Chris Selley: Tale of prosecutorial interference a mortal threat to the Trudeau brand

In a Thursday press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denied that he or anyone from his office directed Justice Minister (as she then was) Jody Wilson-Raybould to abandon the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin over some funny business in Libya, and instead pursue a friendlier so-called “remediation agreement.”

Interestingly, no one had alleged what he denied. The front page of Thursday’s Globe and Mail did not report that anyone “directed” Wilson Raybould to lay off the politically well-connected Montreal-based engineering firm, but rather that the PMO tried to persuade her to do that, and that she told them to pound sand.

And now she is an ex-justice minister.

Reporter: Was “any sort of influence” applied?

Trudeau: “At no time did I or my office direct the … attorney general to make any particular decision in this matter.”

Reporter: “Was there any sort of influence whatsoever?”

Trudeau: “At no time did we direct the attorney general … to take any decision whatsoever in this matter.”


Do these very serious, possibly criminal allegations ring true? Savagely demoting a strong-willed justice minister whom you’ve just asked to do something egregious, possibly illegally, doesn’t seem like a very savvy political play. But then, Trudeau’s PMO isn’t half as savvy as it thinks it is. (In theory Wilson-Raybould could have backed up the PMO’s story on Thursday, but she declined to comment.) It would have been an outrageous attempted abuse of power, certainly, but hardly unprecedented in the greasy annals of Ottawa history.

Indeed, if the public winds up believing this narrative, that’s exactly why it could leave a real scar on the Liberals. It would be perfectly emblematic of a government that promised a whole new way of doing things, but that’s capable of cynicism that could make Jean Chrétien blush.

“Canadians from all across this country sent a message that it is time for real change, and I am deeply honoured by the faith they have placed in my team and me,” Trudeau said in a statement on Nov. 4, 2015, after swearing in his gender-balanced Cabinet featuring Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first-ever Indigenous justice minister. “This strong, diverse, and experienced team will serve all Canadians.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new Veterans Affairs Minister Jodie Wilson-Raybould at a swearing in ceremony in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2019. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Three-and-a-bit years later, Wilson-Raybould was busted down to Veteran’s Affairs and Washroom Cleanliness for reasons no one could quite understand. Some saw her (ahem) reassignment as a betrayal of Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda. But the irony, of course, is that Wilson-Raybould oversaw some of the biggest disappointments the Trudeau government had to offer its supporters.

“The list of broken promises and opportunities squandered commences with an overall commitment by Wilson-Raybould’s government to reverse a decade of senseless Tory tough-on-crime measures,” criminal defence lawyers Michael Lacy and Daniel Brown wrote in an op-ed last month. “Scores of offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences ought to have been early on the chopping block, but were inexplicably left in place. The Liberals also failed to eliminate mandatory victim fine surcharges; a mean-spirited money grab that punishes the poor.”

Wilson-Raybould failed to streamline the pardon system or address racial disparities in prisons, they argued. Eliminating peremptory jury challenges pleased Indigenous groups and others who were outraged by the all-white jury’s verdict in the Gerald Stanley trial. But many defence lawyers, including Lacy and Brown, argue the move made it easier to convict just about anyone, including Indigenous defendants.

It would have been an outrageous attempted abuse of power, but hardly unprecedented in the greasy annals of Ottawa history

In her post-demotion statement, Wilson-Raybould claimed to be proud of ludicrous new impaired driving legislation that allows police to compel breathalyzer tests with no suspicion of impairment (an engraved invitation to abuse), criminalizes impairment after driving and relies on measurements of THC impairment backed by little to no scientific evidence. Vice reported this week the case of a Halifax woman who was arrested for failing a THC saliva test, but then passed a physical impairment test and was released without charge — but nevertheless had her license suspended for a week, and had to pay a total of $400 to get it reinstated and her car out of impound. It seems likely the courts will tear this legislation to shreds, but not before the government spends untold millions of dollars defending it.

It would be somewhat fitting, then, if it were standing on an important and universally appreciated point of principle — the independence of prosecutors from political interference — that got Jody Wilson-Raybould fired. For all her feats of perpetuating and accentuating the status quo, Trudeau’s “real change” government was happy to stand and applaud. But insubordination, and at the expense of a very important company with fearsome lobbyists? Intolerable.

On the bright side for the Liberals, by the end of the day they actually managed to deny what had been alleged: “Neither directed, nor pressured, nor influenced,” Marco Mendicino assured CBC’s Vassy Kapelos on Power and Politics.

Marco Mendicino is Parliamentary Secretary to the infrastructure minister. At press time, the Prime Minister’s itinerary for Friday includes no media availabilities. This could get a lot worse before it gets better.

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