OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is weighing whether to deliver an expression of contrition or a more detailed statement on the SNC-Lavalin controversy in a bid to contain an ongoing political crisis that has already cost him two cabinet ministers and a top aide.
Trudeau scrapped plans to visit Regina on Tuesday and instead flew back from Toronto to the nation’s capital, where he spent the afternoon speaking with advisers “discussing next steps,” said a senior official.
“We’re reflecting on that right now,” the official said.
Among those Trudeau sought out Tuesday was David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the United States and a veteran political operative, who was in Ottawa for meetings. “He’s offering up his support and perspective,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Trudeau’s government is scrambling to get a grip on a political crisis that has seen the resignations of cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, as well as Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s principal secretary.
Butts has denied that any of his dealings with Wilson-Raybould were improper. He will appear before the Commons justice committee on Wednesday, when he is expected to push back on her version of events. Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, and Nathalie Drouin, deputy justice minister, are also scheduled to appear.
Asked whether Trudeau planned an expression of contrition or a more detailed public explanation behind the events that have landed his government in hot water, the official replied, “I wouldn’t rule anything out.
“I think it’s important to keep an open mind. We’re going to hear from some important witnesses (Wednesday),” the official said. “I think it’s responsible for us to be able to respond once we’ve heard all the different perspectives.”
From the time the allegations became public last month, Trudeau has been adamant that the discussions with Wilson-Raybould were appropriate and that officials were entitled to raise the topic to preserve jobs that might be threatened. A criminal conviction could see SNC-Lavalin hit with 10-year ban on federal contracts.
Trudeau’s messaging on the issue softened Monday in the wake of Philpott’s stunning cabinet resignation. He acknowledged there are “more questions still to be answered” and said he would listen to committee testimony.
“This matter has generated an important discussion: how democratic institutions, specifically the federal ministry and the staff and officials that support it, conduct themselves is critical and core to all of our principles,” he told the crowd at a rally in Toronto on Monday night. “Concerns of this nature must be taken very seriously and I can assure you that I am.”
Philpott spoke with Trudeau about her decision before she went public, and he said Monday night that he had known of her concerns for “some time.”
But coming mere days after Trudeau shuffled his cabinet to fill the hole left by Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, Philpott’s announcement caught most off-guard.
In the hours after her departure from cabinet, the remaining ministers rallied with expressions of support for the prime minister and the government’s agenda, messages that continued Tuesday.
“I fully support the prime minister. It is a huge privilege to serve as Canada’s foreign minister and to serve in his cabinet,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said during a visit to Longueuil, Que.
“When it comes to working with the prime minister, as a woman I have found him to be absolutely supportive,” Freeland said. “He is a feminist as a prime minister and he’s a feminist as a boss, something that I have personally appreciated.”
Sheila Copps, a former Liberal MP and one-time deputy prime minister, had harsh words for Philpott and Wilson-Raybould. Copps said neither should be in the Liberal caucus if they can’t voice confidence in the prime minister.
“Why would you remain in caucus when you’ve gone out and told the country you don’t have faith in your leader?” Copps said in an interview with CBC News.
She said that neither of the former cabinet ministers — both of whom were first elected in 2015 — had “sat in an opposition bench or done any of the heavy lifting in politics, other than becoming a minister.
“The whole business of two strong women going? Well, there are a heck of a lot of other strong women who are still hanging in there,” Copps said.
She also criticized Wilson-Raybould for rejecting of the possibility of a mediated agreement for SNC-Lavalin “without consulting other colleagues.
“This is a crisis she has created,” Copps said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier