OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has doubled down on his refusal to apologize for his actions in the SNC-Lavalin affair, prompting former Liberal cabinet minister Jane Philpott to question whether he truly grasps the “seriousness” of his ethics violation.
Speaking to reporters in Fredericton Thursday, Trudeau again cast his actions in the controversy as “standing up for Canadian jobs” to help ensure SNC-Lavalin could continue to operate in Canada.
“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians’ jobs, because that’s my job — to make sure Canadians and communities and pensioners and families across the country are supported, and that’s what I will always do,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau added that he disagreed with conclusions in a critical report released Wednesday by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, but fully accepts the report and takes “full responsibility” — despite refusing to apologize.
But Philpott, who resigned her post as President of Treasury Board during the controversy earlier this year, said the prime minister’s continued insistence that his interventions on the SNC-Lavalin file were justified to save jobs “is a bit of an insult to Canadians.”
“Canadians are smart enough to realize that that’s not what they are expecting an apology for. It’s a little offensive that there’s not an acknowledgment even of what the violation is for which many Canadians would like to see an apology,” Philpott said.
“The conflict of interest commissioner … found him in breach of his obligations under our conflict of interest legislation. He violated that legislation. That’s a very serious obligation. I fail to understand why he cannot apologize to Canadians for that,” Philpott told the Star Thursday.
Both Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned their cabinet posts and were subsequently tossed from the Liberal caucus. They are running for re-election as Independent MPs.
Weeks before the expected start of the federal election campaign, Trudeau again finds himself dogged by questions about his office’s tactics in trying to find a “solution” for SNC-Lavalin’s legal troubles. The Québec construction giant is facing criminal fraud and bribery charges related to work carried out in Libya in 2011 and, if convicted, would face a 10-year ban from federal contracts.
On Wednesday, Dion ruled Trudeau had violated federal ethics law by attempting to influence Wilson-Raybould, who was then justice minister, to give SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement — which would allow the company to get out of a criminal trial in exchange for corporate reforms and a fine.
Dion’s report found that Trudeau and senior staff in his office attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould to overrule the independent Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision not to negotiate a deal with SNC-Lavalin. Over the course of several months, senior political staff in the Prime Minister’s Office looked for a “solution” to SNC-Lavalin’s situation, and were in frequent contact with the company’s senior executives and lawyers.
Dion concluded that the “troubling tactics” by Trudeau and other officials on the file were “tantamount to political direction” and sought to undermine decisions by the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilson-Raybould.
Given Trudeau’s refusal to apologize, Philpott said she isn’t sure the prime minister and other officials grasp the scope of the ethics breach.
“It would perhaps not be surprising if they still failed to comprehend the seriousness of their actions. But it’s not a particularly difficult concept, these are intelligent people so perhaps people don’t want to understand,” she said.
That was echoed by Wilson-Raybould who told CBC Vancouver’s The Early Edition on Thursday that she did not accept Trudeau’s explanation that he was simply standing up for jobs.
“I don’t think there is any person or politician who does not want to protect jobs,” Wilson-Raybould said.
“But for individuals that are provided with the public trust to make decisions, we need to know that decisions, whether they’re about jobs, whether they’re within the justice system, are being made on a foundation of principle, of values, of recognition of what’s important for our democracy, and that is upholding the rule of law and prosecutorial independence,” said Wilson-Raybould.
“I would’ve liked, as a Canadian, to have heard an apology.”
In response to a demand from the opposition Conservatives and NDP, the House of Commons ethics committee is expected to hold a rare August meeting to discuss Dion’s findings.
Conservative MPs Peter Kent and Jacques Gourd wrote Bob Zimmer, the Conservative chair of the ethics committee, saying they find Dion’s conclusions “incredibly concerning” and requesting the ethics watchdog brief the committee.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, the ranking New Democrat on the committee, said Thursday he had also wrote to Zimmer to request a meeting.
Philpott also expressed concern with Dion’s revelation that the Privy Council Office refused to grant access to some documents and witnesses during his investigation.
“There are other parts of this story that are not public. I think Canadians would like to know that they have the whole story,” Philpott said.
Philpott noted that she too is restricted from telling all she knows because of cabinet confidentiality that has not been waived.
“I have some information that I think Canadians would find important to know that I’m not free to share,” Philpott said.
Philpott said she hopes that Canadians will consider the report’s findings in the bar they set for politicians in the coming election.
“They should make their expectations known to the people they are voting for in terms of what kind of standards they expect of their politicians,” she said.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier