Trudeau threatens Scheer with lawsuit over SNC-Lavalin comments

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has received a lawsuit threat from the prime minister regarding comments he made about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

PM's lawyer sent letter to Opposition leader about remarks made concerning the SNC-Lavalin matter

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he stands by his criticisms of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after receiving a lawyer's letter threatening a lawsuit. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has received a lawsuit threat from the prime minister regarding comments he made about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Scheer says he received a letter from Justin Trudeau's lawyer on March 31.

The letter from Trudeau's lawyer Julian Porter took issue with what they term inappropriate comments in a statement made by Scheer on March 29 in response to new documents tabled in the justice committee from former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

"The statement contained highly defamatory comments about Prime Minister Trudeau," it reads.

Trudeau has been under fire for the last two months over allegations that there was pressure on Wilson-Raybould to interfere in criminal proceedings against Quebec construction giant SNC-Lavalin. In an appearance before the House justice committee, she said top government officials asked her to help ensure a special legal deal was extended to the company.

She later provided emails, a written statement and a taped recording to the committee.

Scheer's March 29 statement, in part, accused the prime minister of political interference, of lying to Canadians and of corrupt conduct.

Trudeau's lawyer alleges Scheer made false statements, and refers to the Libel and Slander Act of Ontario, which deals with any publicly published material or comments that defame or disparage an individual or their profession.

"The prime minister supports wide-ranging and vigorous political debate on matters of public policy. However, your statement, in its entirety, is beyond the pale of fair debate and is libellous of my client personally and in the way of his occupation as prime minister," Porter writes.

Trudeau threatens Scheer with lawsuit | Power Panel

4 years ago
Duration 9:56
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has received a lawsuit threat from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regarding comments he made about the SNC-Lavalin affair. Brad Lavigne, Yolande James, Aaron Wherry and Rachel Curran discuss.

Attempts to 'silence debate'

Scheer has retained legal counsel as well.

His lawyer Peter Downard responded to the letter on Sunday, calling the complaint "entirely without merit."

"It is profoundly disappointing that the prime minister is seeking to silence debate on matters of such great public importance. Mr. Scheer will not be intimidated," he wrote.

The rebuttal also dares the prime minister to proceed with the lawsuit — which Scheer reiterated in his Sunday afternoon news conference — saying the defence will call for evidence, for Trudeau to testify under oath and for members of his government also to testify.

"I will defend myself vigorously on this," Scheer said.

The resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet was a significant development in the SNC-Lavalin affair, a controversy that sparked two government-related probes. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office said Scheer was put "on notice that there are consequences for making completely false and libellous statements."

The Opposition leader said the threat was an intimidation tactic intended to stop him from pressing the government about the SNC-Lavalin matter — but that his party will still continue to push the Liberals for more answers.

"If Mr. Trudeau believes he has a case against me, I urge him to follow through on his threat immediately," Scheer said.

"I stand by every single criticism I have made." 

While Scheer has been unrelenting in his criticism of the prime minister, when he speaks in the House of Commons he is protected by Parliamentary privilege. That measure grants a degree of immunity to MPs and Senators for comments made in carrying out their duties in Parliament. 

However, anything said outside of the chamber falls under regular defamation laws.

Scheer said he was not aware of any similar letters sent to anyone in his caucus.

Prime ministers who sue

It's uncommon — but not unprecedented — for a sitting prime minister to threaten legal action against another member of Parliament, especially the leader of the Opposition.

A decade ago Stephen Harper launched a $3.5-million libel lawsuit against the Liberal party after it posted website headlines alleging two senior Conservatives attempted to bribe independent MP Chuck Cadman to secure his co-operation on a crucial budget vote that threatened to topple the Liberal minority government in May 2005. The headlines claimed Harper also knew about the alleged bribe.

That lawsuit was dropped.

In 1998, Jean Chrétien threatened to sue Reform Party Leader Preston Manning if he repeated allegations that the prime minister had sold a Senate seat to a longtime friend.

He dropped that threat a year later.