Canada’s top bureaucrat forcefully denied that he or the Prime Minister’s Office inappropriately pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to cut a deal with SNC Lavalin in explosive testimony before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Thursday.
He also admonished what he sees as as extreme rhetoric in the current political climate, warning that it could lead to an assassination.
Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick said the Globe and Mail story, in which the allegations were first reported, contained errors, unfounded speculation, and in some cases was “simply defamatory.”
The Trudeau government has been embroiled in scandal since the Globe reported that Wilson-Raybould, who has since resigned from cabinet, was pressured to stay criminal charges against the Montreal-based engineering giant. She has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, but said on Wednesday that she hopes to “speak [her] truth.”
Wilson-Raybould has also been called to appear before the committee, and has agreed to do so, but said she’s still consulting with her lawyer about what she can and can’t say, citing solicitor-client privilege.
Wernick was one of three people to testify before the committee, joined by deputy attorney general Nathalie Droin and current attorney general David Lametti.
“I worry about my country right now,” he said. Among his concerns, he said, were foreign interference in the upcoming election and the “rising tides of incitements to violence when people use terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ in open discourse.
“I’m worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year, during the political campaign,” he said.
Most of all, he said he worried about the public losing faith in institutions of government.
“There was no inappropriate pressure put on the minister at any time,” he said.
Wernick also told the committee he didn’t see where Wilson-Raybould was a solicitor, and that she never advised the prime minister nor the cabinet on the SNC-Lavalin affair. He described her role as the “full and final decider” and that the the prime minister told her this “at every occasion, verbally and in writing.”
“She can’t be the fettered solicitor and the battered decider in that horrible, vile cartoon at the same time. It’s one or the other,” he said.
Wernick admitted that he’d spoken with Wilson-Raybould on December 19 and expressed concern that proceeding with a criminal trial against SNC-Lavalin could hurt the company’s business, but insisted that they were “lawful and appropriate.”
“I conveyed to her that a lot of her colleagues and the prime minister were quite anxious about what they were hearing and reading in the business press about the future of the company—the options that were being openly discussed in the business press about the company moving or closing.”
He also echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement from last week that if former Veterans’ Affairs Minister Scott Brison hadn’t resigned from cabinet, Wilson-Raybould would still be the justice minister.
“[The Prime Minister] indicated it was entirely her call to make,” said Wernick of Trudeau’s conversations with Wilson-Raybould. “That is a message the prime minister conveyed to the minister on every matter I am aware of.”
He also said there was no plan to move Wilson-Raybould from the justice file to veterans’ affairs, which has been widely characterized as a demotion, until Brison took “a walk in the snow” and left.
“She could have called the ethics commissioner any time, any day,” he said. “All ministers have the options of reaching the Prime Minister."
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