OTTAWA—Former cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould asked to meet with the Liberal cabinet and spoke to her former colleagues Tuesday, a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top aide resigned.
Trudeau told reporters she asked to attend the meeting, but said that their discussions are covered by cabinet confidence.
Wilson-Raybould then took her usual seat on the government front benches in the Commons.
It was just the latest surprising development in a growing controversy, and it came as the government faces calls by the Opposition for a judicial inquiry.
Wilson-Raybould, who quit cabinet last week, shocked reporters when she emerged and broke her silence for the first time in two weeks since allegations she faced political pressure in a criminal case.
But she didn’t say much.
“The rules and laws around privilege, around confidentiality, around my responsibility as a Member of Parliament, my ethical and professional responsibilities as a lawyer, are layered and incredibly complicated,” Wilson-Raybould said.
The meeting came as Trudeau faced stunned cabinet ministers and a blistering NDP call for a public inquiry Tuesday, a day after his principal secretary Gerald Butts resigned amid allegations of political interference by the Prime Minister’s Office in a criminal case.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who along with Butts and Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford had led the talks to renegotiate NAFTA, appeared to be reeling from the news of Butts’s sudden departure.
“It’s obviously a sad moment for me and his many friends and people who really admired the tremendous work he’s done for Canada,” said Freeland.
“Having said that, you know, our work goes on, as Gerry said in his own letter.”
“All I can say is I have an enormous amount of respect for Gerry Butts and I know Gerry has an enormous amount of respect for Canadian institutions,” said Finance Minister Bill Morneau. “My sense is that he’s decided, and I think appropriately, to defend himself against people saying things that just aren’t true.”
Butts was not specifically named in a Globe and Mail report Feb. 7 that first reported claims by unnamed sources that Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her job as justice minister because she resisted pressure by unidentified senior PMO officials to cut a deal that would avoid criminal liability in a fraud and bribery case against Quebec-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
Nevertheless, questions continue to swirl, as do demands that the government release Wilson-Raybould from any promises of confidentiality in order to clear the air. The Liberal-dominated Commons justice committee meets Tuesday afternoon to decide whether to expand its own probe.
And the entire Liberal caucus will soon face a bigger test, possibly as early as Wednesday, of its confidence in the government’s handling of the affair.
New Democratic Party ethics critic Charlie Angus tabled a motion Tuesday that will now force the Liberal caucus to vote on whether the entire affair should be examined publicly by a federally appointed judge, much as the sponsorship scandal in the early 2000s was.
The NDP motion reads that the House of Commons “call on the Prime Minister to waive solicitor-client privilege for the former Attorney General with respect to allegations of interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin; and urge the government to launch a public inquiry, under the Inquiries Act, in order to provide Canadians with the transparency and accountability promised by the Liberals in the 2015 election campaign.”
In introducing the motion as the cabinet met in West Block, Angus said the SNC-Lavalin allegations of “corruption” and “cronyism” have led to a “corrosion of public confidence.”
“We are here to restore public confidence,” he said.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told the Commons that his MPs would support the NDP motion. Scheer said “the way in which the story unfolded” shows the SNC-Lavalin matter “is not an ordinary scandal, and suggests something more sinister is at play.”
Scheer said that Trudeau’s office may have breached laws against obstruction of justice.
The allegations, said Angus, come down to four accusations: that the prime minister’s office tried to shut down the legal case of corruption against SNC-Lavalin; that the PMO demoted, punished and then subjected Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous woman, to a smear campaign; that a powerful lobby campaign led by SNC-Lavalin drove the government to jam a legislative change into an omnibus bill “to specifically protect SNC-Lavalin from legal consequences”; and that the Liberal government has succumbed to a “culture of insider access.”
In a letter he released Monday, Gerald Butts said he resigned as Trudeau’s principal secretary so his presence would not distract from the “vital work” of the government.
Butts “categorically denied” allegations made by the unnamed sources in the Globe and Mail report that anyone in the PMO pressured Wilson-Raybould to cut a deal with SNC-Lavalin.
And while the newspaper report did not identify who applied the pressure, Trudeau and Butts have conceded that they each spoke personally to Wilson-Raybould about the file.
Trudeau says he told his justice minister the decision whether to direct the prosecution was “hers alone” when he spoke to her on Sept. 17. The public prosecutor rejected a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin on Oct. 9.
Butts spoke to her on Dec. 5. The PMO says Wilson-Raybould raised the subject with Butts, and that he told her to talk to the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick.
Wernick heads the privy council, the central co-ordinating department of the entire government, and is the top public servant who serves as Trudeau’s deputy minister. Wernick declined the Star’s request to say what he told Wilson-Taybould.
On Tuesday, several Liberals hoped for a swift end to the controversy.
“Obviously everyone, every Canadian, all of us, we want to shed some lights on the recent events,” said Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne. “I’m very happy personally that the ethic commissioner, which is impartial and independent, has taken the task to bring the light to that. We as the government will continue to focus on what matters to Canadians.”
Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said he was “grateful for Mr Butts’s service. He’s been remarkably effective at guiding this government towards the type of policies that make a big impact for Canadians.”
Duclos also indicated he did not believe there was any wrongdoing.
Asked if Wilson-Raybould should be allowed to speak, Duclos said, “Listen, for me, it’s something that seems clear enough right now, that the prime minister has said since the beginning, that there was no pressure or direction to follow on this file.
“The government must respect the independence of the judicial proceedings. It’s always been the policy that we have followed up to now.”
with files from Bruce Campion-Smith
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc