OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he should have been aware trust had broken down between his office and former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould over the SNC-Lavalin controversy, but stopped short of apologizing to her.
“Over the past months, there was an erosion of trust between my office and specifically my former principal secretary and the former minister of justice and attorney general,” Trudeau said during a morning news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have been.”
Trudeau said the only apology he is offering today is to the Inuit later on a trip to Iqaluit for mistreatment during tuberculosis epidemics in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
He said he continues to believe there was “no inappropriate pressure” put on Wilson-Raybould to relent and offer SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement rather than proceeding to a criminal trial for bribery and fraud.
“I’m obviously reflecting on lessons learned through this,” Trudeau said.
“I think Canadians expect that of us that in any time we go through periods of internal disagreement and indeed challenges to internal trust as we have, there are things we have to reflect on and understand and do better next time.”
Wilson-Raybould said last week she was improperly pressured to stop a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin and was punished for her refusal to give in by being moved to the veterans affairs portfolio in an early January cabinet shuffle.
She resigned from cabinet shortly after the controversy erupted. Her close friend and cabinet ally, Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, resigned in solidarity on Monday, saying she’d lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts, who also resigned, told the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday that he wanted Wilson-Raybould to seek a second opinion from a retired judge so the government could show it had seriously considered all legal options.
Last week Wilson-Raybould outlined for the justice committee 11 meetings and phone calls with 11 different political staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, the finance minister’s office and the Privy Council Office, which she said were not illegal but overstepped what was appropriate.
Butts provided the committee Wednesday with a different view on those meetings, saying 11 meetings and calls in four months is hardly a large number on an important file, and that Wilson-Raybould never told Butts or Trudeau she was unhappy about them until she was told she was shuffled out of what she called her “dream job” as justice minister.
Her discomfort appears to have begun as early as Sept. 17 in a meeting with Trudeau in which she said he raised the SNC file, and mentioned that he was a Quebec MP and it was a Quebec company. She said that was a partisan and political consideration that had no bearing on the decision and should never have been raised with her.
This morning, Trudeau said mentioning he was a Quebec MP was not problematic, saying that it’s up to all MPs to advocate for the people they were elected to serve, and that concern for job losses in Quebec and elsewhere were top of his mind.
While Wilson-Raybould did tell him she had decided not to intervene in the case, he says he asked to reconsider and she agreed to do so.
“I was preoccupied by the number of jobs on this in Quebec and across the country,” he said. “This was something I was clear on.”
His direction to his staff to provide her with information about the file was in the context of understanding that she was open to receiving more information.
He said clearly that was not the case and he wishes she had come to him to tell him she did not like the contacts she was receiving. Trudeau said he wanted to be the kind of leader whose team feels the ability to come to him when things aren’t going the way the want.
“In Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s case she did not come to me and I wish she had,” Trudeau said. “If it’s a real relationship and we truly are a team we can always acknowledge when we need to make adjustments.”
Going forward, Trudeau said he has asked for an outside expert to advise the government on the issues raised in the last few weeks, including whether the roles of attorney general and minister of justice should be separated, as well as the operating policies and practices across cabinet, the public service and other political staff “as they relate specifically to judicial matters.”
“Ultimately I believe our government will be stronger for having wrestled with these issues,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau’s words have not changed anything for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who repeated on Twitter that Trudeau has “lost the moral authority to govern.”
“What we heard from Justin Trudeau was an attempt to justify and normalize corruption,” Scheer said in a tweet. “It’s clearer than ever that inside his government, political interference and contempt for the rule of law are a matter of course.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Twitter the prime minister is blaming everyone but himself, and that Trudeau was “discrediting the detailed testimony of Canada’s first Indigenous woman AG.”
“The ‘erosion of trust’ is with (Canadians) — we need a public inquiry,” he said. New Brunswick MP Wayne Long, who broke with Liberal ranks last month to vote for an NDP motion calling for a public inquiry, tweeted that he was glad to have heard from Trudeau this morning, but that he wants the Liberals to agree to call Wilson-Raybould back as a witness at the justice committee so she can respond to things Butts said in his testimony.
The Liberals on the committee initially rejected a call for her return, but are now saying they will discuss future witnesses when the committee next meets later this month.