The West Block transcript: Season 8, Episode 25

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THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 25, Season 8

Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Minister Jim Carr, Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Susan Delacourt, Robert Fife

Location: Ottawa

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, Feb. 24. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

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A week of stunning allegations and revelations in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, from the shocking resignation of the prime minister’s right-hand man, to the denials of a government cover-up, to demands that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould be allowed to speak freely. Here’s the Opposition in question period late last week.

List Raitt—Conservative—Milton: “Mr. Speaker, this morning the clerk of the Privy Council confirmed that he and the prime minister sought to influence the decision of the attorney general in the matter of bribery and fraud charges against SNC-Lavalin. Can the prime minister confirm that this indeed is the case?”

 

Nathan Cullen—NDP—Skeena—Bulkley Valley: “The ongoing saga of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Canadians are watching a government meltdown in front of our very eyes. According to yet another bombshell report from The Globe and Mail, the former attorney general told the cabinet this week that she was improperly pressured to get SNC-Lavalin a sweetheart plea deal in their corruption case. These Liberals promised transparency but all we see is cover-up. They promised to work for all Canadians but it’s the wealthy and well-connected that always gets what they want. With obstruction of justice allegations directed at the prime minister’s own office, how can Liberals actually stand up and stand in the way of a proper inquiry?”

 

Joining me now, International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr, also the person who the Prime Minister’s Office has designated to speak on this issue this weekend. Let’s start with asking, Minister Carr, do you know why Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned?

Minister Jim Carr: No. It wasn’t clear in the letter, but she has reasons and she will give those reasons as she sees fit to do. She’ll be appearing in front of the justice committee on Tuesday and we will learn, with more detail, what was in her mind and what motivated her and I think that’s reasonable. The system is working. The justice committee is meeting and the ethics commissioner—

Mercedes Stephenson: But she has not been given permission yet to speak by the prime minister who has that power.

Minister Jim Carr: Yeah, the prime minister has consulted the attorney general and, you know, complicated business of client-solicitor privilege.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is your sense that that’s going to be released, though, and she’s going to be able to speak freely?

Minister Jim Carr: Well also, Ms. Wilson-Raybould is consulting her own lawyer about what she thinks is appropriate. The important point is that Canadians want to hear from all sorts of people about this so that there’s some clarity in the minds of Canadians about what happened and why it happened. I think that there was some clarity this week when the clerk of the Privy Council spoke. By the way, a non-partisan public servant who served the Harper administration for eight years as deputy minister of Indigenous Affairs, he gave his interpretation of events and others will do the same.

Mercedes Stephenson: And he said that he did not think she was inappropriately pressured that there was numerous meetings. There was times when she was given some very emotive information and truthful about the number of jobs that could be lost, about the consequences for this. But where is the line between repeatedly telling the minister how urgent it is to do something and inappropriate pressure?

Minister Jim Carr: Well, the director of public prosecutions said last week that there was no political interference in this matter and, the way in which the issue—

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s because Jody Wilson-Raybould never actually went to the director of public prosecutions.

Minister Jim Carr: The prime minister said repeatedly to the former attorney general and minister of justice that this is your decision to make.

Mercedes Stephenson: Did you believe she was inappropriately pressured?

Minister Jim Carr: I believe that she made a decision that was hers to make and it was a decision that everybody is respecting. We know that there has to be a balance—

Mercedes Stephenson: But do you think that the pressure on her was inappropriate or that that’s what a minister should expect?

Minister Jim Carr: You know Canadians will have to make up their own minds. I take the testimony of the clerk of the Privy Council who is the chief non-partisan public servant. I take the prime minister’s word who says that there was no direction, that it was her decision to make. He said so many times and I believe that Canadians will—and you have to believe in the reasonableness of Canadians on this. They want—

Mercedes Stephenson: Well I think everyone believes in the reasonableness of Canadians, it’s whether there’s reasonableness in the Prime Minister’s Office in the government.

Minister Jim Carr: No. It’s the institutions of Parliament and of the government—

Mercedes Stephenson: But the allegation here is that the Prime Minister’s Office pressured her, not Parliament.

Minister Jim Carr: The system is working. The justice committee is calling witnesses. The ethics commissioner ceased of the issue and Canadians—

Mercedes Stephenson: Then why not allow Gerry Butts? Why not allow Gerry Butts to testify and give his view, since everyone believes that as one of the senior Prime Minister’s Office officials who’s being named by the anonymous sources.

Minister Jim Carr: The justice committee is acting independently as it should as a government—

Mercedes Stephenson: There’s no direction whatsoever and they did a sudden 180 there that fit with the government’s policy.

Minister Jim Carr: There is no direction. We’ve heard from the chair and other members of the committee that they have established a list that they think is the list that Canadians should hear from. It’s started already with very important testimony last week. It will continue tomorrow and beyond. And there’ll be lots of opportunity for Canadians to assess.

Mercedes Stephenson: Isn’t it a form of pressure, though, if the prime minister speaks out and says nothing wrong happened and the person, who didn’t follow through with what he wanted, was demoted? Doesn’t that send a message to cabinet ministers like you about if you don’t take the decision that you’re being told you should take there is a price to pay?

Minister Jim Carr: Mercedes, we have conversations all the time in cabinet, in one-on-one meetings with my colleagues, in small groups with the prime minister himself, with officials. To govern is to have these conversations about issues, which are sometimes controversial, and that’s why Canadians elect us to work through the complexities of these issues and to be accountable for what we do.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think she was punished?

Minister Jim Carr: No. I think that what—

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you know that? Do you know she wasn’t demoted for a reason?

Minister Jim Carr: Well, you know, you used the word demoted. I don’t know about you—

Mercedes Stephenson: I think politically there’s—

Minister Jim Carr: Well—

Mercedes Stephenson: You know—

Minister Jim Carr: You know what? I have to tell you that I have lots of friends and associates who are veterans.

Mercedes Stephenson: No one is suggesting that this is about veterans.

Minister Jim Carr: Well—

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s a suggestion that the post of attorney general is one of the most important in government. It is one of the most high profile. Other high profile ministers were not juggled, she was.

Minister Jim Carr: I heard—

Mercedes Stephenson: So you don’t think she was punished.

Minister Jim Carr: I heard Ms. Raybould-Wilson herself say how important the Veterans Affairs portfolio is and continues to be.

Mercedes Stephenson: What else did she say to you?

Minister Jim Carr: And I think that speaks to the importance of that role and also her energy that she brought to that and so much else that she’s done for Canadians.

Mercedes Stephenson: But didn’t she also tell you that she felt she was inappropriately pressured?

Minister Jim Carr: She will tell Canadians through her testimony to the justice committee—

Mercedes Stephenson: But did she tell you that?

Minister Jim Carr: How she felt about the situation as it developed. We’ve heard from the clerk—

Mercedes Stephenson: Did she tell you she felt inappropriately pressured?

Minister Jim Carr: She has spoken to us in a cabinet committee meeting. She will speak to Canadians in the justice committee environment and Canadians will have to assess what they hear.

Mercedes Stephenson: But is that a yes or a no?

Minister Jim Carr: It’s she will have every opportunity to tell her story and that’s the point. The system is working the way it should. Canadians want to have enough information to make up their own minds. I believe in the reasonableness of Canadians and I believe in the respect for the institutions of Parliament that is now playing out the way it should.

Mercedes Stephenson: Then why did you vote against an independent inquiry?

Minister Jim Carr: Because I think the system is working now. The ethics commissioner is involved, the justice committee is—

Mercedes Stephenson: But that’s a secretive process, why not put it out in the open and let the public hear?

Minister Jim Carr: Well there’s nothing secretive about the justice committee. I mean—

Mercedes Stephenson: The ethics commissioner is.

Minister Jim Carr: You probably did some numbers on how many people were watching and I bet you even more will be watching next week and that’s a good thing because it’s transparent, it’s wide-open. Canadians will see—

Mercedes Stephenson: Then why not allow a public inquiry to accomplish that?

Minister Jim Carr: There will be tough questions asked because all of the parties in the House of Commons are representing that committee.

Mercedes Stephenson: And Liberals maintain a majority on that committee, so it is not completely independent.

Minister Jim Carr: Well, it’s independent of any advice from anybody else. I know that. So they will determine what they believe to be in the interests of coming to the truth of the matter and all of your viewers will be able to assess what they hear. And that’s the way it should be.

Mercedes Stephenson: Depending on whom the Liberals allow to appear. Okay, we’ll certainly be watching to see if that attorney-client privilege gets removed and if Jody Wilson-Raybould’s able to speak freely. Thank you for joining us, minister.

Minister Jim Carr: My pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the National Energy Board approves the Trans Mountain pipeline but will the government proceed?

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The National Energy Board has approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, removing a hurdle to get the pipeline built. The consultations with the Indigenous community are still ongoing.

Joining me now from Calgary is Natural Resources Minister Amarajeet Sohi. Minister, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: Well thank you so much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: You have a 90-day deadline for cabinet to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with the pipeline. Will you meet that deadline and make a decision within the next 90 days?

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: Well if you allow me, if I can take your viewers back to the August 30th decision of the federal court of appeal. The court identified two issues with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. One was that when the initial review was undertaken in 2014, the previous government failed to include the review of the marine environment and how the tanker traffic impacts the marine environment. So we gave direction to the NEB to undertake the review and today, they have issued that important report to us. So I want to take a moment to thank the NEB staff and the NEB itself and also all the people who intervened, particularly Indigenous communities who have a deep interest in this project and the protection of the marine environment. The other aspect was that we did not fulfill our duty to consult in a meaningful way with Indigenous communities and that work is proceeding. It has started a number of months ago. So far—

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, where are you at in that process?

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: We have eight teams consulting with Indigenous communities consisting of 60 individuals. They have met with close to 85 communities already. I have met to build my relationship with Indigenous communities close to 50 of them and we are moving forward on that in a meaningful, thoughtful way. And with the issues of—

Mercedes Stephenson: So when do you anticipate that process to be finished, Minister?

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: This report is a major milestone that we have met.

Mercedes Stephenson: When do you anticipate those consultations with Indigenous groups to be finished? Will it be within the next 90 days?

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: So, you know, the work that we have done so far and the work and hard work we are doing as we speak and we will continue to do, it puts us in a very strong position in that we will be able to make a decision within the 90-day legislated framework that NEB legislation has. But at the same time, before cabinet makes its decision, we will ensure that we have adequately met our obligation to fulfill our legal duty to consult in a meaningful way, two-way dialogue with the Indigenous communities, listening to their concerns, offering accommodations where accommodation is possible. At the same time, if accommodation is not possible, explaining why that accommodation is not possible.

Mercedes Stephenson: Will you meet the 90-day deadline?

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: Our goal is to ensure that our constitutional obligation is met before cabinet can make a decision on this project. At the same time, the work that we have done so far and the work we will continue to do in the coming months, I can tell you that I feel that we are in a very strong position to conclude these consultations within the next 90 days prescribed under the legislation of the National Energy Board. But we must get it right, which means that we must meet our constitutional obligation to Indigenous peoples.

Mercedes Stephenson: There are Indigenous groups who came out on Friday and said they absolutely will not agree to this pipeline going forward. So when you finish those consultations, if you have groups that are saying no, we don’t want this, are you willing to override that despite the consultations and go ahead with the pipeline?

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: No. We recognize the diversity of opinion among Indigenous communities. There are many who oppose this project and there are many who support this project. It is my obligation and the obligation of my teams and our teams, to ensure that we are listening to all of their concerns and we’re engaging with all of them. But the end of the day, we need to make sure that we listen carefully, that we engage in a two-way meaningful dialogue, that we offer accommodations and if accommodations are not possible, explain why it is not possible. But at the end of the day, no one community has a veto on this project, but it is my responsibility and our government’s responsibility to ensure that we are doing things the right way, that we’re meeting our constitutional obligation that we engage in a two-way meaningful dialogue.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Sohi, thank you so much for joining us.

Minister Amarajeet Sohi: Thank you so much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll unpack the politics of a Prime Minister’s Office in crisis.

[Break]

Lisa Raitt—Conservative—Milton: “I remember the first time the prime minister asked me to be in cabinet. I’m sure you remember that, it would be a momentous occasion. In that conversation with the prime minister, did he mention the issues with respect to SNC-Lavalin and the difficulties that he was facing?”

 

David Lametti—Attorney General: “He did not.”

 

Murray Rankin—NDP—Victoria: “Will she be allowed to speak the truth?”

 

David Lametti—Attorney General: “We are doing our best. I am doing my best as attorney general, to find a way for that to happen.”

 

Michael Wernick—Clerk of the Privy Council: “I’m here to say to you that The Globe and Mail article contains errors, unfounded speculation and in some cases is simply defamatory.”

 

Mercedes Stephenson: That was Conservative Lisa Raitt and NDP member Murray Rankin questioning Attorney General David Lametti at the justice committee last week, plus Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick criticizing The Globe and Mail.

Joining me to unpack the politics of the crisis surrounding the Prime Minister’s Office right now is Toronto Star Bureau Chief Susan Delacourt and The Globe and Mail’s Bureau Chief Bob Fife.

Bob, this has been your story all along, your reaction to the top bureaucrat in the country coming out and saying that parts of your story verged almost on defamation.

Bob Fife: Well, you know, on politics the best defence is a strong offence and to go after and shoot the messenger. But in fact, the testimony confirmed The Globe and Mail’s reporting. We reported that there was pressure applied to Ms. Wilson-Raybould to do a differed prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin. We never said that anybody directed her to do so but there was pressured applied. He agreed that there was pressure applied but he said it was not inappropriate pressure. What’s the best thing about Mr. Wernick’s testimony before the House of Commons committee was that we now know a lot more than we—publicly, than we knew before. And it’s not anonymous sources. It’s the clerk saying there were all of these meetings right up until December 19th from the prime minister and Mr. Wernick and other senior members of the prime minister’s staff trying to get Ms. Wilson-Raybould to order the director of public prosecutions to shelve the SNC prosecution.

Mercedes Stephenson: So clearly there’s pressure. Where’s the line between pressure and inappropriate pressure?

Susan Delacourt: Well, the clerk said that that is a matter for the ethics commissioner to sort out, but I think the next thing we have to hear is Jody Wilson-Raybould’s version of what pressure is.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think they’re going to let her speak, Susan?

Susan Delacourt: I don’t know. That was a very complicated part of his testimony because he said it’s just his opinion, not his advice, that she doesn’t have solicitor-client privilege. That is also true that as a member of the House of Commons, I just learned this, this week, too, or remember it I should say, she can stand up in the House of Commons and she has parliamentary immunity. She can say whatever she wants.

Mercedes Stephenson: And she said she wants to speak the truth.

Bob Fife: Actually, my understanding that parliamentary immunity doesn’t cover solicitor-client privilege. That’s according to some lawyers that I’ve talked to about that.

Susan Delacourt: So, I think you saw David Lametti late in the week, not even at committee, but he seems to go a little bit farther each day, the attorney general, saying we’re getting there. First it was I have to review it. Then it was I may review it and he said on Friday, we’re getting there. We’re trying to make sure that she can speak.

Bob Fife: Well, I mean, the clerk said he didn’t think solicitor-client privilege applied in this particular case and she should be able to speak. Now, she has retained a former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell, highly respected jurist and lawyer. He will give her the best advice. We hope—I hope that she is allowed to tell her side of the story, because I think it’s clear there are two interpretations. She’s of the view that once the independent prosecutor has made a decision to go ahead with the prosecution does not—based on law, and the law was, including the differed prosecution law, was that you cannot give a company a break because of economic interest.

Mercedes Stephenson: Which is what they kept presenting to her over and over, according to the clerk.

Bob Fife: Right. Well, then—but they were also trying to tell her look, okay maybe that’s the case but you’ve got to get a panel of outside experts on differed prosecutions and they’ll come up with explanation for this and then you can override the independent prosecutor.

Mercedes Stephenson: Find a way.

Bob Fife: But, I think, Susan, our point is that we want to hear her side of the story and then Canadians, as Mr. Carr said, Canadians will make up their minds because there are two equally valid positions.

Susan Delacourt: And there are—I think the clerks testimony, which was—we were talking about this, just riveting television. The clerk’s position or the way he laid it out was there was a lot more going on in cabinet than just this issue and I think we’ve seen it. There was apparently quite an epic battle over Indigenous justice.

Mercedes Stephenson: And some hints to that speech that she gave that she wasn’t very happy with the government.

Susan Delacourt: That’s right, that Bob reported in the original story. So I think we’re starting to see the side of the story where this cabinet minister, the anonymous reports again, on the other side was problematic. We’re starting to see the problems were not just on this. They were, for some cabinet members, larger. And I thought it was interesting the way the clerk also defended Carolyn Bennett and came out so strongly.

Mercedes Stephenson: And she and Jody Wilson-Raybould apparently did not get along.

Susan Delacourt: Yes, and we can see that now and we can see that there wasn’t just a personality difference. There was apparently a huge policy difference.

Bob Fife: One of the things that I liked about this whole—now that they’ve pulled back the curtain, now you see how things really operate in this town. Big powerful corporation mounts a massive lobbying campaign and gets the prime minister onside, Quebec premiers onside, the clerk onside and they’ve got a stubborn attorney general who won’t cave and up until December 19th, up until Christmas she wasn’t going to cave and there’s an opportunity for a cabinet shuffle and she is moved. And we have a Montreal MP whose riding’s right adjacent to—

Mercedes Stephenson: What a coincidence.

Bob Fife: You know? And then Mr. Wernick said well this shows—because she didn’t do this showed the system worked. No, the system was supposed to work in SNC-Lavalin’s favour.

Mercedes Stephenson: One question we don’t know the answer to and it was all overshadowed the minute Jody Wilson-Raybould walked out of cabinet and all of our jaws collectively dropped—

Susan Delacourt: It was like the Bobby Ewing moment in Dallas.

Mercedes Stephenson: Who would have thought this could be overshadowed by anything. But Gerry Butts resigned, the prime minister’s principal secretary. He says he did nothing wrong so why did he resign then?

Susan Delacourt: I think that is the big unanswered question at the end of a very strange week. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gerry Butts walk into cabinet next week the way things have been going.

Mercedes Stephenson: I hear there might be an open seat in Cape Breton, so—

Susan Delacourt: Yeah, that would be a demotion for him, too. So I think we’ve got to find out that, because, you know, there were all these suggestions that Gerald Butts offered up his head to do reconciliation with Jody Wilson-Raybould. I did not see Ms. Wilson-Raybould in a particular conciliatory mood in the Commons in the wake of that. She stood up and said I want to speak my truth. It looked like she was still kind of—this whatever burning issue is still burning and Gerry Butts is now gone. And I think the story we’re going to have to look at next week, is how is this government reorganizing itself around somebody who is so central? When you talked about the centre in this government, you were talking about Gerald Butts and Katie Telford. Katie Telford’s still there but Gerald Butts is gone.

Bob Fife: Susan is right, is that they need somebody to come in now—we’ve heard our ambassador to Washington that David McNaughton as a possibility, but they need somebody—

Susan Delacourt: They denied it, yeah.

Bob Fife: To come in to get that place reorganized.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have to ask. Jagmeet Singh, is he going to win in the by-election tomorrow? Yes or no?

Bob Fife: I think he’s going to win.

Susan Delacourt: I think he’s going to win and when he gets to the House of Commons he’s going to be sorry he won.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, a lot to ask in that question. Thank you very much to our journos for joining us today.

Bob Fife: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today, thanks for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, see you next week.

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