Politics·Analysis

SNC-Lavalin dispute deepens as Wilson-Raybould testimony at odds with PM's take

After former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould's testimony about "sustained pressure" from the PMO in the SNC-Lavalin case, Canadians now have two dramatically different versions of what happened. Liberal MPs, heading into a crucial re-election campaign, are already choosing sides.

Former AG supported by opposition MPs, challenged by her own colleagues

PMO staffers Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques were "kicking the tires, I said no, my mind had been made up and they needed to stop, this was enough," Wilson-Raybould said. 0:41

Jody Wilson-Raybould said she wanted to tell her truth on the SNC-Lavalin story. The story she told Wednesday at the Commons justice committee is so vastly different from everything the prime minister has said until now that the two versions simply can't be reconciled.

The former attorney general spoke of veiled threats if she didn't intervene in the criminal prosecution of the giant Montreal construction firm. She spoke of constant and sustained efforts over a four-month period last fall by some of the most powerful people in government to ensure SNC-Lavalin avoided a trial.

The pressure began right at the top, she said, starting with Justin Trudeau, his top adviser and the country's most senior bureaucrat.

All of them have denied doing, saying or counselling her to do anything improper.

Wilson-Raybould, citing from memory and what she called her "copious" note-taking, gave a very different view. 

Disagreeing is, of course, part of any political discussion. But this is no ordinary disagreement over policy. This dispute exposes a clear rift inside cabinet, and inside the Liberal caucus.

'I was taken aback'

In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould said the interventions, in some ten phone calls and an equal number of meetings, played on similar themes: SNC-Lavalin would pull out of Quebec. Jobs would be lost. She was pushed, on a number of occasions, to get an outside legal opinion.

Most significantly, Wilson-Raybould said she was told by Justin Trudeau on Sept. 17 that refusing to give the company the option of entering into a remediation agreement instead of standing trial would go over badly in Quebec, home to his own riding, where a provincial election was underway.

"I was taken aback," Wilson-Raybould told the committee in her nearly 40-minute opening statement.

"My response, and I remember this vividly, was to ask the PM a direct question while looking him in the eye. I asked 'are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the AG? I would strongly advise against it."

WATCH | Wilson-Raybould says she experienced 'sustained pressure' on SNC-Lavalin

"I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the gov't to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion..." 1:08

Trudeau, she added, said that wasn't his goal. That much, at least, is consistent with the prime minister's repeated statements that he assured her the decision on whether SNC-Lavalin is prosecuted was hers to make, and hers alone.

Except the efforts to get her to change her mind didn't end there, Wilson-Raybould said Wednesday, nor were they confined to the prime minister. 

Wilson-Raybould stood her ground. She would not interfere. Less than a month later, she was out as attorney general, shuffled off to Veterans Affairs.

For a prime minister who has spent much of the past three weeks talking about his government's respect for democratic institutions, for the rule of law, Wilson-Raybould's testimony is more than her finally giving her side of a "he said, she said."

Her testimony gave Canadians a carefully constructed timeline, based on her own memory, detailed notes and transcripts of texts. Her testimony also gave the Opposition a political cudgel, which Conservative leader Andrew Scheer immediately seized as he called for a probe by the RCMP.

WATCH | Scheer and Singh say Canadians want answers 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speech to reporters after Jody Wilson Raybould's testimony 0:48

"The details are as shocking as they are corrupt," he said Wednesday, as he called on the prime minister to resign.

"Multiple veiled threats to her job if she didn't bow to their demands, urging her to consider consequences on election results and shareholder value above judicial due process, and reminders from Justin Trudeau to his attorney general about his own electoral prospects should she allow SNC-Lavalin's trial to proceed."

Trudeau also responded quickly, speaking to reporters in time for his rebuttal to be included in all the major newscasts and morning papers.

WATCH | Trudeau says he 'completely disagrees' with Wilson-Raybould's characterization of events

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in Montreal after Wilson-Raybould's testimony 0:57

"I strongly maintain, as I have from the beginning, that I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally," he said during an event with the new Liberal MP from the riding of Outremont. "And therefore I completely disagree with the characterization of the former attorney general about these events."

Canadians now have two dramatically different versions of what happened. Liberal MPs, heading into a crucial re-election campaign, are already choosing sides.

Challenged by her colleagues

At committee, Wilson-Raybould found herself in the odd position of being supported by opposition MPs on the committee, and challenged by her own colleagues in a hearing that featured six rounds of questions, lasting nearly four hours.

Liberal MPs peppered her with questions. Why didn't she resign last fall if she felt she was being pressured to override the decision to prosecute for political reasons? Why didn't she go the prime minister to complain? Does she still have confidence in the prime minister?

Conservatives and New Democrats praised her courage for speaking out. 

"We have witnessed not a lesson in politics but a lesson in integrity," said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus.

It's a lesson the opposition hopes Canadians remember heading into a fall election campaign.

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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