COMMENTARY: SNC-Lavalin affair was about saving Liberal seats in Quebec
“An erosion of trust.”
That is how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the SNC-Lavalin affair — not as a breakdown of the rule of law, not as an attempt to influence the attorney general, not as political interference in the judiciary.
No, it was a misunderstanding between team members. Everyone from the PM to the head of the Privy Council thought former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was open to granting SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement — this, despite the fact that she told them the contrary on multiple occasions.
“I was not aware of this erosion of trust, and as prime minister and head of cabinet, I should have been aware of it,” intoned Trudeau. “Situations were experienced differently and I regret that.”
Trudeau’s version of events doesn’t quite square with that of his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, however. According to Butts, trust didn’t so much erode as fall off a cliff, when Trudeau called Wilson-Raybould in January to inform her that he was stripping her of her justice and attorney general portfolio and shuffling her to Indigenous affairs. According to Butts, she greeted his call with silence, before pleading that justice was the best job she had ever had, the one she truly wanted. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she did “what no minister has ever done,” Butts said: she refused a cabinet position. Butts advised Trudeau to stand his ground because if he allowed ministers to dictate their portfolios, cabinet would become unmanageable.
But the justification offered for shuffling Wilson-Raybould was paper thin. Both Butts and Trudeau said that the PM wanted the portfolio to remain in good hands after Jane Philpott decamped to Treasury Board. But why Wilson-Raybould’s hands? Anyone with a modicum of common sense would have known that for her, the move was untenable. Wilson-Raybould had spent her life fighting colonialism, and now she would have to administer the Indian Act, the worst of the white man’s law. One Indigenous rights expert compared it to “asking Nelson Mandela to administer apartheid.
Let’s be clear: the government’s real agenda wasn’t advancing the indigenous file. It was saving Liberal seats in Quebec, as pressure mounted there to give SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement. That pressure came not only from the business community but from the new premier, Francois Legault.
The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the provincial government’s investment arm, owned 20 per cent of the shares of SNC-Lavalin. On Dec. 12, Legault announced that it would take action to buy enough shares in the company — 33 per cent — to block any attempt to move its headquarters out of the province. “(W)e cannot afford to continue losing our headquarters. A company like SNC-Lavalin is one of the companies that creates value in Quebec and we do not have enough! So, we cannot afford to lose it,” Legault told the National Assembly.
On the same day, Butts told the justice committee that former Treasury Board minister Scott Brison had informed Trudeau that he would not be running again, paving the way for an eventual cabinet shuffle. While this presented a problem for Trudeau in Atlantic Canada, as Butts detailed in his testimony, it also offered a potential solution to the SNC-Lavalin problem by allowing the PM to put a friendlier face in the AG portfolio — as it turns out, one from Quebec, who would fully grasp the political context in a way that Wilson-Raybould, a British Columbian, arguably could not.
WATCH BELOW: Justin Trudeau speaks about the SNC-Lavalin matter
You have to spend a certain amount of time in la belle province to appreciate how obsessed Quebecers are about protecting home-grown businesses. In recent years, several “fleurons” of the Quebec economy had relocated their head offices outside the province — St. Hubert barbeque, Cirque du Soleil, and most recently, Rona hardware. Each time, the issue raised heated debate, including on the floor of the Quebec legislature.
SNC-Lavalin was a far bigger fish than any of these, the very embodiment of Quebec Inc. If Ottawa were seen to have let SNC-Lavalin get away by failing to give the company a remediation agreement, Trudeau would never hear the end of it, and Legault supporters may well throw their votes to other parties, including the Conservatives or Bloc, in the upcoming federal election. Trudeau had enough trouble in Ontario with Doug Ford; he didn’t need another war with another premier on the eve of an election.
Of course, even if Wilson-Raybould had been aware of this dynamic, it should not have mattered to the AG: as she testified to the justice committee, she could not consider political issues in making her decision. She likely only connected the dots after she was heaved over the side, which explains why she didn’t make a fuss beforehand and complain about the “pressure” that she later brought to light.
For Wilson-Raybould, the issue was a legal one: for Trudeau, it was a political one. Wilson-Raybould’s dual role as justice minister and attorney general set her up for direct conflict with the PMO, and the PMO struck back. Whether the public buys her version of events or the prime minister’s remains to be seen. For as Trudeau says, two people can experience the same thing very, very differently.
Tasha Kheiriddin is a Toronto-based writer and a contributor to Global News.
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