The SNC-Lavalin affair claimed its fourth resignation Monday as Michael Wernick announced he will step down as the country’s top public servant, having concluded he’s lost the trust of opposition parties.
Opposition parties have been calling for the clerk of the Privy Council’s resignation since he first vehemently rejected allegations that he and others improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Wernick’s combative testimony to the House of Commons justice committee was denounced as partisan and unbecoming of a senior bureaucrat.
Also on Monday, the Liberals who make up a majority on that committee said publicly that they believe it has done all it can, or should, to investigate the affair.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, Wernick said he will retire before this fall’s federal election campaign kicks off. He noted that the clerk is supposed to be “an impartial arbiter of whether serious foreign interference” occurs during the campaign, as part of a new federal watchdog panel, and is also supposed to be ready to help whichever party is elected to form government – two roles he no longer believes he can fulfil.
“It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties,” Wernick wrote. “I wish to relinquish these roles before the election. It is essential that Canadians continue to see their world-leading public service as non-partisan and there to provide excellent services to Canadians and the governments they elect.”
Wernick, who has served in senior public service roles for nearly 38 years, has been clerk of the Privy Council since 2016, shortly after the Trudeau Liberals assumed office. Government insiders have said he wanted to retire as clerk a year ago but was persuaded to stay on.
Wilson-Raybould has accused Wernick of making “veiled threats” that she’d lose her job as justice minister and attorney general if she didn’t cave in to pressure last fall from Trudeau and his senior staff to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on charges of bribery and corruption related to contracts in Libya. She has said they pushed her to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with the Montreal engineering giant, which would have forced the company to pay stiff penalties but let it avoid the risk of a criminal conviction that could threaten its financial viability.
Wernick has denied the accusation and maintained that all concerned acted with the highest standards of integrity.
Wilson-Raybould’s concerns about undue pressure only surfaced publicly after she was moved out of the justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs in a mid-January cabinet shuffle. She resigned from cabinet a month later. Her exit was followed by the departure of Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and then the resignation from cabinet of Jane Philpott, who cited loss of confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Wernick’s decision to quit as well proves “this SNC-Lavalin scandal is even bigger than we thought,” said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre.
Trudeau said he intends to name Ian Shugart, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, to replace Wernick.
On his way into the House of Commons, Trudeau thanked the clerk for his “extraordinary service to Canada over many, many decades” and credited his government’s accomplishments “definitely in large part” to Wernick’s leadership of the public service. Trudeau did not respond when asked if he’d sought Wernick’s resignation but his office later said he had not.
Wernick’s letter was released minutes before MPs reconvened for their first question period after a two-week March break, an exchange that proved explosive almost from the get-go.
Opposition members erupted in protest when Trudeau announced he’d appointed former Liberal justice minister Anne McLellan as a special adviser to explore what he called “important questions” about the relationship between the federal government and the minister of justice, who plays a dual role as attorney general. While the justice minister is a political player, the attorney general is supposed to make independent, impartial decisions about prosecutions.
McLellan “will assess the structure that has been in place since Confederation, of a single minister holding the positions of minister of justice and attorney general of Canada,” the prime minister said in a statement. “She will consider whether machinery-of-government or legislative changes may or may not be recommended.”
“Her work will be another important step towards maintaining Canadians’ confidence in their institutions,” he told the Commons.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer mocked the announcement as nothing more than saying “Liberals will investigate Liberals.”
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus ridiculed the idea of a Liberal minister from the era of the sponsorship scandal looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair, which he dubbed “a five-alarm dumpster fire.”
As for Wernick, Angus professed no surprise at his decision to retire.
“I think once we saw how much of an active political player Mr. Wernick was in the SNC scandal, it became impossible for him to carry on his job, which is to have the trust of all parliamentarians on key matters of policy,” he said outside the Commons.
Angus also said Wernick should have “known better” in the way he presented himself before the justice committee, suggesting he was combative, evasive and partisan.
MPs on the committee were taken aback when he prefaced his initial testimony with a diatribe about the deteriorating tenor of political discourse, with incitements to violence that he said made him fear someone will be assassinated during the coming election campaign. He cited the example of a Conservative senator who’d urged truckers in a pipeline protest on Parliament Hill to “roll over every Liberal” in the country.
Wernick engaged in a number of testy exchanges with opposition MPs. In a second appearance, he suggested profane messages he received through the social media “vomitorium” after his first appearance amounted to witness intimidation.
The Liberal-dominated committee is to meet Tuesday to consider opposition demands to recall Wilson-Raybould. She has already testified for nearly four hours but has indicated she has more to say, particularly about the period between her move to Veterans Affairs and her resignation a month later.
But the five Liberals on the justice committee – Edmonton’s Randy Boissonault, Toronto-area MPs Iqra Khalid and Ali Ehassi, B.C.’s Ron McKinnon and Nova Scotia’s Colin Fraser _ tipped their hand in an open letter to their fellow Liberal who chairs it, Anthony Housefather.
“The committee has heard from principal witnesses in this matter,” their joint letter says, including Wernick, Wilson-Raybould, and Trudeau’s top aide Gerald Butts. They’ve met for 13 hours of testimony over 11 meetings, it says, and “Canadians can judge for themselves the facts, perspectives and relevant legal principles … As committee members, we have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings.”
McLellan’s work and a separate investigation by the federal ethics commissioner will complete the picture, the letter says.
In the Commons, Trudeau himself likewise argued that the committee has been meeting for five weeks and has heard “all perspectives.” He suggested further inquiry should be left to the federal ethics commissioner.
Story by Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press. With files from Lee Berthiaume