It was another big day in Ottawa Wednesday as Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest friend and former advisor, testified before the justice committee looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Along with Butts, Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council Office made his second appearance.
All of this follows last week’s testimony of former Justice minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Five things Canada learned at the justice committee from Butts, Drouin
(Gerald Butts at the Justice Committee on Wednesday)
Five things we heard Wednesday as the House of Commons justice committee heard from Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick and deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin.
The committee is trying to determine whether the Prime Minister’s Office improperly pushed former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to head off a trial of SNC-Lavalin for fraud and bribery by ordering prosecutors to negotiate a remediation agreement with the company.
- The cabinet shuffle
Butts said the only reason Trudeau shuffled his cabinet in January was that Scott Brison quit politics. Trudeau didn’t want another shuffle and wanted to keep it as small as possible. Butts said Trudeau needed an experienced minister replacing Brison as president of the Treasury Board and was concerned about choosing a new Nova Scotia minister without alienating other Nova Scotia MPs. SNC-Lavalin was not a consideration, he said.
“If Minister Brison had not resigned, Minister Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice today,” said Butts. “That is a fact. And facts are stubborn things.”
In his account, Trudeau and his aides chose Jane Philpott for Treasury Board because she was already the vice-chair of the Treasury Board and capable. Her move left an opening at Indigenous Services.
Butts said Trudeau decided to offer Indigenous Services to Wilson-Raybould because he wanted to signal to Indigenous communities that the file was still of incredible importance to him. Trudeau also felt there were many lawyers in caucus who could be justice minister.
Wilson-Raybould said no because she had spent her entire life opposing the Indian Act and she would not become the minister applying it.
Butts acknowledged that had he had more time to think about the shuffle, he would have realized that would be her response. But he advised Trudeau that he couldn’t set a precedent for a minister to refuse to be shuffled, and therefore they moved Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs.
- Decision-making timeline
Deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin said her department was made aware on Sept. 4 that the director of public prosecutions had decided SNC-Lavalin was not eligible for a remediation agreement. Her office immediately began preparing a document to advise Wilson-Raybould _ who was in Fiji until Sept. 12 _ of her options and obligations.
She could ask the director of public prosecutions for more information about the decision to proceed with a criminal trial rather than a remediation agreement, appoint another prosecutor to reassess the matter, or take over the prosecution personally. If she deemed an agreement appropriate, the attorney general would then appoint another agent to negotiate it.
Drouin said on Sept. 6 or 7 she was told by Wilson-Raybould’s policy adviser, Emma Carver, that Wilson-Raybould was “not keen” on any of those possibilities.
On Sept. 11, Drouin was informed in an email that Wilson-Raybould would not intervene. Drouin also said a day later, on Sept. 12, she was informed the director of public prosecutions was still talking to SNC-Lavalin, which indicated to Drouin that the decision not to proceed to a remediation agreement was not final.
Liberal MPs on the committee appeared intent on suggesting that Wilson-Raybould made her decision too quickly and then refused any further advice or information.
- First signs of concern
Drouin said Wilson-Raybould told her on Sept. 18 that she had been uncomfortable with a conversation she had with Trudeau and Privy Council clerk Wernick the day before.
Wilson-Raybould testified last week that Trudeau mentioned that he was a Quebec MP and that concerns about the Quebec election were also raised, which she felt were political interference in the case of an important Montreal-based company.
Drouin told the committee that at the end of October, the Privy Council Office asked her department for an opinion on the potential impacts for SNC-Lavalin if the prosecution resulted in a criminal conviction.
Her department prepared the report, which she said constituted legal advice, but before sending the report to the Privy Council Office, Drouin consulted Wilson-Raybould.
“I was instructed not to send it,” said Drouin.
- Briefing up the new justice minister
Last week Wilson-Raybould told the committee her former chief of staff, Jessica Prince, was told before the cabinet shuffle that Drouin had been asked by the Privy Council Office to prepare to brief a new minister of justice on the SNC-Lavalin file. The implication was that the SNC-Lavalin file was top of mind for Trudeau in his selection of and orders to the new minister.
Drouin indicated that SNC-Lavalin was just one of a host of issues she was asked to include in briefing notes. She said Wernick indicated the primary need was to cover the roles and responsibilities of the minister of justice and attorney general. He also said Indigenous files were critical because Trudeau might invite the new minister to attend meetings with Indigenous leaders the following week. The SNC-Lavalin situation was one of another list of issues, which Drouin said was proper.
- He said/she said
Wilson-Raybould said last week she told Butts on Dec. 5 that the “barrage of people hounding me and my staff” was inappropriate. She said Butts told her she “needed to find a solution on the SNC stuff.” She also said her chief of staff, Prince, was “urgently summoned” to a meeting with Butts and Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, on Dec. 18, where Prince was told by Butts that there was no solution on SNC-Lavalin “that does not involve some interference.”
In Butts’s version of the Dec. 5 dinner, Wilson-Raybould asked if he had a view on the file and they talked briefly of asking a retired Supreme Court justice for advice. He has “no memory” of her asking him to reprimand staff and says at no point did she suggest anyone had done anything wrong.
Butts also said the Dec. 18 meeting was not urgent and that all Prince was told was that he couldn’t see how seeking advice from someone like former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin constituted political interference.
-with files from the Canadian Press