SNC Lavalin – The Forgotten Scandal

Commentary, Government, Brian Giesbrecht

The SNC Lavalin saga finally came to an end on December 18, 2019 with the company pleading guilty to a fraud charge and receiving a whopping $280,000,000 fine. The guilty plea brought to a conclusion charges filed against the company by the RCMP and the Public Prosecution of Canada in 2015. Interestingly, the result the company obtained was basically the same as the deferred prosecution agreement would have yielded – the now infamous deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) that the company lobbied so hard to obtain.

However, the finalization of the SNC Lavalin charges does not absolve the Prime Minister or his senior colleagues of responsibility in the matter. RCMP spokespeople promised last September to relaunch their investigation into the Prime Minister’s role in the Wilson-Raybould/SNC Lavalin affair after the October 2019 election. There is no word yet that they have done so.

It will be remembered that last spring the SNC Lavalin scandal was front and centre in the news. The Globe and Mail broke the story of the Justice Minister virtually under siege by the Prime Minister and his colleagues who were determined to make the Justice Minister change her mind, thus loosening the screws on the politically powerful Quebec firm. The Prime Minister was absolutely determined to pressure the Justice Minister into ordering that a deferred prosecution agreement be substituted for criminal proceedings against the company. Wilson-Raybould was fired as Justice Minister and Attorney-General after refusing to buckle to this pressure. Canadians were transfixed by the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould at the Justice Committee hearings explaining why she insisted on standing up for her principles.

We know how that turned out. Wilson-Raybould was expelled from the Liberal caucus by an unrepentant Prime Minister. Then, on Aug 14, 2019 Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion issued a scathing report on the SNC Lavalin affair, finding that the Prime Minister violated Section 9 of the federal Conflict of Interest Act. According to Dion, the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues had not only violated the section “in many ways”, they refused to allow Wilson-Raybould and other senior liberals, whom the police were interested in interviewing, to pierce the veil of cabinet confidentiality and speak candidly about events that took place after Wilson-Raybould’s firing as the Justice Minister. This seriously impeded Dion’s investigation into the matter.

Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke out following what was generally viewed as her vindication by Dion’s report. She said that she had been contacted by the RCMP and interviewed about the matter. A senior RCMP spokesperson confirmed this fact to the Globe and Mail. The spokesperson insisted that this interview was not part of a formal investigation, but advised that the investigation – by whatever term they chose to call it – would be halted during the election period, and relaunched after the election. Very significantly, the spokesperson also acknowledged- as had the Ethics Commissioner – that cabinet confidentiality would have to be lifted for the RCMP to do a proper investigation.

At stake is whether or not the Prime Minister and/or some of his most senior colleagues might be guilty of a crime, such as obstruction of justice. Section 139 of the Criminal Code states that “a person who wilfully attempts in any manner to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice in a judicial proceeding” is guilty of a crime.

Whether or not the Prime Minister or his colleagues would be found guilty is an open question that could only be determined by a trial. However – and this is crucial – the only way for the RCMP to be able to do a proper investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted is for the Prime Minister to order that cabinet confidentiality be lifted. In that way Wilson-Raybould, and the other senior people that the RCMP need to question, could speak candidly.

The election is long over and to date the RCMP have made no announcement about this matter. It is time that they did. Canadians have watched Jody Wilson-Raybould testify about how she chose “to speak truth to power” – that is, to stand up for a principle. They have also watched her colleague, Jane Philpott, stand in solidarity with her colleague and resign. Wilson-Raybould had her own agenda, but on the SNC Lavalin issue she was indeed standing up for principle. In Philpott’s case, there was no other agenda – it was principle pure and simple.

Both women had their political careers ruined. Wilson-Raybould has been returned to Parliament as an independent, and now sits on the outer reaches of the back bench. Philpott lost, and her political career appears to be over.

But more important than the future of these two women is the integrity of the rule of law in our country. As it stands, there is no such thing. Determined politicians can cast it aside when their favoured project is under threat. Only a trial can put this right. The RCMP should get on with their job.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.