POLITICS
03/07/2019 16:19 EST | Updated 03/07/2019 17:27 EST

Trudeau Warns Of 'Cynicism' After Offering No Apology On SNC-Lavalin

Earlier reports suggested the PM was considering a statement of contrition.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens during a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on March 7, 2019.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended his press conference Thursday on the SNC-Lavalin controversy with a footnote about cynicism, warning of its creeping impact on public confidence in the federal government.

Trudeau said Canadians are worried by what they see on the news, alarmed by "polarization in our politics."

He lauded his government for "being able to demonstrate that we continue to defend our institutions, despite internal challenges." It's something "Canadians can deeply be reassured by," he said.

It's a familiar message the prime minister previously said in an address to the French National Assembly last year when he lauded Canada for bucking a populist trend with a "resolutely progressive" style of politics.

I continue to say that there was no inappropriate pressure.Prime Minisiter Justin Trudeau

That was before the SNC-Lavalin affair plunged his government into controversy, prompting two star ministers to quit his cabinet. Trudeau also lost his principal secretary in the fallout.

Trudeau offered few answers Thursday and did not apologize to his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, despite earlier reports he was considering a statement of contrition.

"In regards to standing up for jobs and defending the integrity of our rule of law, I continue to say that there was no inappropriate pressure," he said.

According to CBC News, the prime minister didn't apologize "because he feels in his core he did nothing wrong."

WATCH: PM shares his side of SNC-Lavalin discussion with Wilson-Raybould

Wilson-Raybould testified last week that she experienced a "concerted and sustained" effort from the prime minister, his top aides, and government officials to politically interfere in her independent role as attorney general.

She told the Commons justice committee that she experienced an "inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin."

A deferred prosecution agreement is a new legal instrument in Canada that gives companies charged with criminal convictions a way to pay financial penalties, but avoid a trial. SNC-Lavalin currently faces federal bribery and corruption charges, which would bring a 10-year ban on federal contracts.

The former attorney general testified that her decision was firm on SNC-Lavalin, that she would not intervene and instruct her director of public prosecutions to give the Quebec-based engineering and construction giant the equivalent of a plea bargain.

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Wilson-Raybould was shuffled to veterans affairs in January. When the prime minister told her about the shuffle, she said she told him that she couldn't help to think "this has something to do with a decision I would not take."

She quit Trudeau's cabinet in mid-February. Former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott did the same earlier this week, citing lost confidence in the government's handling of the SNC-Lavalin issue.

'There are many lessons to be learned'

Gerald Butts, the prime minister's former principal secretary and longtime friend, told his version of events to the justice committee Wednesday.

Justin Tang/CP
Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, prepares to appear a Commons committee studying the SNC Lavalin affair in Ottawa on March 6, 2019.

He said because deferred prosecution agreements have never been used in Canada, there was a desire to do what was necessary "in order to look people in the eye who stood to lose their jobs."

SNC-Lavalin employs more than 9,000 people across the country and their jobs were at stake, Butts said. Opposition MPs sitting in on the Liberal-backed committee pressed Butts for evidence it was a jobs issue, not a political one. Aside from a brief mention of "department of finance briefings," he was unable to cite specific study.

Trudeau told reporters Thursday that in a Sept. 17, 2018 discussion with his former attorney general, he reiterated how the issue of SNC-Lavalin jobs and pensions are of "significant national importance."

Watch: PM says he wished former attorney general came to him sooner

The prime minister said he asked Wilson-Raybould if she could revisit her decision to not offer remediation to SNC-Lavalin — if she was opening to looking at the file again. "She said that she would."

He said she left the meeting saying she would follow up with her deputy minister and the clerk of the Privy Council, and stressed that the decision was hers as attorney general.

"In the months that followed that meeting, I asked staff to follow-up regarding Ms. Wilson-Raybould's final decision," Trudeau said. "I realize now that in addition I should have done so personally given the important of this issue and the jobs that were on the line."

He said after reviewing testimonies, he now understands that "she went back and revisited over the following days and reconfirmed her decision for herself."

Trudeau said he wished Wilson-Raybould was more forthright in flagging subsequent conversations as "inappropriate."

LARS HAGBERG via Getty Images
Jody Wilson-Raybould appears before a justice committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2019.

When given the opportunity to acknowledge any failures in his promise to deliver a honest and transparent government, Trudeau suggested to reporters that the act of talking about the controversy is evidence that it's being taken "very seriously."

"As we look back at the past weeks, there are many lessons to be learned," Trudeau said. "And many things we would like to have done differently and that is certainly the reflection we need to have going forward."

Attention on the controversy will likely continue with two Liberal MPs backing an NDP motion calling for a public inquiry to examine the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The federal ethics commissioner is conducting an ongoing examination to determine if anyone's private interests were furthered, and the subject is currently before separate House and Senate committees.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants the RCMP to launch an investigation and has also called on the prime minister to resign. Trudeau has lost the "moral authority" to govern, he said.

The Commons justice committee is scheduled to meet in-camera on March 19 to decide on who they will invite to be witnesses next.