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OPINION: Waiting for Jody

Bryson Guptill

Guest Opinion

It's now been two weeks since the Globe and Mail published a story alleging that Jody Wilson-Raybould had been pressured by the Prime Minister's Office to give the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin a pass on criminal charges relating to contracts it obtained in Libya.

SNC-Lavalin has several thousand employees in Quebec and administers a number of projects for the federal government, including contract work for Veterans Affairs in Charlottetown. This could all come crashing down if they are convicted of criminal charges, as they would be banned from seeking federal contracts for up to 10 years.

The Globe article claimed that Wilson-Raybould refused to bend to pressure from the PMO, and as a result she was “demoted” from Justice to Veterans Affairs. The Prime Minister has admitted that he spoke to Wilson-Raybould in September but says he did not direct or pressure the Minister to go easy on the company. Since then, Wilson-Raybould has resigned from Veterans Affairs. This week, the PM's long-standing friend and principal secretary, Gerald Butts resigned, claiming he too did nothing wrong.

Wilson-Raybould is being lauded as a hero by some, including her father who is a hereditary Indigenous chief from British Columbia.

Some commentators have claimed that the PMO overstepped its authority and interfered with the independence of the director of Crown prosecutions within the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, Wilson-Raybould has not spoken publicly but has hired a retired Supreme Court Judge to advise on what she can and cannot say on the matter.

Waiting for Jody Wilson-Raybould's explanation adds drama to the story, but it won't change what we already know. The PM and PMO have both admitted speaking to the minister about the affair. The government passed legislation making the deferment of charges against companies like SNC-Lavalin legally possible months ago. However, if the minister of justice tells the director of prosecutions to go easy on a company, the direction must be reported in the Canada Gazette. In other words, it can't be hidden from public view.

So, if the PM or the PMO directed, pressured or even suggested that the minister go easy on SNC-Lavalin, the action was likely legal and contemplated in legislation. What's difficult is what happened next.

Wilson-Raybould chose not to instruct the director of prosecutions to defer changes against SNC-Lavalin. The charges went ahead and the company is appealing the matter to the federal court. Subsequently, the minister was shuffled off to Veterans Affairs. Did Gerald Butts play a role in her demotion, and was it triggered by Wilson-Raybould's intransigence around SNC-Lavalin?

Stay tuned for the next chapter.

Bryson Guptill is a retired public servant who worked as a senior policy advisor for federal and provincial governments in Ottawa and Charlottetown.

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