5 things we learned from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s report on Justin Trudeau

Canada World

Despite all that has been written about the SNC-Lavalin affair since this story began earlier this year, there is still more to learn about the controversy.

On Wednesday, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion released a report that found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould when he exerted pressure on her around a decision to deny a deferred prosecution agreement to Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

“The evidence showed there were many ways in which Mr. Trudeau, either directly or through the actions of those under his direction, sought to influence the attorney general,” Dion said in his report

Wilson-Raybould responded Wednesday, saying in a statement that Dion’s report was a vindication because it “confirms critical facts, consistent with what I shared with Canadians, and affirms the position I have taken from the outset,” namely, that there “were multiple attempts to improperly influence my decision.”

Here are five things we learned from Dion’s report into Trudeau’s role in the SNC-Lavalin affair. 

1. Dion says Justin Trudeau bears the blame

Trudeau takes questions in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., about Dion’s report, which found he breached ethics rules. (Andrej Ivanov/Reuters)

Dion found that while several “agents” worked on behalf of Trudeau to influence Wilson-Raybould’s decision, they did not do so based simply on the virtue of their position.

Dion said he does not have reasonable grounds to pursue examinations of their conduct, and does not believe they breached ethics rules.

“They acted in accordance with the general direction set by Trudeau in Sept. 2018 and did not receive instruction to cease communications, even once related legal proceedings had commenced.” 

2. How Wilson-Raybould was viewed by PMO

Trudeau’s legal counsel wrote a detailed brief that was sent to Dion detailing the prime minister’s working relationship with his former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, which Dion referenced in his report.  

According to Dion’s references to the brief, Trudeau was concerned with the ongoing friction between Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister’s Office and between the justice minister and cabinet generally. An example was given, bereft of details, outlining how Wilson-Raybould once refused to share details with cabinet about a recommendation she had asked her fellow ministers it to consider. 

The brief said Wilson-Raybould felt that co-operating with the PMO and cabinet was not something she was required to — or even should — do.

Wilson-Raybould, the legal briefing said, failed in her duty as attorney general to “acquaint herself with all the relevant facts. Rather than making a meaningful independent decision of her own, Wilson-Raybould reflexively deferred to the director of public prosecutions decision.”

In sum, the prime minister’s lawyer wrote, “Wilson-Raybould’s decision-making process was inadequate and was infected by legal misunderstanding and political motivation.”

In a new book coming out next week, Trudeau tells CBC senior writer Aaron Wherry that even before the SNC-Lavalin affair broke publicly the relationship with Wilson-Raybould was a problem for him.

3. Wilson-Raybould’s due diligence

Jody Wilson-Raybould said she felt the push for a change in law around deferred prosecution agreements was being rushed to accommodate SNC-Lavalin. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The former justice minister and attorney general told the parliamentary committee looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair in the spring that she had done her due diligence when she made up her mind on whether or not the company qualified for a deferred prosecution agreement. But she didn’t reveal what that due diligence was until she was interviewed by Dion for his report.  

“Wilson‑Raybould, through briefings and advice received from her deputy minister and her ministerial staff, evaluated several possible means of intervening in the matter and engaged in consultations, including with several former attorneys general, to obtain guidance and advice,” Dion wrote in his report. 

4. Wilson-Raybould refused to touch the DPA law

Between Sept. 25 and Dec. 8, 2017, the federal government conducted public consultations to gauge support for changes to the Criminal Code that would allow Canadian companies to apply for a deferred prosecution agreement. 

The results of those consultations were published Feb. 22, 2018, and five days later amendments to the Criminal Code were included in the Budget Implementation Act. The move paved the way for DPAs to become law, which they did on June 21 that same year. 

And while changes to the Criminal Code are normally expected to be led by the minister of justice, Dion said that Wilson-Raybould had expressed concerns the public consultation and amendments to the code were rushed.

Dion writes that she told him the push for a DPA regime was not only rushed, but was driven by the SNC-Lavalin case and as such she did not participate in the presentation of the changes to cabinet and refused to speak publicly or before a parliamentary committee about them either. 

5. New Privy Council clerk rebuffed Dion

Former clerk of the privy council Michael Wernick, left, and current Clerk of the Privy Council, Ian Shugart, are responsible for maintaining cabinet confidences. Once the clerk has ruled that something is a cabinet confidence, their decision is final and cannot be appealed to a court.

Ian Shugart, who became clerk of the Privy Council after the SNC-Lavalin hearings had played out, declined Dion’s request for access to all cabinet confidence related to the examination of Trudeau’s role in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

In his report, Dion said that without access to all cabinet documents related to the SNC-Lavalin affair, witnesses he interviewed were not able to provide complete evidence, which he said impacted his ability to investigate Trudeau’s role. 

In Canada, the clerk of the privy council has three jobs. The first is to act as the deputy minister for the prime minister, fulfilling a bureaucratic role. The second is to be secretary of the federal cabinet and the third is to act as the head of the federal public service.

As the secretary to cabinet the clerk decides what is a cabinet confidence and what is not. All decisions are final and cannot be appealed to a court. Cabinet confidences are not released publicly unless the prime minister issues a waiver, or expands an existing waiver. Trudeau did not expand the waiver he issued for Wilson-Raybould’s parliamentary testimony in this case. 

Dion was critical of his limited access to cabinet confidences.

“Decisions that affect my jurisdiction under the Act, by setting parameters on my ability to receive evidence, should be made transparently and democratically by Parliament, not by the very same public office holders who are subject to the regime I administer.”

WATCH | PM and opposition leaders react to commissioner’s report:

With the federal election drawing near, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are calling on Canadians to vote out Trudeau as prime minister. 1:43

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