Former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould said she faced inappropriate pressure to interfere in a criminal case against a Canadian engineering firm. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime minister denies political interference in SNC-Lavalin affair

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Former Attorney-General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she faced inappropriate political pressure from the prime minister and other high level officials to interfere in the criminal prosecution of engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin. In a lengthy, detailed presentation to the justice committee of the House of Common, Wilson-Raybould said she had made a decision to not intervene, but that subsequently there were 11 occasions when she was pressed to interfere. “I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion…” she told the committee.

Prime minister ‘totally disagrees’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he totally disagrees with how Wilson-Raybould described discussions with him and his staff, and he insisted that he and his staff acted “appropriately and professionally” Trudeau added an investigation by the ethics commissioner will decide who is telling the truth.

There will be an emergency debate in the House of Commons at 7pm ET on Feb. 28, 2019.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau totally disagrees with how Jody Wilson-Raybould characterized the discussions about the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin. (CBC)

Judicial independence a pillar of democracy

In a democracy, it is important for the judiciary, which is responsible for the courts, to not be subject to any political influence.

“In terms of principles that Canadians hold such as equity, equality, fairness…you know, just because say, there’s a rich corporation or somebody belongs to a political party, that should  not mean that they receive special treatment as compared to those who are not in those positions. I think that’s what’s really important,” says Kim Speers, assistant teaching professor at the University of Victoria.

Part of the problem, she believes, is that Wilson-Raybould held two positions with conflicting mandates. As attorney-general she was legal counsel to the government and supposed to eschew political influence. As minister of justice she participated in cabinet meetings and took part in discussions about government direction. Speers believes the positions should be held by two different people to avoid what she sees as conflicting mandates.

Controversy comes ahead of a federal election

It is not clear how damaging the SNC-Lavalin issue will be for the government. The prime minister continues to say his goal is preserve jobs. About 9,000 people are employed at the engineering firm. If it were convicted on two criminal charges involving bribes in Libya it would be barred from bidding on government contracts for 10 years.

Instead, the prime minister wished legal authorities to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement whereby the firm would pay a fine and fulfil certain requirements. The decision on which path to take is supposed to be made free of political concerns.

The leader of the opposition Conservative Party is demanding the prime minister resign over this controversy. The leader of the New Democratic Party is calling for a public inquiry. Some analysts suggest the prime minister should immediately call an election rather than wait for a vote already slated for October 2019.

Prof. Kim Speers discusses Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony about the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

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Listen to part of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony before the House of Commons justice committee courtesy CBC News.

Listen to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reaction to Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony courtesy CBC News.

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