In the SNC-Lavalin affair, everyone seems to be entitled to their own opinions — and facts

Gerald Butts intended his appearance Wednesday before the Commons justice committee to put an end to the SNC-Lavalin controversy that’s engulfed the federal Liberals for the past month. Whether he succeeded is far from clear.

Gerald Butts managed to turn the narrative into a high-stakes 'he said/she said'

Left: Liberal MP and former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Centre: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Right: Gerald Butts, former chief aide to Trudeau (Chris Wattie/Reuters Peter Foley/EFE/EPA/Reuters, Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Gerald Butts intended his appearance Wednesday before the Commons justice committee to put an end to the SNC-Lavalin controversy that's engulfed the federal Liberals for the past month.

Whether he succeeded is far from clear.

The former top adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a measured and thorough presentation to committee members. His performance rivaled former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould's during her own appearance a week earlier, both in the level of detail and tone.

But stripped to its core, it's just another instalment of the "he said, she said" plot that's been playing out ever since the first media reports emerged alleging Wilson-Raybould had been pressured last fall to intervene in SNC-Lavalin's criminal prosecution.

Throughout his testimony, Butts insisted there was no attempt by him or anyone else in the Prime Minister's Office to secure the company a deferred prosecution agreement that would see it avoid a trial in return for paying a fine and adhering to terms imposed by a judge.

"I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government," Butts told the committee. "We did what any responsible government would, of any political stripe. We worked as hard as we could, within the laws and conventions of the country, to protect thousands and thousands of Canadian jobs."

Butts: 'Not here to quarrel with the former attorney general'

Politics News

2 years ago
Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau's former principal secretary, delivers the beginning of his opening statement before MPs investigating the SNC-Lavalin matter. 2:28

Wilson-Raybould saw those "normal operations" as part of a "consistent and sustained effort" over four months to get her to overturn the decision of the independent public prosecutor for political reasons.

In this dispute, it seems everyone is entitled both to their own facts and their own opinions.

For example, Wilson-Raybould said she made her decision not to intervene in the case last September and that any further effort to get her to change her mind, or to seek an independent legal opinion, crossed the line.

In his testimony, Butts said he wasn't aware Wilson-Raybould had made any decision until she testified last week. He also wondered aloud why Wilson-Raybould — someone he said tended to communicate in writing on the most important topics — failed to so on this one.

Gerry Butts: 'The PM assured minister Philpott that the shuffle had nothing to do with the file.'

CBC News

2 years ago
"That was the first time I ever heard anyone suggest that this cabinet shuffle was in any way related to the SNC Lavalin file." 1:01

The country's top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick, offered still another view on Wednesday.

He told MPs that the question of when Wilson-Raybould made her decision is irrelevant, because the SNC-Lavalin prosecution was a matter of pressing government policy and fair game for him and others in government asking if there was another option.

What's not in dispute — and hasn't been for the past month — is that the SNC-Lavalin affair is taking a heavy toll on the government. Wilson-Raybould and Treasury Board President Jane Philpott both resigned from cabinet. In her resignation letter, Philpott said she'd "lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter."

Gerry Butts: "... an obligation to inform the prime minister."

CBC News

2 years ago
"I believe that if any minister is made aware of something they think is this wrong, I believe they have an obligation to inform the prime minister soon after they become aware of it." 0:48

The Liberal brand is also taking a hit. Public opinion polls show support for the Liberals is softening. Butts offered what might be the party's best chance to change the narrative — or to at least cast doubt on Wilson-Raybould's version of events without sullying her reputation or his own.

Opposition MPs know that this issue has caught the public's attention. They want to recall Wilson-Raybould to respond before the committee to what Butts said.

Liberals on the committee, for now, are refusing — no doubt sensing that whatever benefit arises from Butts' appearance would be lost if Wilson-Raybould returns to testify.

Others argue that the effect of Butts' appearance was more positive than negative. Peter Donolo served as communications director to former prime minister Jean Chrétien. He thinks Butts hit the right tone and delivered the right message before the committee and the eyes of the nation.

Gerry Butts invokes coal mine closing analogy during SNC Lavalin committee appearance.

CBC News

2 years ago
"We wanted to make sure that every due consideration was given to both options." 1:25

"The question is, does it help move the issue along for the government? I think it does because there was a counterpoint to her observations and her side of the story," he said in an interview for the podcast edition of CBC's The House.

"One of the problems is that context for the government's position has been missing through too much of this discussion."

Donolo said much of the blame for turning the SNC-Lavalin affair into a full-blown crisis rests with Trudeau and his shifting answers about his own role in events.

Trudeau is scheduled to speak again to reporters on Thursday morning, to offer his thoughts on what Butts said. He might even show contrition over how he and his officials conducted themselves, as anonymous sources suggested Tuesday to various media outlets, including the CBC.

Gerald Butts' opening statement in FULL

Politics News

2 years ago
The full opening statement by Gerald Butts, the former principal secretary to the prime minister, to MPs investigating the SNC-Lavalin matter. 33:27

If he does so, that would represent an about-face for Trudeau — who began by branding the allegations as false when they first became public, then insisted no one had directed Wilson-Raybould to do anything, before suggesting that her view of the 20 or so discussions last fall over SNC-Lavalin is simply different from his own.

Butts laid the groundwork for all of that Wednesday when he told the committee there was a breakdown in the relationship between the prime minister and his former attorney general.

Now he and the prime minister are looking to preserve the Liberals' relationship with voters in the short time remaining before the general election.

In the wake of testimony from the prime minister's former right hand man Gerald Butts and new information from Michael Wernick, clerk of the privy council, Chris Hall sits down with Peter Donolo, director of communications for former prime minister Jean Chretien, for his take on the SNC-Lavalin scandal and what should happen next. 26:55

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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