The clerk of the privy council and secretary to the cabinet, Michael Wernick, delivered astonishing opening remarks in an appearance today before the Commons justice committee.
He began by saying he's "deeply concerned" about the country, its politics, and where things are going.
"I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election and we're working hard on that," Wernick said. "I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like treason and traitor in open discourse.
"Those are the words that lead to assassination," he continued. "I'm worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign."
He didn't mention anyone by name. But he did say that he feels it's "totally unacceptable" for a parliamentarian to incite people to drive trucks over other people after what happened in Toronto last summer.
This week, Conservative senator David Tkachuk urged United We Roll protesters to "roll over every Liberal left in the country".
"I hope that you, as parliamentarians, are going to condemn that," Wernick stated.
"I worry about the reputations of honourable people who've served their country being besmirched and dragged through the market square," the clerk of the privy council added. "I worry about the trolling from the vomitorium of social media entering the open media arena.
"Most of all, I worry about people losing faith in the institutions of governance in this country."
Some of the clerk's sharpest words concerned a February 7 Globe and Mail article, which cited unnamed sources in claiming that former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould felt pressured to substitute a prosecution of SNC-Lavalin with a deferred prosecution agreement.
Wernick purported that it "contains errors, unfounded speculation, and in some cases is simply defamatory".
At one point, Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi quoted from the article, which stated that Wilson-Raybould's speeches "earned her a private rebuke from clerk of the privy council".
Wernick declared that this never happened.
He elaborated by saying he has known Wilson-Raybould for almost 15 years and when he was the deputy minister of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, they walked a path together for many years in seeking reconciliation.
"I considered her a partner, an ally, and a friend, and I would have too much respect for a minister of the crown to rebuke someone," Wernick said. "That is from an anonymous source about a conversation that would have been between me and the minister. And I'm telling you it did not happen."
Clerk says rule of law is protected
"Should Canadians be concerned about the rule of law in this country? No," Wernick insisted. "In the matter of SNC-Lavalin it is now seven years since the first police raid on the company, four years since charges were laid by the RCMP, and during that entire time and up to today, the independence of the investigative and prosecutorial function has never been compromised. The matter is proceeding to trial."
He pointed out that the director of public prosecutions has issued a statement declaring: "I am confident that our prosecutors in this and every case exercise the discretion independently and free from any political or partisan consideration."
"That is from the DPP," Wernick said. "The only communications with the director of public prosecutions about the potential use of a deferred prosecution agreement—an instrument provided for by legislation—were conducted by the minister, as is appropriate.
"In this matter the laws that you are parliamentarians created around ethics in government are demonstrably working," the clerk added. "The prosecutor is independent. The Lobbying Act worked as intended. The ethics commissioner self-initiated his own process.
"In other words, the shields held. The software that is supposed to protect our democracy is working."
Then he asked if there's two-tiered justice in Canada before answering with a resounding "No—demonstrably not!"
"Despite the most extensive government-relations effort in modern times, including meetings with officials, political staff, the opposition leaders, paid advertising, advocacy by two consecutive premiers of Quebec, the company did not get what it wanted—demonstrably, because they're seeking judicial review," Wernick said. "Are we soft on corporate crime? No."
He explained that deferred prosecution agreements "are an attempt to balance public policy interests". He also insisted that it's a legitimate concern" for governments, workers, suppliers, pensioners, and communities in which a company operates that they don't suffer for the misdeeds of corporate officers.
"A deferred prosecution agreement is not an acquittal, an amnesty, an exoneration, a get-out-of-jail-free card, or slap on the wrist," Wernick said. It is what it says: an agreement to defer prosecution. It is subject to compliance and it can be revoked.
"DPAs were not slipped into Canadian law. There were consultations leading up to the bill, which drew 370 participants and 75 written submissions before a December 2017 deadline. And I'm sure some of those submissions would be available to this committee."
Opposition MPs focus on SNC-Lavalin lobbying
Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said that she found it odd that 13 days after SNC-Lavalin learned that it would not qualify for a deferred prosecution agreement that it would have a meeting with the senior civil servant (Wernick).
Moreover, she asked about his earlier testimony that the company didn't raise this issue at that meeting in September.
"Is that your testimony?" Raitt asked.
"I don't know if they did or not," Wernick replied before saying he makes it a practice of meeting with a lot of people and a lot of companies.
In response to a question from Liberal MP Randy Bissonault, Wernick said that the prime minister indicated to Wilson-Raybould that a decision to grant a deferred prosecution agreement was hers alone.
Wernick also confirmed earlier reports that Trudeau had met with Wilson-Raybould in September after the deferred prosecution was rejected. And Trudeau's former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, discussed the issue with Wilson-Raybould on December 5.
In his resignation letter, Butts insisted that he didn't apply pressure to Wilson-Raybould.
Wernick said that he spoke to Wilson-Raybould on December 19 about economic issues related to SNC-Lavalin. Plus, he said there was a conversation between staff in the prime minister's office and Wilson-Raybould's former chief of staff on December 18.
NDP committee member Murray Rankin pointed out that SNC-Lavalin had dozens of meetings with officials after it learned that it wouldn't receive a deferred prosecution agreement.
"If she [Wilson-Raybould] never got directed, she certainly got fired," Rankin said, referring to her cabinet demotion from justice minister to minister of veterans affairs. "Those are the facts. Oh, I'm sorry—'removed'. Those are the facts."
Then Rankin asked Wernick: "How can you not acknowledge she might have felt a tad of pressure in those circumstances?"
"During the time she was minister of justice, she did not exercise the option of a deferred prosecution agreement and she was not fired," Wernick replied. "She was offered another position in cabinet because the shuffle came up in early January and she accepted it."
Wernick added that at any time, Wilson-Raybould could have picked up the phone and called the prime minister or the ethics commissioner.
Rankin also cited retired lawyer Andrew Roman's blog post that all of the company's lobbying of the prime minister's staff could only have one purpose—to go over the attorney general's head.
And the purpose was, according to Roman, to encourage Wilson-Raybould to change her mind without it being seen in this light—and that was damaging to the rule of law.
Rankin wanted to hear Wernick's response.
"I don't agree with that," Wernick replied. "I don't agree with the premise or the conclusion."
The clerk went on to say that there are "appropriate conversations" to have with the attorney general about matters like this.
But Rankin didn't let go.
"It would appear to most people that our former attorney general certainly felt that pressure coming from someone," the NDP MP said.
Wernick responded by saying that he's quite sure the minister felt pressure to get it right—but the real issue is whether there was "inappropriate pressure". And he insisted that he did not cross a line and apply inappropriate pressure.
Rankin then asked how he could not infer that there was inappropriate pressure, given the wording of her public statement after she was transferred from the justice ministry to become the minister of veterans affairs.
"You should ask her directly," Wernick said.
Rankin also raised the issue of Wilson-Raybould being bound by solicitor-client privilege.
"It will be up to the minister how she chooses to respond to your question," Wernick responded, noting that she can decide where to draw the line.