The former right-hand man of Justin Trudeau is returning to Ottawa's Parliament Hill in an attempt to help stop a growing corruption scandal from destroying the Canadian prime minister's career.
Earlier this week, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau's former Attorney General, delivered explosive testimony that alleged the Canadian leader and his senior aides pressured her to intervene and defer criminal charges in a case against Montréal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
If the current bribery charges that the firm is facing — which date back to contracts the company was awarded in Qaddafi-era Libya — lead to a conviction, it would be banned from bidding on federal contracts for a decade. That would likely result in the firm either dissolving or moving out of the country.
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was a political earthquake for the Liberal Party, which entered 2019 expecting to sail to a relatively easy second term at an election scheduled for this October. Overnight, the party’s chances at re-election have dimmed considerably, and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer this week took the extraordinary step of calling for Trudeau’s resignation.
“Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this great nation now that Canadians know what he has done,” the Tory leader said following Wilson-Raybould’s testimony.
Trudeau and his allies in the government have denied that Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is accurate, but they will soon have a testimony of their own to directly refute her. Following her appearance before the House of Commons Justice Committee, the Prime Minister’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts asked the committee’s chair — via Twitter — if he, too, could testify about the SNC-Lavalin affair. Such a request is unusual but reflects the unprecedented nature of the current scandal engulfing Canadian politics.
It seems unlikely Butts will admit to any wrongdoing when he testifies before the committee. In his 18 February resignation letter, he wrote, “at all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians...From my perspective, our relationship [between Butts and Wilson-Raybould] has always been defined by mutual respect, candor and an honest desire to work together.”
For nearly four years, Butts was the most powerful person in the Prime Minister’s office, and is considered the architect of the campaign that catapulted the Liberal Party from third-place to the government benches at the 2015 federal election. But Butts abruptly resigned from his position in February, days after the SNC-Lavalin scandal was first broken by The Globe & Mail.
It isn’t known yet exactly what Butts will say in his testimony, expected this coming Wednesday, but it is nearly certain he will come to the defense of the office he left several weeks ago, and in particular Trudeau himself, chief of staff Katie Telford, and legal advisor Mathieu Bouchard, all of whom were accused directly by Wilson-Raybould of attempting to politically interfere in the SNC court case.
“In my view, these events constituted pressure [from Trudeau, Butts, Telford and Bouchard] to intervene in a matter and that this pressure or political interference to intervene was not appropriate. However, Canadians can judge this for themselves, as we now have the same frame of information,” she said in her testimony.
Even if Trudeau manages to weather the scandal and cling to power at this fall’s election, many in his party are now unsure he should stay on as leader. Wilson-Raybould herself is reportedly among those in the party with prime ministerial aspirations.
That could be among the reasons why Trudeau suggested at a press conference in St. Hubert, Que., earlier this week that he was considering kicking Wilson-Raybould out of the Liberal caucus.
"I have taken knowledge of her testimony and there are still reflections to have on next steps," he said.
She had previously reaffirmed her desire to remain a Liberal MP, and committed to running for re-election under the party’s banner in her wealthy inner-Vancouver seat. However, Trudeau could unilaterally decide to remove her from the party’s parliamentary caucus anyway. If next week’s testimony doesn’t succeed in changing the channel on the scandal, it seems likely he may choose to do just that.