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Trudeau-appointed Independent senator wants to probe issues in SNC-Lavalin affair

Trudeau-appointed Independent senator wants to probe issues in SNC-Lavalin affair


As the Commons committee studying the SNC-Lavalin affair seems to have been put on ice, the Senate is wrestling with whether it should launch its own inquiry on the matter.

But there is a battle brewing between Independent and Conservative senators on what exactly the scope should be for such a study, nearly two months after allegations of inappropriate pressure first surfaced.

While a Conservative motion proposes calling former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, a new Independent plan for a special committee proposes the focus should now shift to the wider issue of prosecutorial independence and bifurcation of the attorney general and justice minister roles.

Independent Quebec Sen. André Pratte, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said there may not be much more to learn from Wilson-Raybould after her extended committee appearance and the release of documents and a recording. But, the Senate “should not sit on the sidelines while fundamental questions on the administration of justice in this country are being asked,” he said.

The focus, rather, should be how to protect the government’s top lawyer from political pressures in the future, Pratte said.

He is proposing a committee be quickly constituted so that it can meet and study the issue and then report back to the Senate by no later than June 1 — a very tight timeline.

‘A different, more neutral, senatorial approach’

“The [Conservative] hope is obviously to continue to embarrass the government,” Pratte said.

“On the other hand, the government’s aim is to put an end to the controversy. Our objective, as an independent Senate, should be neither to prolong nor to stifle the scandal but to provide a thorough review of the facts … we should suggest a way forward — a different, more neutral, senatorial approach.”

The former La Presse journalist-turned-senator said “the facts are now out in the open,” and thus the special committee he is prepared to launch should not be tasked with investigating what happened in this SNC-Lavalin matter alone.

“Rather, it should reflect on what it all means and what lessons we should learn from what happened. Was the pressure put on the attorney general inappropriate or not? What principles can we use to reach a conclusion? In future, is it possible to pinpoint the rare circumstances in which the attorney general can intervene with the Public Prosecution Service?”

Pratte said deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), also known as remediation agreements, the legal tool at the heart of this matter, should also be studied by the proposed Senate committee.

Pratte’s proposal faced criticism from the Conservative opposition.

“Middle ground? More like a farce. The Trudeau Senators have dined out for 3 years on putting on a big show. This is no different. This is a smoke screen by the [Independent Senators Group] just like the one by [the Prime Minister’s Office],” Conservative Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos tweeted.

“This is again another example of the games that are being played in this chamber in order to circle the wagons, to defend the prime minister who has done something the Canadian public and the press for weeks have been calling upon him to respond to clearly and unequivocally,” Housakos said in the chamber on Thursday.

The Conservative opposition in the upper house, led by leader Larry Smith, has sought to supplement the Commons justice inquiry with a wide-reaching investigation of their own at the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee.

Smith’s motion featured a long list of potential witnesses, including the prime minister himself, but also Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and eight others.

That plan has faced head-winds from some Trudeau-appointed Independent senators and the government’s representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, who say such an inquiry would be consumed by partisanship and that such a study is best placed for a Commons committee composed of elected parliamentarians. Tories say such opposition is equally partisan in that it shields the government from further scrutiny.

But Smith withdrew his motion Thursday in favour of another Tory proposal, from Conservative Sen. Don Plett, the party’s whip. That motion suggests calling Wilson-Raybould alone as a witness, a potentially more workable plan with only eight weeks left of Parliament before it rises for the summer recess.

Pratte sought to head off government opposition to his committee proposal — or the suggestion that this Senate body would simply duplicate the study by former Liberal justice minister Anne McClellan — by saying the other work underway on this issue is to be conducted largely in secret.

“Ms. McLellan is not Parliament. Her advice to the prime minister will undoubtedly be very valuable, but many heads are better than one. Moreover, she will not do her work in public as a Senate committee would do, thereby educating both the public and parliamentarians on these complex issues,” Pratte said.



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How the SNC-Lavalin affair tested Trudeau's ideals

How the SNC-Lavalin affair tested Trudeau’s ideals


The thing about standing for an ideal is that people expect you to live up to it — or at least to their idea of it.

Justin Trudeau built his leadership upon a set of ideals: “sunny ways,” cabinet government, transparency, openness, inclusion, reconciliation, gender equality and doing things “differently.” Trudeau’s commitment to nearly every one of those principles has been challenged by critics and rivals over the last two months — his commitment to feminism in particular, now that Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott have been expelled from the Liberal parliamentary caucus.

Outside the House of Commons on Tuesday, reporters pressed Trudeau and his ministers to comment on the government’s feminist credentials and the message sent to young women by the expulsions of two women who had become the prime minister’s prominent critics.

“We have a strong prime minister that is a feminist. We have a feminist agenda. Our record speaks for itself,” said Mélanie Joly, the tourism minister. “As to my two colleagues, I would argue that loyalty and feminism are two different things. And actually, there is no female or male definition of loyalty. It’s either you have team spirit, you want to work in a team, or you don’t.”

So perhaps two male ministers, behaving exactly the same way, would have met the same fate.

At the Daughters of the Vote event in the House on Tuesday — a biannual gathering that puts young women in the seats of MPs for a morning of speeches and discussion — some 50 delegates stood and silently turned their backs as the prime minister delivered his remarks.

An awkward diversion

Trudeau acknowledged the obvious tension of the day, but then awkwardly tried to contrast the departure of two strong women with … the continued presence of two strong women.

“I know nobody in here wants to have to pick who to believe between Jody Wilson Raybould and Chrystia Freeland,” he said. “Nobody wants to know that one person has to be right and another person has to be wrong between Jane Philpott or Maryam Monsef.”

That women stood behind Trudeau’s decision to expel Wilson-Raybould and Philpott likely is not irrelevant. But maybe it’s not the prime minister’s task to pit them against each other.

It’s likely not up to any one person (certainly not me) to say whether Trudeau is a good feminist. But if there was any solace for Trudeau in the Commons yesterday, it was in the fact that all 338 of those young women — even the ones unhappy with him — stayed in the chamber as he spoke. Moments prior, several dozen delegates simply walked out on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s speech.

(On the other hand, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s speech was received enthusiastically by the group — which might make Trudeau anxious.)

“By kicking the first Indigenous former attorney general of Canada out of caucus for upholding the law, the prime minister has made it clear that principled women who dare to stand up to him are not welcome in the Liberal Party,” the NDP’s Jenny Kwan charged in question period. “Is this what a self-proclaimed feminist looks like in 2019?”

Trudeau tried to make the case for his own feminism, or at least for his government’s commitment to the ideal: a development assistance policy aimed at women and girls, gender-based analysis of budgets, legislated pay equity, funding for women’s organizations and a gender-balanced cabinet.

Then the prime minister offered a bit of meta commentary.

“I recognize there is much more to do and I am proud that there is now a contest among party leaders to see who can be the better feminist. I think that is a great thing for this country. I think that is a great thing for Parliament.”

Perhaps there’s some solace there too.

Thus far, but not far enough

The struggle between Trudeau and his ideals has been real. He waived solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality to allow Wilson-Raybould to speak about her time as attorney general, but she objected that the waiver did not go far enough. Liberal members of the justice committee were apparently free to look into the SNC affair, but then the hearings were abandoned.

In both cases, Trudeau probably went further than Stephen Harper would have gone. But in neither case did he go as far as he could have.

In vowing to do things differently, he raised the expectation that — when confronted with a profound challenge — he would be perfectly forthcoming, without regard for the normal political impulse to control the narrative and limit the damage.

Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould leaves West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 2, 2019. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In appointing the first Indigenous minister of justice and attorney general, he put an incredible burden on himself and his office to ensure both her success and a good working relationship between them. That made the possibility of moving her, or demoting her, a daunting prospect.

For all that, Trudeau might now fall back on what he’s been insisting all along — that neither he nor his office did anything wrong (the claim that they did is at least in dispute) and that their cause (saving jobs) was just.

Wilson-Raybould says she told Gerry Butts, Trudeau’s former adviser, that the Prime Minister’s Office was inappropriately pressuring her. Butts disputes that claim. Wilson-Raybould did raise a concern in a phone call with the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. But Wernick seems not to have told Trudeau about what she said.

The power of symbolism

Liberals will also argue that they had perfectly valid reasons for wanting Wilson-Raybould and Philpott gone from caucus — starting with the fact that, at the very least, they had reasons to believe they no longer all shared the same goal.

But Trudeau and his fellow Liberals must understand the symbolic value of everything that’s happened with the SNC-Lavalin file. Two impressive women now sit outside the Liberal caucus. We’re still waiting on an ethics commissioner probe; the facts have not been fully and completely aired.

Maybe his political opponents weren’t complaining in good faith. Maybe nothing would have satisfied them.

But the last two months will still weigh down any attempt by Trudeau to lay claim to those ideals. Trudeau must hope that giving voice to those ideals, and his pursuit of them, still count for something, even if he has not always fully embodied the ideal.



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Scheer wants Trudeau to testify on SNC-Lavalin affair

Scheer wants Trudeau to testify on SNC-Lavalin affair


Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appear as a witness at the justice committee probing the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Scheer is holding a news conference at 10 a.m. ET, and CBCNews.ca is carrying it live.

A motion from the Conservatives says Trudeau should be called to answer questions given his “alleged direct involvement in a sustained effort to influence SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.” It calls on the prime minister to appear at a two-hour televised committee under oath.

Scheer called it a “textbook case of government corruption” and said there was an unprecedented attempt to alter the course of justice through political interference.

“Politicians don’t get to execute our justice system,” he said.

Later today, the committee will hear from a number of legal experts. 

Jody Wilson-Raybould, whose resignation from Trudeau’s cabinet on Feb. 12 after a Feb. 7 story in the Globe and Mail touched off the scandal, is expected to testify this week, but an exact time has not yet been confirmed.

Last week, Canada’s top civil servant Michael Wernick told the justice committee that he warned Wilson-Raybould that there would be economic “consequences” from prosecuting SNC-Lavalin, including big job losses. But he maintained that he, Trudeau and officials in the Prime Minister’s Office did not impose any inappropriate pressure on the minister.

Trudeau said Friday that Wernick is an “extraordinary public servant” who has served Canada with “integrity and brilliance.”

“I would recommend that people pay close heed to the words of the clerk of the Privy Council. His service to this country over decades in the public service leaves him well-positioned to understand what institutions are grounded in, and make sure that we’re doing the right things as a government.”

Witnesses scheduled to appear at the justice committee beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET:

  • Mary G. Condon, interim dean of Osgoode Hall Law School.
  • Maxime St-Hilaire, associate professor, Faculty of Law, Université de Sherbrooke.
  • Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, senior associate counsel at Woodward and Company LLP, and professor Peter Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia.
  • Kenneth Jull, lawyer and academic, Gardiner Roberts LLP.
     



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