POLITICS
02/22/2019 12:29 EST | Updated 02/22/2019 12:33 EST

Trudeau: Canadians Should ‘Pay Close Heed’ To Top Civil Servant’s Words On SNC-Lavalin Affair

Michael Wernick denied Jody Wilson-Raybould faced "inappropriate pressure" on the issue.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on Feb. 20, 2019.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging Canadians to take "heed" of the words of Canada's top public servant on the SNC-Lavalin affair that has rocked his government.

Speaking in St. John's, N.L. Friday, Trudeau touted Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick as an "extraordinary" public servant who has served governments of different political stripes with "integrity and brilliance."

Wernick appeared before the House of Commons justice committee Thursday, where he gave a spirited defence of how Trudeau's government has handled the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on bribery and fraud charges.

Watch: Michael Wernick shares his concerns about the upcoming election

Wernick denied former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould faced "inappropriate pressure" to negotiate a remediation agreement with the Quebec engineering giant. Such deals allow corporations accused of certain wrongdoing to pay financial penalties but avoid a trial that could bankrupt the organization.

The director of public prosecutions decided not to negotiate such a deal with SNC-Lavalin. Wernick testified that Wilson-Raybould said on Sept. 17 that it was her view that a deferred prosecution agreement was "not a good course" and she had "no intention of intervening."

Yet, on Dec. 19, Wernick called Wilson-Raybould to "convey to her" that her colleagues and the prime minister were "quite anxious" about what they were reading in the business press regarding SNC-Lavalin possibly moving or closing up shop and the impact of job losses. The conversation was "within the boundaries of what's lawful and appropriate," he said.

Wernick also shared frank remarks on the state of political discourse in Canada, saying that he worries the "rising tide of incitements to violence" could lead to assassination.

Trudeau says his government 'always' respects rule of law

Trudeau told reporters that Wernick is someone who "we need to heed very carefully when he chooses to express himself publicly" and said he was sure Canadians are "taking a careful look at his words."

The prime minister also defended why he, Wernick, and his former principal secretary Gerald Butts — who resigned from his office Monday — continued to discuss the matter with Wilson-Raybould weeks after a decision was made.

Canadians expect his government to stand up for jobs and protect economic growth, Trudeau said.

"But they of course they expect their governments to do that in ways that respect the rule of law, that upholds the independence of our judiciary and defends our institutions. And that is something that this government has always done."

Again, Trudeau said Canadians ought to "pay close heed" to Wernick's testimony.

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"His service to this country over decades in the public service leaves him well positioned to understand what our institutions are grounded in and how to make sure that we're doing the right things as a government," he said.

Wilson-Raybould has been invited to testify before the justice committee on Tuesday. According to The Globe, Wilson-Raybould told her former cabinet colleagues this week that she felt improper pressure from members of the Prime Minister's Office to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a trial.

The former attorney general says she is bound by solicitor-client privilege on the matter, an assertion that Wernick also challenged before the committee. He said it was his opinion that Wilson-Raybould was not acting as the government's lawyer during these conversations and is not bound by solicitor-client privilege.

But, he suggested, the former minister is still bound by cabinet confidences and some conversations she may have had with senior staff could fall under the category of "advice to cabinet" which would bind her from speaking out about them publicly.

Wilson-Raybould stunned the House of Commons earlier this week by telling MPs that she looks forward to the opportunity to "speak my truth."

Watch:

Trudeau said Friday that he is still receiving advice from Attorney General David Lametti about whether to waive privilege because of possible consequences on two ongoing court cases against SNC-Lavalin.

With files from Althia Raj and The Canadian Press