The House

The House: The damage done by the SNC-Lavalin scandal

This week on The House, we take a deep dive into the allegations involving SNC-Lavalin and the Prime Minister's Office. Chris Hall interviews experts to explore the inner political workings, the implications on Quebec and the legal weight of this case.
SNC-Lavalin is at the centre of a claim that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressured by Trudeau government officials to help the organization avoid prosecution. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters )

In the week since the SNC-Lavalin story broke, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has changed his talking points several times.

After the story first hit, Trudeau insisted that the allegation in the Globe and Mail story — that Jody Wilson-Raybould had been pressured by the Prime Minister's Office while serving as minister of justice to help the Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution in a bribery case — was false. He said Wilson-Raybould's continued presence in cabinet, as minister for Veterans Affairs, spoke for itself.

Then she quit — and the message changed. Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau said, had never raised with him the suggestion that the PMO was pressuring her to go easy on SNC-Lavalin, and he made it clear to her that any decisions on the file were hers alone to make.

The SNC-Lavalin crisis seems set to derail the Trudeau governments' preparations for the upcoming fall election. How does the Prime Minister get the wheels back on track and repair what appears to be a fractured caucus? Chris Hall talks with Minister Carla Qualtrough about the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould and the challenge ahead for the government.

The shifting nature of Trudeau's explanations suggests a recognition that the government's messaging has gotten out of hand and a correction was needed to contain some of the blowback, said one member of former prime minister Paul Martin's inner circle.

Scott Reid, who served as the director of communications to Martin during the sponsorship scandal that led to a public inquiry, said that if enough voters conclude that Wilson-Raybould was thrown under the bus, it could leave a stain on the Liberals that would be hard to shed in an election year.

"If a conclusion was reached that that suggests that the only way to defend the actions and the integrity of the government is to put the boots to a former cabinet minister — who is a woman, who is Indigenous, who is from British Columbia, who's very sympathetic — then I think that would have brand damage," he told host Chris Hall on CBC Radio's The House.

"And I think that's why you've seen the government shift its tone over the course of the week, because I think it knew it was headed for trouble on that front."

Wilson-Raybould has yet to speak publicly on the matter. Reid said the story is so murky at this point it's at the point where a former Supreme Court justice should do a month-long investigation, and release the conclusion publicly. 

The Globe and Mail reported last week that officials in Trudeau's office pressured Wilson-Raybould to tell the director of public prosecutions to draft a 'deferred prosecution agreement' that would allow SNC-Lavalin to avoid trial on bribery and fraud charges in relation to contracts in Libya.

Treasury Board President Jane Philpott took to Twitter after news of the resignation emerged to express her support for Wilson-Raybould.

Liberal government insiders have said in the past that Wilson-Raybould was difficult to work with. Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough told The House she didn't share that point of view, but also said she believed the prime minister's explanation of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Scott Reid, former communications director to Prime Minister Paul Martin, looks at the efforts at damage control, and what the government need to do to nullify the political risks of SNC-Lavalin.

Qualtrough said she's never felt any pressure from the PMO in her portfolio — a file which touches on the administration side of corporate wrongdoing — adding that if she had felt any of her fellow ministers were being pushed one way or another, she would have reported it to Trudeau herself.

Saskatchewan's court challenge of the carbon tax

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has vowed to do all he can to fight the federal government's carbon pricing plan. (Don Somers/CBC)

A lawyer representing one of the groups intervening in Saskatchewan's challenge of the federal carbon tax plan says a Supreme Court appeal is almost inevitable.

No matter what happens with the current court challenge, Lisa DeMarco, a climate law expert working with the International Emissions Trading Association, said "it's very possible and I think almost likely that it will be appealed."

Court proceedings in the province's Court of Appeal took place this week to determine if the federal government has the authority to impose a climate plan on Saskatchewan.

Ottawa's lawyer argued Canada must have the latitude to address the national and international concerns posed by climate change, while Saskatchewan's Justice Minister Don Morgan admitted one of his government's goals is to send a message.

"Politically, it's important for the message to the people of our province that we are sticking up for them," he said. 

While this legal battle rages on, DeMarco said she was heartened to see consensus on one point. 

"Neither Saskatchewan, nor Ontario, nor any of the other provinces were saying climate change isn't real."

The federal governments' carbon pricing plan was challenged in Saskatchewans' highest court this week. Premier Scott Moe, and the premiers of Ontario and New Brunswick, say the liberals don't have the jurisdiction to impose their plan on the provinces. Lisa DeMarco is an environmental lawyer who represented one of the intervenors in the court case.


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