Former Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould testifies about the SNC-LAVALIN affair before a justice committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on February 27, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

OTTAWA, Ontario: Breaking weeks of silence, the former Cabinet minister at the centre of a growing political crisis in Canada testified that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his staff and senior officials used “political interference” and “veiled threats” in a campaign to get her to drop a criminal case against a major corporation.

In testimony to a House of Commons committee examining the prime minister’s actions, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general, recalled asking Trudeau: “Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the AG? I would strongly advise against it.”

As she described 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the criminal case with senior government officials, Wilson-Raybould said that during one particularly fractious session she had “thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to President Richard Nixon’s orders to Elliot Richardson, his attorney general, to fire Archibold Cox, an independent prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

The often inflammatory and defiant testimony from Wilson-Raybould, who remains a Liberal member of Parliament, is likely to provide ample fuel for opposition politicians as campaigning for the general election in October gears up.

Shortly after Wilson-Raybould’s four hours of testimony ended, Andrew Scheer, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, called on Trudeau to resign. He also called on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to open an obstruction of justice investigation.

“The people Canadians entrusted to protect the integrity of our very nation instead only protected themselves,” Scheer said.

But with no smoking gun in her testimony — Wilson-Raybould acknowledged during questioning that no one in the government ever instructed her to order prosecutors to reach a settlement — the damage to Trudeau may ultimately be contained. In the short term, however, the testimony has put his government into damage control mode.

The case, which has erupted into the biggest crisis of Trudeau’s political career, began February 7, when The Globe and Mail reported, citing anonymous sources, that the prime minister and his aides had improperly pressed Wilson-Raybould to seek a settlement of criminal charges against a leading Canadian company.

SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering and construction company, was accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to officials in Libya while the country was ruled by Moammar Gadafi.

A criminal conviction would leave the company, which is one of Quebec’s most prominent corporations with 52,000 employees worldwide, unable to do business with the government of Canada for a decade.

Several Quebec politicians, including Premier Francois Legault, feared that the resulting financial blow to the company would leave it vulnerable to a foreign takeover. They have been pushing for a settlement under a new law that would keep SNC-Lavalin out of court in exchange for paying a substantial fine.

For all the alleged pressure to end the criminal case, prosecutors, who are supposed to be independent of politics in Canada, have formally told SNC-Lavalin that they will not consider a settlement.

Over the past three weeks, Trudeau has repeatedly insisted that neither he nor anyone else acted improperly when discussing the case with Wilson-Raybould, whose testimony marked the first time that anyone involved in the affair had made allegations on the record that the prime minister and his inner circle were involved in trying to sway her actions.

Speaking to reporters in Montreal on Wednesday night, Trudeau dismissed his former minister’s testimony.

“I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally, therefore I completely disagree with the characterisation of these events,” he said, adding that he is waiting for an investigation by the Parliamentary ethics commissioner “to clear the air on this matter.”

Trudeau emphasised that the decision about how to handle the case rested with “Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jody Wilson-Raybould alone” and insisted that it was appropriate to consider the consequences of a criminal conviction for the company.

“We, of course, had discussions about the potential loss of 9,000 jobs across the country,” he said.

In her testimony Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould acknowledged that it was appropriate for the prime minister and others to raise concerns about the effect on the company, on Canadian jobs and on Quebec if the criminal case continued.

But, she added, the prime minister and others should not have raised the political ramifications of the case, nor should they have continued to press her on the matter for more than four months.

“There was a concerted and sustained effort to politically influence my role as attorney general,” she told the Commons justice committee. She added, however, that the pressure ultimately had no effect on the independence of the judicial system.

During a meeting in September, Wilson-Raybould said, Trudeau raised the potential effects of the continued prosecution on a provincial election underway in Quebec and its potential effects on federal politicians from the province, noting that he represented a constituency in Montreal.

“I was quite taken aback,” Wilson-Raybould recalled, and said that she then asked Trudeau if he was trying to interfere with a criminal case.

“The prime minister said: ‘No, No, No. We just need to find a solution,’” she said.

Wilson-Raybould, a former prosecutor in Vancouver and the country’s first indigenous justice minister, was moved out of the justice job and into veterans affairs, a less prominent ministerial position, in January.

While it has been widely suggested over the past three weeks that the change was intended as punishment, Wilson-Raybould said on Wednesday that Trudeau had insisted to her that was not the case, “and I decided I would take the prime minister at his word.”

Wilson-Raybould quit the Cabinet entirely in February. She repeatedly declined to explain why she stepped down beyond saying: “I did not have confidence to sit around the table, the Cabinet table.”