OTTAWA— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians should “heed” the testimony of privy council clerk Michael Wernick who said the former attorney-general may have felt pressure to “get it right” on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution but it wasn’t inappropriate or undue pressure.
Speaking in St. John’s Friday morning, Trudeau dodged several direct questions about why he, his former principal secretary Gerald Butts and Wernick continued to speak to Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister, about a possible remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin for months after the director of public prosecutions had rejected it.
Trudeau repeatedly answered by declaring the “fundamental responsibilities of any government” is to protect and promote jobs while upholding institutions, respecting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
But Trudeau went out of his way, twice, to call Wernick “an extraordinary public servant who has served this country under governments of different political stripes with integrity and brilliance and he is someone who we need to heed very carefully when he chooses to express himself publicly.”
Asked if he viewed any of Wernick’s interactions with Wilson-Raybould as applying undue pressure on her, Trudeau declined to pass judgment.
Trudeau’s comments come the day after extraordinary testimony by Wernick, Canada’s top civil servant, who insisted that all the government’s and all of his own discussions with the former attorney general were “lawful” and “appropriate.”
Wernick directly challenged the version of events that has emerged via unnamed sources in the Globe and Mail.
That version says Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her post as justice minister after resisting pressure by senior PMO officials to reverse the director of public prosecutions decision.
Wilson-Raybould has cited solicitor-client privilege and says she cannot confirm or deny the report.
Wernick all but scoffed at her claim she cannot speak up to clear the air.
The blunt-talking privy council clerk said the matter was “never” discussed at cabinet, that no solicitor-client privilege attaches to the discussions because Wilson-Raybould was never “advising” the government on the matter.
He said the only thing that ever took place were “lawful” discussions about the impact of potential criminal liability on the company, and denied Wilson-Raybould was ever improperly pressured to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with the Quebec engineering and construction giant.
Wernick revealed there were two discussions that had previously not been made public: one on Dec. 18 between Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff and unnamed PMO officials that he did not attend. And another Dec. 19 when he called Wilson-Raybould to discuss the upcoming session and to “check in” with her on SNC-Lavalin, to see if mediating the criminal charges against the company was still an option.
He said he gave her “context” about the “consequences.”
“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.
He conceded she may tell the committee she felt pressure, but he believed the ethics commissioner, who will have access to all the documents and be unfettered by partisan considerations, is best placed to get to the truth.
“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.”
The Opposition hammered the government Thursday in Question Period, slamming the clerk’s testimony as proof the former attorney-general, who sat quietly throughout, was pressured unduly.
Conservative justice critic Lisa Raitt said “the Clerk of the Privy Council confirmed that he and the Prime Minister sought to influence the decision of the attorney general in the matter of bribery and fraud charges against SNC-Lavalin.”
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said, “If the Liberals actually cared about working people, maybe they could start jailing their corporate friends when they break the law. Instead, the Liberals are too busy getting them sweetheart details. Liberals claim to care about the rule of law, but instead, in their world there is one set of laws for the wealthy and well-connected and there is another set for everybody else.”