First, some background. SNC-Lavalin is a large, international engineering firm based in Quebec. They have a history of dodgy business dealings and are currently either in court or under investigation for various offences including bribery of Libyan officials under the Gadhafi regime. Previously the company lobbied hard for a deferred prosecution agreement to be established in law (essentially a get out of jail free card) to protect it from further repercussions related to these offenses. Dutifully, and somewhat shadily, the Liberal government passed such a law a couple of years ago. (This kind of law is currently in place in the USA and Great Britain, so it’s not unique in that regard.)
SNC-Lavalin, facing these charges of corruption and fraud, have now been pushing hard for the federal government to use that deferred prosecution agreement option to allow it to avoid prosecution. But the auditor-general and her staff, having done their own research, felt the law didn’t apply in this case and proceeded with the legal process.
As the story develops, the Prime Minister, his key advisors, and some other Cabinet members, all subsequently applied unrelenting pressure upon the auditor-general, Jody-Wilson Raybould, (who was also the Minister of Justice) to go easy on SNC-Lavalin and give them the easy out. One of the main reasons proffered was that damaging a Quebec-based company the size of SNC-Lavalin would hurt the electoral prospects of the governing Liberal party in the province.
But she refused, and insisted the legal action should continue.
For this she was demoted from her position as justice minister and shuffled off to a more junior position in Cabinet, leading to her subsequent resignation. (Effectively a constructive dismissal.)
After weeks of speculation, the details of this sordid mess came out yesterday in a she-said, they-said series of appearances before a parliamentary committee, public statements by various principal actors, tweets, re-tweets, accusations, rebuttals, and mud-slinging. (Sound familiar so far?)
Now Jody Wilson-Raybould, while accomplished, is likely no saint herself. (She is a politician, after all.) Though she is lauded by some as a hero for standing up against a white male dominated “system” (she is also Aboriginal) there is still a question as to whether her passionate defense of her position is more a matter of integrity or vengeance.
Probably some of both, but that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the independence of the attorney-general and the scrupulous avoidance of any real or perceived political interference in the Canadian justice system. And that line has been clearly crossed in this instance. It was crossed when the Prime Minister and his acolytes (who do have the right and responsibility to lobby in support of their constituents) refused to take “no” for an answer and continued, and in fact escalated, the pressure on the auditor-general and her staff. And it was crossed again when the Prime Minister demoted her from a job which she was, reportedly, doing well to a lesser position, to be replaced by a, presumably, more agreeable Quebec minister.
Of course the opposition parties feel like it’s Christmas all over again and they’ve just been given the gift that keeps on giving. So this is sure to consume many, many more days of recriminations, counter charges, explanations, excuses, and personal attacks, not to mention charges of sexism and racism, sprayed around like water from a firehose.
All in all it smacks of the most Trumpian of politics. Sad.
Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould in sunnier times (Photo: Canadian Press)