The 37-year public servant grabbed attention from the moment he sat down at the microphone, with an eyebrow raising opening statement expressing concerns about the direction of the country and the “rising tide of incitements to violence” and his fear of political assassination in the coming federal election.
Then Wernick got to the manner at hand as he batted aside the suggestions that the former justice minister was subject to undue influence on the SNC-Lavalin file and if she felt she was, she had ample opportunities to report it but did not.
And he said that Wilson-Raybould is not bound by solicitor-client privilege, undermining the reason that she herself has cited for not telling her version of events.
Wernick predicted that when Wilson-Raybould appears before the committee next week, she will “express concern” about three events, all of which “were entirely appropriate, lawful, legal,” he said.
The first was a meeting on Sept. 17 between himself, the prime minister and Wilson-Raybould. Wernick said that, at the time, Trudeau and his top advisers were consumed with NAFTA negotiations, and that he was assigned to help mediate “a very serious policy difference” on the government’s Indigenous rights framework between Wilson-Raybould and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett. The Sept. 17 meeting with Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau was held to discuss that matter, Wernick said.
Just two weeks earlier, the director of public prosecutions had decided not to proceed with a deferred prosecution in the SNC-Lavalin case. But Wilson-Raybould had the power to overturn that decision.
Wilson-Raybould told the prime minister that a deferred prosecution agreement “was not a good course and she had no intention of intervening,” Wernick recalled. In turn, the prime minister told Wilson-Raybould the decision to intervene in the case was hers alone, he said.
“(Trudeau) indicated that it was entirely her call to make, that she was the decider,” Wernick said.
“That is a message that the prime minister conveyed to the minister on every situation that I am aware of when it came up.”
The next event he predicted Wilson-Raybould would raise was a conversation between her chief of staff and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office on Dec. 18. Wernick, however, said he was not there and is not aware of what transpired.
Finally, Wernick highlighted his own conversation with Wilson-Raybould on Dec. 19. Wernick said he wanted to “check in” with her on SNC-Lavalin and the possibility of mediating the criminal charges against the company, as well as other legal issues before the government.
“I conveyed to her that a lot of her colleagues and the prime minister were quite anxious about what they were hearing and reading in the business press about the future of the company, the options that were being openly discussed in the business press about the company moving or closing,” Wernick said.
Asked later if he pressured Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the case and halt the SNC-Lavalin prosecution, Wernick said no — he doesn’t believe he improperly pressured her.
“There’s pressure to get it right on every decision, to approve, to not approve, to act, to not act. I am quite sure the minister felt pressure to get it right,” he said.
“Part of my conversation,” he added, “was conveying context that there were a lot of people worried about what would happen, the consequences — not for her — the consequences for the workers in the communities and the suppliers.”
But he insisted that his conversation was within the “boundaries” and did not cross any line.
“So I can tell you with complete assurance that my view of those conversations is that they were within the boundaries of what’s lawful and appropriate. I was informing the minister of context. She may have another view of the conversation, but that’s something the ethics commissioner can sort out,” he said.
And if Wilson-Raybould truly had concerns about any of these interactions, Wernick said there were “multiple, multiple, multiple” occasions when she could have raised it with Trudeau — at cabinet meetings or by telephone — or she could have gone directly to the ethics commissioner herself.
But NDP MP Murray Rankin pressed Wernick, questioning whether the subsequent meetings with Wilson-Raybould were evidence of “continued political pressure thereafter to change the tune.”
Wernick said that judgment lies with the ethics commissioner, a role that he said was created for these very “ethics and government issues.
“If this is not the kind of issue an ethics commissioner is there for, why do we have one?”
Wilson-Raybould declined to speak with the Star Thursday, saying she had to attend a meeting.
The MP for Vancouver-Granville has said little so far, citing solicitor-client privilege. Wilson-Raybould has sought advice from former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell on how much she can say while respecting the bounds of cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege. The government is also weighing whether to waive that privilege.
But Wernick challenged Wilson-Raybould’s rationale for staying quiet. He noted that he’s not a lawyer but based on his long experience in government, said it doesn’t appear that solicitor-client privilege applies to her situation. He said she was not acting as a solicitor and the matter was never discussed at cabinet.
“She was not advising the prime minister, the prime minister said at every occasion verbally or in writing that she was the decider. So she was not giving legal advice to the prime minister,” he said.
During his own appearance at the committee earlier in the morning, Justice Minister David Lametti said that discussions between the prime minister, cabinet ministers and the attorney general on the issue would be routine and appropriate.
“The attorney general can’t be an island,” Lametti told the committee Thursday morning, while stressing that the final decision about prosecutions rest with the attorney general.
“An attorney general can speak with cabinet colleagues about a variety of different considerations that might be pertinent to his or her decision in any particular case,” he said.
Lametti, who took over as attorney general and justice minister last month, was the first witness as the justice committee began its own investigation into the controversy, one opposition MPs charge is limited because the Liberals refuse to call Trudeau’s own aides.
He walked a cautious line, refusing to comment on the meetings that Trudeau and his officials had with Wilson-Raybould, saying he wouldn’t “speculate” on those discussions or even whether they took place.
Lametti said while he had a general understanding of the issue as a Quebec MP, he had no conversations with the prime minister on the file prior to taking on the role of justice minister. Asked whether he has come under pressure since taking the post, Lametti responded, “I have not.”
But he defended the use of deferred prosecutions — a new element of Canada’s justice system — calling them an “important tool in the tool kit.”
He said it’s another way for serious criminal behaviour to be prosecuted without “endangering innocent third parties” such as employees, pensioners and contractors because it doesn’t put the viability of a company itself at risk.
Wilson-Raybould is expected to make her own appearance before the justice committee next week. But just how much she can say remains a question mark.
Lametti would not tell the committee whether he expected a decision on solicitor-client privilege in time for Wilson-Raybould’s appearance.
Trudeau himself conceded Thursday that Canadians want to know about the allegations swirling around his government but getting those answers will depend on legal advice on how much can be said on the matter.
“Solicitor-client privilege is a key tenet of our justice system. There are serious potential consequences if we lift that privilege. That is why myself and the former minister are receiving advice to see how we can proceed,” he said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga