Another cabinet member from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration has resigned over the scandal involving SNC-Lavalin. The first person to resign was Judy Wilson-Raybould.
Treasury Board President Jane Philpott stepped down from her position because she believes the government is mishandling the fallout over the SNC-Lavalin case, wherein a Canadian engineering company was accused of paying bribes in Libya to get contracts.
This second resignation follows close at the heels of Trudeau’s former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation on February 12,2019, after claiming that that she was pressured by his advisers to drop criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin.
Wilson-Raybould alleges that Trudeau’s advisors inappropriately tried to influence her to not prosecute SNC-Lavalin.
What is SNC Lavalin?
Wilson-Raybould was tasked with prosecuting SNC-Lavalin for corporate corruption.
BBC reports that the firm and two of its subsidiaries are facing fraud and bribery charges after allegedly paying off Libyan officials for contracts between 2001 and 2011.
This isn’t the first time SNC-Lavalin has been embroiled in controversy.
In 2013, the World Bank banned SNC-Lavalin from bidding on contracts for 10 years after it investigated an alleged “conspiracy to pay bribes and misrepresentations when bidding for bank-financed contracts” related to a bridge construction project in Bangladesh.
Again, in 2016, SNC-Lavalin was hauled up by the Commissioner of Canada Elections for making illegal campaign donations.
The firm then tried to disguise these donations as bonuses or refunds of personal expenses.
A bulk of these illegal funds—$83,534—was funneled into Trudeau’s Liberal Party. The Conservative Party got $3,137.
Former Attorney General Wilson-Raybould was tasked with prosecuting the company for fraud and bribery.
What is the scandal?
Trudeau has been dealing with a growing corruption scandal ever since former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould made explosive claims about being pressured by government officials.
On February 12, Wilson-Raybould resigned, but offered no details on why, as she was seeking legal counsel on what she is permitted to discuss.
Then, on February 27, she made a statement before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights saying that she was being asked to politically interfere in judicial proceedings.
“I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada”, she said in her testimony.
She said that 11 people from the offices of Trudeau, Privy Council, and Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau, tried to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
A Deferred Prosecution Agreement is a kind of plea bargain that makes a company pay steep fines, but lets it avoid prosecution that could potentially result in bankruptcy.
SNC-Lavalin also made a statement asking why the Deferred Prosecution Agreement was not made available to it despite being passed into Canadian law in 2018.
“The people who have committed wrongdoing should be prosecuted; only one individual has charges against him regarding our criminal charges”, said the company.
SNC-Lavalin added that prosecuting the entire company could be devastating for its employees, who will bear the financial brunt of the ordeal.
Wilson-Raybould alleged that government officials pressured her for the same deal via call, email, text, and in-person.
“Within these conversation, there were express statements regarding the necessity for interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter”, she said.
Wilson-Raybould added that she also received “veiled threats” and was informed by Trudeau that she was being “shuffled out” of her job as attorney general.
Wilson-Raybould said former Principal Secretary Gerald Butts was one of the officials involved in pushing for a remediation agreement instead of a full criminal prosecution.
She claims that even Trudeau himself suggested that SNC’s being prosecuted could leave to a loss of jobs in Quebec, because the company will move from Montreal.
According to Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau said that the prosecution could hurt his political status as he was an MP from Quebec and there was an election coming up.
She added that Former Principal Secretary Gerald Butts also urged her to “find a solution” in lieu of a prosecution.
In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould stressed her indigenous identity and the impact it has had on her experience as attorney-general.
She said, “The history of the Crown-Indigenous relations in this country, includes a history of the rule of law not being respected… in the history of our country we have not always upheld foundational values such as the rule of law in our relations with indigenous peoples.”
“And I have seen the negative impacts for freedom, equality, and a just society this can have firsthand”, Wilson-Raybould said implying that her experience as an indigenous person is proof that governments can operate corruptly.
Butts resigned after Wilson-Raybould’s allegations, even though he denies all of her accusations.
“I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in his [Trudeau] office pressured Ms Wilson-Raybould”, he said in a statement about his resignation.
He added that he did not want his presence in the government to be a distraction from the good work Trudeau was doing.
“Public institutions are bigger and more important than any of their temporary occupants”, Butts said.
On Monday, President of the Treasury Board Jane Philpott also resigned.
She said that cabinet ministers are expected to support each other publicly, but given the current scandal, she cannot do that.
“Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me”, said Philpott in her resignation.
She added that the independence of the Canadian justice system was at stake.
“I have lost confidence in how the government dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised”, she said.
Wilson-Raybould expressed her support for Philpott by calling her the “Mother of Country” who is committed to doing the right thing.
Philpott has not responded publicly to Wilson-Raybould.
Philpott added that her constituents have also suggested she resign.
One could make the argument that Philpott’s resignation is one that furthers her own interested as a politician seeking to get re-elected and keep her constituents happy.
Philpott represents the Markham-Stouffville district in Ontario and won with 49.2% of the vote in 2015.
The runner-up was Paul Calandra, a candidate from the Conservative Party, who earned 42.8% of the vote.
So, while Philpott is a liberal politician, her district does have a strong conservative voice that wants Trudeau to resign.
Leader of the Conservative Party Andrew Scheer said, “Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this country, now that Canadians know what he’s done.”
The Vancouver Granville Electoral District Association also tweeted its support for Wilson-Raybould, its elected Member of Parliament.
Leader of the New Democratic Party Jagmeet Singh also said that Trudeau may need to resign. Singh also suggested a public inquiry into the matter.
Trudeau said that he and his staff have behaved appropriately and not tried to place Wilson-Raybould under professional duress.
“There is a process, both at the justice committee and indeed at the ethics commissioner that will make a determination on what actually happened here”, said Trudeau.
Canada’s Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is an independent official who has already launched an investigation into the matter.
Wilson-Raybould herself said that while the pressure was inappropriate, it was not illegal.
“It is appropriate for Cabinet colleague to draw to the Attorney General’s attention what they see as important public policy considerations that are relevant to decisions about how a prosecution will proceed”, she said.
“What is not appropriate is pressing on the Attorney General matters that she or he cannot take into account, such as partisan political considerations”.
Butts, who is also a long-time friend of Trudeau’s, is testifying before Congress on Wednesday.
Butts resigned last month saying although no government official committed any wrong-doing, he did not want his position in the government to be a distraction.
After watching Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Butts wrote a letter to Chair of the Justice and Human Rights Committee Anthony Housefather saying that his evidence will be of assistance to the committee.
City News says that Trudeau’s supporters are hoping Butts “will finally provide another side to the story that will help the government defend itself against accusations of political interference in the justice system.”
Similar cases of corporate corruption in India
Corruption from private entities is hardly a shocking matter in India.
In January this year, Cobrapost unveiled a huge Rs 31,000 crore fraud scandal run by the Dewan Housing Finance Corporation Limited (DHFL) and its subsidiaries.
Like SNC-Lavalin, DHFL loaned defunct shell companies money that eventually found its way to the Wadhawan family that runs DHFL.
Wilson-Raybould also highlighted that the Canadian government has an unsavoury past with marginalised communities like the aboriginals.
This is also similar to India’s treatment of marginalised groups like tribals.
In February, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of millions of forest-dwelling tribal families saying that they had no right to live there.
Groups supporting the tribals believe that the SC is violating the Forest Rights Act 2006 that allows these families to live in the forests legally.
While Canada and India may not perfectly mirror each other politically, they do share issues of fraud, bribery, and ill treatment of marginalised communities. Any discussion about the Trudeau political scandal, merits a deeper examination of both nations’ political conscience.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.
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