Despite calls for Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick to resign over accusations of partisanship, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould says she has no concerns about him serving on a non-partisan panel designed to alert Canadians to foreign interference attempts in the fall election.
In an interview with the West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Gould was asked whether testimony given by Wernick two weeks ago before the House of Commons justice committee raised doubts about his ability to serve on the panel, which will be made up of federal civil servants tasked with informing Canadians of any significant foreign interference that may occur.
That testimony, in which Wernick defended the government’s Indigenous agenda and integrity, quickly sparked accusations of partisanship by opposition MPs.
But Gould said all of the members of the panel have served with integrity and that no one individual will have control of the panel.
WATCH BELOW: Top public servant defends government’s handling of SNC case
“Specifically, why we created a panel was so it wouldn’t be up to any one individual,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to remember these are some of Canada’s top civil servants who have served governments both Liberal and Conservative and have done so with incredible integrity, and that’s why we have five people on there so they can have those conversations.”
Wernick is one of five public servants who will make up the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol group, along with the national security adviser, the deputy minister of justice, the deputy minister of public safety and the deputy minister of Global Affairs Canada.
In his testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair, Wernick was criticized for giving what has been described as an inflammatory condemnation of the political rhetoric around the case and between members of the opposition and the government, going so far as to suggest that he thinks there is a risk of “assassination” in the fall election campaign.
Those remarks, as well as his central role in allegations of political interference by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, prompted NDP MP Charlie Angus to call for Wernick’s resignation, arguing that the Privy Council clerk had “overstepped his role.”
Gould would not comment specifically on the concerns raised by Wilson-Raybould in nearly four hours of detailed testimony two weeks ago.
In that testimony, Wilson-Raybould described what she called a “consistent and sustained effort” over four months to pressure her into changing her decision not to intervene in the criminal case of SNC-Lavalin, which would have helped the Montreal engineering firm avoid a criminal trial and potential conviction on corruption and fraud charges.
She named Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and 10 political staff as those who she says applied inappropriate pressure.
Trudeau has rejected her descriptions and said the matter boils down to a “difference in perspectives” following an “erosion of trust” between the former attorney general and his senior staff.
WATCH: Butts, Wernick maintain they never pressured Wilson-Raybould over SNC
He has also defended himself and his staff repeatedly, raising the issue of potential job losses if the firm were to be prosecuted with Wilson-Raybould and describing the discussions that the former attorney general says were inappropriate as focused on protecting jobs.
Neither Trudeau nor his officials have offered any clear evidence of imminent threats to the 9,000 SNC-Lavalin jobs in Canada if the company is prosecuted.
Gould echoed some of those sentiments, saying it’s normal for cabinet ministers to face pressure but that their job is to think about the impact of the choices on Canadians.
“As cabinet ministers, we face a range of pressure on many different issues every single day, and part of our responsibility and, in fact, our duty is to listen to a range of perspectives,” she said.
“Ultimately, the decisions we make, it’s not actually about us. It’s about 37 million Canadians and the impact it’s going to have on them and their lives.”
SNC-Lavalin lost a bid at Federal Court last week to challenge the decision by the director of public prosecutions not to offer the company a way to escape trial and the potential ban on bidding for government contracts that would accompany a conviction.
The firm’s only chance at a deal to escape trial will come if Montreal Liberal MP and Attorney General David Lametti decides to intervene.