Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted Thursday there was a breakdown of trust between his office and that of former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. However, he stopped short of apologizing for the SNC-Lavalin controversy and said his office did not inappropriately pressure Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the Quebec company's criminal prosecution case.
“I was not aware of this erosion of trust and as prime minister and head of the cabinet, I should have been aware of it,” Trudeau said, speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, following hours of testimony by his former principal secretary and other government officials at the justice committee.
Trudeau also claimed that any communications he had with Wilson-Raybould on the file were not partisan in nature—though he admitted mentioning to her that he is a Quebec MP—and that protecting Canadian jobs has been his top priority.
“There was an erosion of trust, a lack of communication to me, to my office about her state of mind on this,” Trudeau continued, adding that he should have dealt directly with the former justice minister, as opposed to members of his staff. “She [Wilson-Raybould] did not come to me and I wish she had.”
Trudeau’s comments echoed those made by his former Principal Secretary Gerald Butts, who testified before the justice committee Wednesday that “trust had broken down” between his office and Wilson-Raybould’s.
Wilson-Raybould had testified last week that she had been subjected to “veiled threats” and inappropriate pressure from Trudeau and his staff, including Butts, to interfere in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering and construction giant, which is facing bribery charges. Butts denied Wilson-Raybould’s allegations, saying that nothing occurred “beyond the normal operations of government.”
She said she believed she had been bumped from the justice file to veterans affairs because she refused to interfere. Wilson-Raybould resigned last month after reports about the scandal surfaced in the Globe and Mail; former Treasury Board President Jane Philpott also resigned from cabinet this week, citing the SNC-Lavalin affair. Both remain in the Liberal caucus.
Trudeau maintained that the government held several conversations with Wilson-Raybould about SNC-Lavalin to provide context about the thousands of jobs the company provides to Canadians.
“She had indicated to me she had made a decision, I asked her if she would revisit that decision … and she said that she would.”
He said his decision to shuffle Wilson-Raybould from justice to veterans affairs was not a punishment for her not intervening in the decision to criminally prosecute SNC-Lavalin. Butts’ testified that the government first offered Wilson-Raybould a chance to take over Indigenous Services but said she declined because she was fundamentally opposed to the Indian Act.
Asked Thursday if he regrets the decision to remove Wilson-Raybould as justice minister, Trudeau said “as we look back over the past weeks, there are many lessons to be learned and many things we would have liked to have done differently.”
Moving forward, Trudeau said that his government is going to seek advice from external experts on various portfolios, notably the dual role of the Minister of Justice and the attorney general, and whether they should be held by the same person. He also said he will put in place measures to improve the way his office engages with cabinet ministers and members of caucus.
Trudeau said the justice file is one of “particular importance” to him, and cited his late father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who had also served as the minister of justice.
When asked whether he is apologizing for the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau sidestepped the question by stating he was on his way to Iqaluit to apologize for the way the federal government handled the deaths of Inuit who contracted tuberculosis from the 1940s to 1960s.
“I continue to say there was no inappropriate pressure,” said Trudeau.