Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not apologizing over the allegations of attempted interference by himself and his staff detailed by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
In a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, he said he “takes responsibility” for what he describes as an “erosion of trust” between Wilson-Raybould and his team but specifically rejected her argument that the interactions described by her were inappropriate.
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Trudeau was asked twice specifically whether he was apologizing for the behaviour of himself or his staff in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
In response to the first question, whether he was apologizing for anything on Thursday, Trudeau responded by saying he was heading to Iqaluit later in the day to give an apology to Inuit for how the Canadian government treated them in the mid-20th century.
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When pushed as to whether he was specifically offering any apology for the handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau offered none.
“In regards to standing up for jobs and protecting our rule of law, I continue to say there was no inappropriate pressure,” he responded.
“I’m obviously reflecting on lessons learned through this and I think Canadians expect that of us … there are things that we have to understand and reflect on and do better next time.”
He said he now believes when it comes to the roughly 10 meetings and 10 phone calls by political staff with Wilson-Raybould around potential job losses at SNC-Lavalin, his former attorney general “saw it differently” than he did as to whether those constituted improper pressure.
Trudeau also did not rule out kicking either Wilson-Raybould or former president of the Treasury Board Jane Philpott out of caucus following their resignations from cabinet.
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“This has been a tough few weeks,” he said, adding he has reviewed all of the testimony given before the House of Commons justice committee in recent weeks on the matter.
“I have and will continue to take many lessons from these recent weeks.”
Shortly after Trudeau’s remarks, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued a tweet that caught the eyes of hundreds on social media.
In it, the PPSC — whose director, Kathleen Roussel, is the one who made the decision not to offer SNC-Lavalin a way out of a criminal trial — said that “prosecutorial independence is key to our mandate.’
“Our prosecutors must be objective, independent and dispassionate, as well as free from improper influence — including political interference.”
While the tweet raised eyebrows on social media given it came just two hours after Trudeau’s press conference, a spokesperson for the PPSC said it was scheduled in advance and not meant as a direct response to the prime minister on the matter.
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“It was pre-scheduled as are many other tweets relating to the PPSC’s mandate,” said Nathalie Houle, spokesperson, adding the PPSC has a number of tweets scheduled ahead of time to mark the launch of its new Twitter account this week.
When asked specifically whether prosecutors there had any concerns about how the SNC-Lavalin affair is impacting the perception of their work, Houle said “no.”
Trudeau’s remarks come exactly one month after the Globe and Mail first published the bombshell report alleging officials in the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the court case of SNC-Lavalin to save the Montreal engineering firm from facing a criminal trial and potential conviction.
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Conviction for the corruption and fraud charges against it would see the company barred from bidding on lucrative government contracts for a decade.
Right after the report first broke, Trudeau called the assertions “false.”
Several of his Liberal MPs criticized the newspaper’s use of anonymous sources over the following weeks, and anonymous government sources began telling media that Wilson-Raybould, who had been shuffled out of her role as attorney general in January, was difficult to work with and only in politics for herself.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Thursday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should have apologized over the SNC-Lavalin and that he should have taken responsibility, saying he “seemed to blame other people” in his statement earlier in the day.
Those comments quickly prompted accusations of being “racist” and “sexist” by stakeholders such as the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who called for him to condemn the remarks.
He did, several days later, but began shifting his messaging from denying the report itself to defending what he said were actions taken to defend jobs.
However, it was not until Wilson-Raybould was allowed to testify before the House of Commons justice committee on the matter that Canadians heard specific details of what had been alleged in the report, and her testimony corroborated the key aspects of it.
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She described a “consistent and sustained effort” between September and December 2018 by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and from Trudeau himself to pressure her into changing her decision not to intervene in the decision of the director of public prosecutions not to offer a remediation agreement to the firm.
She also said she received “veiled threats” from Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and had told Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s former principal secretary, that the attempts by officials to influence her had to stop.
Butts, however, told the committee during his testimony on Wednesday that it was not possible for her to have made a final decision not to intervene until a verdict was rendered against the company in court.
Wernick also told the committee that the 14 per cent share price drop experienced by the company after the decision not to offer it a deal was made public constituted “new facts” that Wilson-Raybould was “obliged” to reconsider, and that made it OK for officials to continue to pressure her.
Trudeau was asked in his press conference whether he had any evidence to back up his claim that 9,000 jobs were on the line if SNC-Lavalin did not get a deal.
He provided no evidence to reporters pressing him — Butts and Wernick also did not in their Wednesday testimonies.
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But Trudeau said he had heard “representations from various sources including the company itself.”
“This was an issue we understood was serious,” he added.