SNC-Lavalin scandal casts dark shadows over PM’s sunny ways


Note: This column has been updated.

I waited on the weekend for Justin Trudeau to climb out of the sinkhole, for Jody Wilson-Raybould to extend him a helping hand, for her successor David Lametti to produce the facts, or for SNC-Lavalin to concede it had to face the music.

It didn’t happen, so in the interest of this age of instant gratification, it’s time to pronounce this situation a full-on political and business scandal, replete with giant consequences.

A government that proclaimed it would do things differently could crumble. A prominent company that allegedly misbehaved abroad could buckle. Thankfully, it appears our reputation for prosecutorial independence as an article of faith in the rule of law won’t collapse – at least not yet.

The crux of the problem is the breathtaking assertion that the Prime Minister’s Office exerted “heavy pressure” on Jody Wilson-Raybould, then the justice minister and attorney general, to steer away from criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on alleged Libyan briberies and direct her officials to negotiate a financial settlement under a new and softer process.

In the days since The Globe and Mail reported this, no one in proper authority has dispelled it.

The prime minister said Monday in Vancouver the decision on SNC-Lavalin was Wilson-Raybould’s to determine, that he welcomes an ethics commissioner review of the matter, and that he wants Canadians to have confidence in the prosecutorial system.

He has robotically, repeatedly said officials didn’t “direct” Wilson-Raybould. Which is a clever pivot, in that no one said they did. “Pressure” is different than “directing;” the two carry much the same perceptual baggage, but to deny one is not to deny the other.

(Mind you, on the topic of semantics, it didn’t help the Globe to say variously in its piece that officials “attempted to press” and applied “political pressure” and just “pressure,” and that the minister “came under heavy pressure” and was “urged” to persuade the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to change its mind. Lawyers have chimed in that these terms all have distinct legal weights.)

Wilson-Raybould, the Vancouver Granville MP, has not given interviews to counter the report. Instead, she has released a statement that she cannot comment due to the solicitor-client privilege she was obliged to honour. Trudeau has so far said he will not as the client waive his privilege – although he is getting advice from Lametti on that – so meantime her silence speaks volumes in the absence of public clarity.

Wilson-Raybould was recently demoted to Veterans Affairs Canada and associate minister of defence. Now the initially baffling move might have more of an explanation, as does the unorthodox note she published on cabinet shuffle day asserting the need to “hold truth to power” and urging that “our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence.”

Today those perceptions and confidence are swirling and sagging uncomfortably for a government that must win reelection by retaining Quebec, whose new and provocative nationalist premier is practically taunting the government not to hurt one of its industrial jewels. If SNC-Lavalin were to lose its court case, it would also lose access to federal contracts for a decade.

Wilson-Raybould was replaced by Lametti, who has so far toed the party line but not ruled out his government’s change of heart. Of course, that would bring on quite the storm.

The ugliest part of the last few days has been the swift, predictable, unattributed professional and personal criticism directed at Wilson-Raybould through non-Globe media: her prickly nature as a minister, her selectiveness in attending meetings, her inability to work in a team, her speculated role in the leak to the Globe, and so on. These malevolent tags are still more often applied to women than men, of course, and are doubly sinister directed at a person of colour.

What remains unclear is why, if the report is true and she was asked to cross an inappropriate boundary, she has chosen to stay in the cabinet – indeed, in this government. A legal scholar suggested this weekend she couldn’t have been under undue pressure – the so-named Shawcross Principle – because she did not resign. Then again, she might have weighed the consequences for her party of quitting in disgust, accepted a short-term demotion, and will simply find a reason to not run again this fall.

A common, even clichéd criticism of Trudeau has been on his style-over-substance métier. Now it takes on much more shabby contours of the worst political substance: cronyism, favouritism, expediency, interference, disregard of the importance of prosecutorial independence.

This is not SNC-Lavalin’s mess; it publicly lobbied, even ran newspaper ads, appealing for this negotiated settlement. It may even have a case. No, it is Trudeau’s mess; if this is the furtive and nasty ship he runs, then he has to at least fire people in the same way the company did when the allegations surfaced – then hope people have short memories come the October election.

He will have trouble surviving inertia. Why?

I spent 14 years in Ottawa and have working experience with the principal senior media writers of our time. That they are mainly aligned on this issue is the equivalent of rejuvenating their giddy teen years circling a prospective bonfire on the beach and lighting the match. The flames and the fun are surely coming.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.