The former justice minister’s actions show that protecting the prime minister wasn’t her priority.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 8, 2019.
OTTAWA—Imagine being given the privilege to serve in not one but two positions in cabinet, an opportunity that is afforded to only a few Canadians in every generation.
All members of the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the prime minister, something that seems to have escaped Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general.
It is almost comical to see her claiming her motivation was protecting her boss and promoting the independence of the judiciary. She sees no problem in demanding that the prime minister tell her successor what to do.
She also sees no problem in breaking her own legal oath by secretly taping a client, and then claiming it happened because she didn’t have a handy note taker at home.
The former minister’s infamous five conditions prove one thing: the self-identified truth teller does not always tell the whole truth.
Her fifth condition was a blatant breach of prosecutorial responsibility. All prosecutors have a duty to continually consult and to update decisions based on new facts that can emerge right up until court judgment day.
Maybe the minister did not understand that.
The biggest mistake made by the prime minister was putting someone in the job so lacking in judicial experience.
That lack of wisdom became clear two years ago, when the former minister was charged with finding a replacement to retiring chief justice Beverley McLachlin. She wrote a 60-page report recommending that a Manitoba judge take the top job, even though he had never served in the top court.
The prime minister balked because the candidate had publicly questioned the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.
She appeared to be motivated principally by the creation of an opening in Manitoba’s top job, not the experience required by a chief justice. Media reports said she hoped to replace the top judge with Manitoba’s first Indigenous chief justice.
Trudeau vetoed her choice, as well he should have. That marked the beginning of the breakdown in trust between the former minister and the prime minister.
In the case of SNC-Lavalin, the prime minister never directed her.
The secret tape she made of her conversation with the former clerk of the Privy Council made that very clear.
Rather, the prime minister wanted to make sure that all legal options were exhausted in advance of making a decision, which sounded reasonable and within prosecutorial parameters. A second opinion from a former chief justice was entirely reasonable.
The minister should have understood her obligation to review the facts right up to a criminal conviction. But that runs counter to her claim that politicians should never give any input to any attorney general. Except her.
Wilson-Raybould’s five conditions have prompted a lot of people to revisit their perspective that she was acting out of principle and not political expediency. Even the deputy leader of the New Democratic Party weighed in with this viewpoint before his leader hastily shut him down.
The former minister’s five demands run counter to the long-held principle that a minister serves in cabinet at the pleasure of the prime minister.
Instead, Wilson-Raybould seems to believe the reverse. The prime minister is supposed to publicly apologize and staffers in his office are to be fired. She wanted the head of the former clerk of the Privy Council, even though the secret tape she released shows that Wernick treated her with professionalism and courtesy.
So many people have viewed this issue through a feminist or Indigenous lens, but they missed the big picture.
Wilson-Raybould kept saying she wanted to protect the prime minister. If that was the case, why did she not quickly respond to the original Globe and Mail leak saying there was no problem, and she would review the matter?
Instead, she and her colleague Jane Philpott worked industriously to shop the story around Ottawa for weeks.
When the government introduced the budget, Philpott made sure she disrupted the message by giving an interview to Maclean’s magazine, which landed like a thunderbolt in the middle of the budget debate.
Philpott said she did not seek any interview opportunities, but other journalists came forward to say they had been offered the same story.
Trudeau had no choice but to lance this caucus boil.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.