OTTAWA: Canada’s former justice minister repeatedly warned the country’s top public servant about possible political fallout if she intervened in a criminal case involving a major Canadian corporation, according to a recording of their conversation released Friday.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was also the former attorney general, gave the recording to a parliamentary committee that had been looking into her accusations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top aides had improperly pressured her over how to handle the case.
She also provided the committee, where she testified last month, with emails, texts and a statement.
Her accusations led to a political crisis for Trudeau that has dominated news coverage in Canada for the last two months and badly tarnished his image as a feminist who had pledged to bring clean ways to politics.
In the firestorm, Wilson-Raybould resigned from the Cabinet — where she had been moved to the post of veterans affairs — as did Jane Philpott, another minister, and Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s close friend and top political adviser. Wernick, clerk of the privy council, has also resigned his post.
Trudeau has repeatedly denied that anyone strong-armed Wilson-Raybould, saying the government was concerned that a criminal conviction for the company would put thousands of Canadian jobs at risk.
He is now preparing his campaign for re-election in October, and has been trying to divert the country’s attention from the controversy and toward his achievements and plans for the future. Friday’s release of documents is not likely to help.
In her statement, Wilson-Raybould, a lawyer who was once a regional chief of First Nations on Canada’s West Coast and an advocate for indigenous rights, commented on how the case has been portrayed in the media.
“A significant part of the public discourse about this matter has touched on issues of race and gender and in particular there have been undeniable elements of misogyny, most of it aimed at myself,” she wrote.
Echoing Trudeau’s call during the last election for a different approach to politics, Wilson-Raybould thanked Canadians “who give me hope” and wrote that she looked forward “to acting alongside them in the future — a future where we truly do politics differently.”
In the recording, which is just over 17 minutes long, Wernick told Wilson-Raybould repeatedly about Trudeau’s concerns about potential job losses if the company, SNC-Lavalin, was convicted of bribery charges, and then banned from government work.
The company has been charged with bribing Libyan officials during the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, and defrauding the Libyan government.
Wernick said Trudeau did not want to do anything illegal or inappropriate, and asked Wilson-Raybould why she was unwilling to use a new law that could replace a criminal conviction with a hefty monetary penalty.
Wilson-Raybould warned the clerk about the dangers of the government intervening in the case and issuing orders to prosecutors who are independent of politicians in Canada.
“Does he not understand the gravity of what this potentially could mean?” she asked the clerk, referring to Trudeau. “This is not about saving jobs. This is about interfering with one of our fundamental institutions. This is like breaching a constitutional principle.”
While Wernick is not confrontational in the conversation with the former minister, he is persistent in pushing for a settlement.
“It is not a good idea for the prime minister and his attorney general to be at loggerheads,” he says at one point.
The recording was made without Wernick’s knowledge, Wilson-Raybould told the committee in her statement. This is legal in Canada, but she acknowledged that it was “inappropriate.”
She said that because she took the call at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, she didn’t have access to a staff member to take notes.
Asked to comment on Wilson-Raybould’s submission to the committee, Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau’s director of communications, said in an email statement Friday night, “We are focused on moving forward as a team on the issues that matter to Canadians and governing in the best interests of the country.”
Last week Trudeau put new processes in place for how the government handles criminal matters and has ordered a review into splitting the attorney general’s job from that of the justice minister.
But that has not satisfied the opposition Conservative party, which has been trying to keep the controversy alive.
Conservatives have demanded that the justice committee call Wilson-Raybould back for more testimony, but the committee, dominated by Trudeau’s Liberal party, has refused. The Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, has frequently accused Trudeau of a cover-up.
Trudeau has been careful not to criticise Wilson-Raybould or Philpott, and the two ministers remain as Liberal members of Parliament.
But over the last week, other Liberal caucus members and Cabinet ministers have not been so circumspect when it comes to their former colleagues.