he or any of his senior staff tried to pressure Wilson-Raybould to abandon a criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., a Quebec-based engineering firm that has been charged with bribing foreign governments to secure contracts.

Trudeau has consistently denied he or any of his people acted improperly. Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled out of the justice portfolio last month and into veterans affairs, has so far refused to comment publicly on the allegations.

However, her resignation clearly put the prime minister on the defensive — and he used his Winnipeg visit to try and deflect attention.

Trudeau said repeatedly he was "surprised and disappointed" about Wilson-Raybould's decision to resign. He said the resignation was "not consistent with conversations I had with Jody weeks ago... nor is it consistent with the conversations we've had lately."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he was "surprised and disappointed" by Jody Wilson-Raybould's resignation.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he was "surprised and disappointed" by Jody Wilson-Raybould's resignation.

Previously, Trudeau had said when the then-justice minister raised the SNC-Lavalin case directly with him, he told her any decisions were "hers alone" to make. However, surrounded by Winnipeg Transit buses, Trudeau went even further.

"If anybody felt differently, they had an obligation to raise that with me," Trudeau said several times. "No one, including Jody, did that."

In that moment, surrounded by freshly washed buses, it was clear Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould were adversaries in this evolving political melodrama. If Wilson-Raybould was going to use her resignation to add fuel to the fire surrounding the SNC-Lavalin case, Trudeau was apparently ready to fire back.

The broad strokes of this story could not be more unflattering or potentially damaging for the Trudeau government and the Liberal party in these critical months leading up to this fall's federal election.

The scenario that has been alleged is one we've heard before: a prime minister from Quebec using back channels to help an influential and well-connected company in his vote-rich, home province in the prelude to a federal vote.

Trudeau denies he or the Prime Minister's Office acted improperly. Wilson-Raybould has so far refused to comment publicly on the allegations.

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Trudeau denies he or the Prime Minister's Office acted improperly. Wilson-Raybould has so far refused to comment publicly on the allegations.

Although the specifics are quite different, the SNC-Lavalin affair evokes memories of the Quebec sponsorship scandal — which involved the illicit misuse of funds by Liberal operatives earmarked to promote the federal government in Quebec — that ultimately brought the Liberals to the edge of extinction in the early 2000s. To a lesser extent, there are echoes of Shawinigate, which involved allegations then-prime minister Jean Chrétien directly intervened to help a hotel in his riding.

In this case, however, Trudeau may prove to be an elusive target. A close look at the facts reveals a number of outs the prime minister still has at his disposal.

First and foremost, the federal justice department has not relented in its criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

It may turn out officials in the Prime Minister's Office did try to get Wilson-Raybould to go easy on SNC-Lavalin. And, as opposition parties have charged, her refusal led to her surprising shuffle out of the justice portfolio in January. Certainly, the public has not received an adequate explanation about why Canada's first Indigenous justice minister was moved to a lesser role.

However, despite the fact SNC-Lavalin asked for access to a deferred prosecution agreement — which would allow the firm to plead guilty and pay a fine but avoid a criminal conviction — federal prosecutors have continued to prosecute the case as a criminal matter. The stakes in this case are high: if SNC-Lavalin is convicted of fraud and corruption charges, the firm would be barred from bidding on federal government contracts.

SNC-Lavalin is currently appealing the justice department's refusal to enter into a deferred prosecution.

The other advantage Trudeau enjoys is the burden Wilson-Raybould is carrying following her resignation.

Despite retaining a legal adviser, she has repeatedly claimed she is unable to publicly discuss the SNC-Lavalin case because of solicitor-client privilege. Opposition critics have asked Trudeau to waive that privilege to allow her to talk. But even then, SNC-Lavalin's appeal is currently before the courts and it would be impractical bordering on improper for a former justice minister to begin spilling her guts until that is resolved.

The wild card may be Trudeau's performance in Winnipeg.

The prime minister adopted an almost fatherly tone as he talked about how disappointed he was about Wilson-Raybould's decision to resign, and the trouble it was causing him. His tone suggested Wilson-Raybould was being unfair, even irrational, and if she had concerns about any aspect of the SNC-Lavalin case, she had a legal responsibility to raise it months earlier.

Ultimately, Wilson-Raybould may not have a smoking gun that implicates the prime minister or his staff. Or she may lack the intestinal fortitude to bring down the Trudeau government.

On the other hand, those folks who have had the misfortune of seeing the underside of a bus will tell you it has a funny way of steeling their resolve.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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