POLITICS
02/21/2019 16:13 EST | Updated 02/21/2019 18:31 EST

Top Civil Servant Cautions Politicians Of Using 'Words That Lead To Assassination'

Michael Wernick appeared at justice committee to talk about SNC-Lavalin.

The Canadian Press
Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick maks his way to the justice committee meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 21, 2019.

OTTAWA — Canada's top public servant scolded a Conservative senator for his remarks at the "United We Roll" rally as an example of violence-inciting rhetoric that may lead to an assassination during the upcoming federal election campaign.

Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick told the House of Commons justice committee Thursday he is deeply concerned about Canada's politics and where things seem to be headed.

He referenced Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk's choice of words earlier in the week, asking protesters to "roll over every Liberal left in the country."

"I think it's totally unacceptable that a member of the Parliament of Canada would incite people to drive their trucks over people after what happened in Toronto last summer," Wernick said. "Totally unacceptable and I hope that you as parliamentarians are going to condemn that."

Watch: Michael Wernick shares his concerns about the upcoming election

Wernick appeared at the committee to address the SNC-Lavalin controversy dogging the Liberal government, but he prefaced his testimony by voicing grave reservations about the overall state of public political dialogue leading up to the October election.

"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,'' Wernick told MPs.

"I'm worried that somebody's going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign,'' he said.

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Wernick lamented the reputations of honourable people who have served their country "being besmirched and dragged through the market square.''

He also expressed dismay about what he called 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 of this country, and that's why these proceedings are so important.''

Michael Wernick's full opening remarks:

I want to make it clear that I came at the very first opportunity that the committee invited me, and that I have always made myself available to parliamentary committees. I've done over 25 appearances and they're all on the record. I'm happy to try to assist the committee in its important deliberations.

A couple of things that maybe I could make as opening comments, and then I'm willing to take any questions, and I'm willing to stay as long as the committee wishes. I have done committee appearances that went into four and five hours at a time until the committee was satisfied. It's entirely in the hands of the committee.

A couple of things...if I can speak to Canadians through you, Mr. Chair, because a lot has been said and written in the last few weeks. I think there are a couple of things that need to be clarified. I worry about my country right now. I'm deeply concerned about my country right now, it's politics, and where it's headed.

I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election, and we're working hard on that. 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. I'm worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign.

I think it's totally unacceptable that a member of the Parliament of Canada would incite people to drive trucks over people after what happened in Toronto last summer. It's totally unacceptable, and I hope that you, as parliamentarians, are going to condemn that.

I worry about the reputations of honourable people who have served their country being besmirched and dragged through market square.

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 of this country, and that's why these proceedings are so important.

There are a couple of things from my perspective. Should Canadians be concerned about the rule of law in this country? No. 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.

The director of Public Prosecutions issued a statement on February 12 that you can find on her website—in the context of the Norman matter—in which she said, and I quote, "I am confident that our prosecutors, in this and every...case, exercise their discretion independently and free from any political or partisan consideration."

That is from the DPP. 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, as parliamentarians, created around ethics in government are demonstrably working. 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.

Is there two-tier justice in Canada? No. Demonstrably not. Despite the most extensive government relations effort in modern times, including meetings with officials, political staff, the opposition leaders, hate advertising, and advocacy by two consecutive premiers of Quebec, the company did not get what it wanted, demonstrably because they're seeking judicial review.

Are we soft on corporate kind? No. As you are discussing, deferred prosecution agreements are an attempt to balance public policy interests.

It's a legitimate concern for governments and, indeed, for everyone that the workers, suppliers, pensioners and communities in which a company operates suffer for the misdeeds of the corporate officers.

A deferred prosecution agreement is not an acquittal, an amnesty, an exoneration, a get out of jail free card, or a slap on the wrist. 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 that drew 370 participants and 75 written submissions before the December 2017 deadline, and I'm sure those submissions would be available to this committee.