Butts' comparison of SNC-Lavalin affair to Trans Mountain consultation 'apples and oranges': lawyer

The former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a somewhat out-of-left-field comparison during his testimony at the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday, say lawyers.

Prime minister's former principal secretary made comparison during testimony to justice committee

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, testified before the House of Commons' justice committee regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair on Parliament Hill on Wednesday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a somewhat out-of-left-field comparison during his testimony at the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday, say lawyers.

Gerald Butts told the committee the Prime Minister's Office did not try to influence the former attorney general to give SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec engineering firm, a deferred prosecution agreement that would spare the company a trial on fraud and corruption charges.

He resigned from the Prime Minister's Office last month.

Fresh in our minds was a recent Federal Court of Appeal decision that had found that the government had not concluded consultations sufficiently in connection with the TMX pipeline.-Gerald Butts

Jody Wilson-Raybould, who resigned from cabinet, testified last week before the committee that she was the target of sustained political pressure from Butts and others for her to intervene in the case — despite having already made a decision on the matter.

Butts said the PMO wasn't pressuring Wilson-Raybould, but was simply trying to avoid a repeat of what happened with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) in August 2018.

"It was not about second-guessing the decision. It was about ensuring that the attorney general was making her decision with the absolute best evidence possible. Fresh in our minds was a recent Federal Court of Appeal decision that had found that the government had not concluded consultations sufficiently in connection with the TMX pipeline," Butts said Wednesday morning.

"That was the substance of the discussions that the PMO had with the attorney general and the attorney general's office when you boil it all down. All we ever asked the attorney general to do was to consider a second opinion."

The court ruled that the federal government should not have approved the pipeline, citing inadequate consultations with Indigenous groups, and halted construction on the $7.4-billion project — a win for Indigenous and environmental groups but a loss for Alberta's economy, stoking anti-Trudeau sentiment in the province.

Comments a non-sequitur, say lawyers

Bill Gallagher, a lawyer and resource industry strategist, said he was surprised by Butts' comparison.

"This is comparing apples and oranges as there's no independent/prosecutorial mandate involved in the duty to consult, so he's over-reaching — and wrongly so — in making this comparison," Gallagher said.

He said he saw it as a "phony justification" for pressure tactics.

Merle Alexander, a lawyer who practises Indigenous resource law, said Butts' comments were a bit of a non-sequitur.

"The only sort of logical connection that I can draw … is the suggestion to use outside counsel," Alexander said. "I guess the two files seem to have a similar solution, which is to try to find a distinguished jurist to provide external advice that might then allow whatever outcome you may want.

"I mean certainly there is a very vested economic values in both of the files."

A 'strange coincidence'

Alexander pointed out that outside of Butts' testimony, there is another connection between SNC-Lavalin and the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Frank Iacobucci, a lawyer representing SNC-Lavalin, was retained by the federal government in October to lead renewed consultation efforts.

The former Supreme Court of Canada justice was given no set deadline from Ottawa to complete the consultations.

"Justice Iacobucci is a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and an esteemed member of the Canadian legal community. Canada retained Justice Iacobucci in the TMX file, after the August 30 decision of the Federal Court of Appeal to provide legal and strategic advice on how the government can best satisfy its constitutional obligations relating to consultation with Indigenous groups. There is no link or conflict between his role providing advice on the TMX file and his role providing advice to other clients on other files," Vanessa Adams, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Natural Resources Canada, wrote Wednesday night.

Alexander said he doesn't believe there's a legal conflict between the two cases as they don't seem to directly overlap.

"I think that it's just a very strange coincidence … [but] these types of strange coincidences aren't so rare. It's a bit incestuous sometimes."

SNC-Lavalin affair resonates with Albertans: analyst

Political commentator Janet Brown said Albertans reeling from pipeline delays and energy industry layoffs are likely closely following the SNC-Lavalin case and testimonies before the justice committee.

She said the situation is likely adding to regional tensions.

"The government says this is about jobs, it's not about politics. Well when you are perceived to be fighting for jobs in one region of the country, then that does become political," she said.

That was a message former federal Conservative MP Rona Ambrose echoed.

"A lot of people will say, well, 'Why does Bombardier always get special treatment? Why does SNC-Lavalin get special treatment?' when there are thousands of people out of work in Alberta."


Sarah Rieger

Former CBC digital reporter

Sarah Rieger worked with the digital team at CBC Calgary from 2017 to 2021. She previously worked at HuffPost Canada.

With files from Dave Gilson