USUALLY, the vast distance between Ottawa and Vancouver has been enough to keep the West Coast in a sort of splendid isolation. But lately the relationship has tightened. Disputes over pipelines and oil terminals opposed by some First Nations and a strong environmental lobby; freak weather causing unusual snowstorms and record forest fires related to delayed action on climate change; and now JWB-PMO-SNC — the riveting case of a B.C. minister, a prime minister and a favoured corporate entity — has stretched the national ties taut, like a rope around Justin Trudeau’s neck.
Can there be a more absurd dispute? As one pundit wrote, it’s a he-said-she-said but only he is talking. Trudeau and his former Justice Minister are both said to be bound by solicitor-client privilege but Trudeau feels free to offer his version of events while refusing to waive the requirement on Jody Wilson-Raybould so that she can give her side.
There may be no great mystery as to why Wilson-Raybould quit the federal cabinet a day after she and Trudeau apparently agreed at a government event in Vancouver that solidarity would be maintained amid allegations she was pressured to help get the Quebec construction giant SNC-Lavalin a sweetheart deal at court. It has to do with Trudeau’s choice of words.
Soon after the Globe and Mail reported allegations of political interference from the PMO, Trudeau said he and Wilson-Raybould had spoken and she confirmed his recollection that he told her any decisions around talks with the office of public prosecutions concerning SNC-Lavalin were hers alone.
This sounds like Trudeau throwing Wilson-Raybould under the bus and then driving it over her. The PM removes himself from the equation, and responsibility, putting it all on her.
The next day Trudeau assured the country that all remained well. Wilson-Raybould’s ongoing presence in cabinet indicated she was not unhappy with the government and “speaks for itself,” he said.
This is the self-declared feminist speaking for a woman who he has not allowed to speak for herself. Twice. Whatever was behind those statements was enough to cause her to quit cabinet.
The story so far: SNC-Lavalin, under legal pressure over corruption allegations, in turn pressures the government to write a new law allowing for corporate entities to avoid criminal prosecution by admitting fault, agreeing to change practices, pay a big fine and carry on. The government agrees (the same government that accepted large donations from SNC-Lavalin, some of which were illegal) and hides the new law in an omnibus budget bill the likes of which it promised it would never indulge, and makes it retroactive to allow SNC-Lavalin to use it.
Only the public prosecutor’s office didn’t play ball. You have to face the music at trial, SNC-Lavalin was told. And so the company upped pressure on the government to get the public prosecutor to relent. Allegedly, that pressure was put on Wilson-Raybould by senior officials from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Fast forward to Wednesday when Parliament’s justice committee convened to consider the matter. Think about how that might have gone. Any and all witnesses who were summoned could have come well prepared by legal counsel, saying only as much as was rehearsed.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the committee’s Liberal majority refused opposition members’ logical requests to have Wilson-Raybould and relevant members of the PM’s staff testify in favour of the current justice minister, his deputy, and the clerk of the privy council, none of who had anything to do with the alleged pressure on JWB.
Here was an opportunity to control the narrative. Instead, Canadians are wondering all the more about what the government has to hide.
In fact, it may have nothing to hide. Since we are left to speculate, we have to consider all possibilities. Consider that what Trudeau said is true. He was under the impression that Wilson-Raybould was on board with the government’s position that no undue pressure was exerted on her. After all, it’s perfectly normal for the government’s inner circle to talk about matters like SNC-Lavalin’s legal troubles. It’s Canada’s largest engineering and construction management company employing a lot of people in many public contracts. If it suffers, the consequences to thousands of people would be considerable.
And what about those unsourced media reports that Wilson-Raybould is a difficult individual? Women have heard this one before, was the general response. But if she were a he would we be more inclined to consider that this might indeed be someone who was a square peg in the round holes of the federal cabinet?
Just as unnamed sources who said she was pressured by the PMO were seen to be credible enough to put their story on the front page of Canada’s National Newspaper, should anonymous sources who spoke about the minister’s attitude not be believed? The fact that this is a woman — an aboriginal woman at that — seems to afford her an extra layer of protection in the face of such claims.
One well-placed source revealed an understanding that Wilson-Raybould has been especially and publicly critical about the government’s inability to make good on its self-professed priority of reconciliation with Indigenous people. And that since this is a pet project of the PM, he demoted her from Justice to Veterans Affairs.
As anyone with responsibility for such negotiations will tell you, they are the most difficult imaginable. There is no single individual of appointed delegation with whom the government can discuss matters of concern. Indeed, each individual Indigenous community may want to be heard. In a perfect world this would be accommodated. Instead, without a national, provincial or even regional consensus on any given file, progress is stymied. Case in point, Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire.
This is no mere tempest in a teapot. The story boils over into all manner of conjecture because no one who knows anything is saying anything except for Trudeau whose selective story changes by the day, or seems to.
But what if he thought he had an agreed version of events with Wilson-Raybould and what if she inexplicably changed her tune and “surprised and disappointed” him with her sudden resignation?
Or maybe he’s been fibbing the whole time.
Either way we can only hope that Wilson-Raybould’s legal advice is to tell her side of the story. And that Trudeau’s legal advice is to let her.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.
(Originally published Feb. 16, 2019)