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Liberal-dominated committee votes to limit investigation into allegations of improper political influence on Wilson-Raybould

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OTTAWA— Liberal MPs have voted to restrict an investigation into allegations of improper political influence on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, blocking opposition efforts to have her and the prime minister’s top aides testify before a Commons committee.

The vote came after a Liberal MP said the Conservatives were embarking on a “fishing expedition” and a “witch hunt” in their bid to hold hearings and summon witnesses — including senior PMO, justice department and Privy Council officials — to tell their stories under oath.

Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt speaks with the media in the Foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 13, 2019. Raitt said that Jody Wilson-Raybould’s surprise resignation from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet underscores the need for an investigation into the affair.
Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt speaks with the media in the Foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 13, 2019. Raitt said that Jody Wilson-Raybould’s surprise resignation from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet underscores the need for an investigation into the affair.  (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Liberals used their majority on the justice committee Wednesday to shut down a bid by Conservatives and New Democrats to summon Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau aides Gerald Butts and Mathieu Bouchard to testify.

The Liberals also blocked a motion that called on the prime minister to lift solicitor-client privilege to allow Wilson-Raybould to speak freely about the allegations that have rocked the government.

“That is not an investigation. That is simply going through the motions,” NDP MP Nathan Cullen said after the meeting, charging that the Liberals sought to “batten down the hatches today and not allow any truth to come to light.”

She was shuffled out of the justice portfolio to veterans affairs in January. On Monday night, she told Trudeau she was quitting her cabinet post — a move Trudeau said “surprised and disappointed” him. Her resignation was tendered hours after the prime minister had publicly suggested that her continued presence in cabinet showed nothing egregious had occurred.

Conservative Michael Cooper charged Wednesday that Liberal MPs on the committee were “acting as agents of a broader cover-up on the part of the PMO.

“It’s very clear they are not serious about getting to the bottom of what happens,” Cooper said.

Instead, Liberal MPs voted to hear from just three officials: current Justice Minister David Lametti, his deputy minister Nathalie Drouin, and the Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, who serves as Trudeau’s top public servant and deputy minister.

The committee will also take a broad look at the legal rules and standards that apply to how an attorney general interacts with political colleagues, and hear legal opinions on how their work could impact current court proceedings involving SNC-Lavalin.

Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus scoffed at the Liberals’ move to change the focus of discussions, saying “We don’t need a law class here.”

The committee meets again next week and will consider the possibility of expanding the witness list, but Liberal MPs — who have a majority on the committee — voted 5-4 to support a motion by Liberal Randy Boissonault, to shift the debate away from Wilson-Raybould’s as-yet untold version of events.

Deputy Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt isn’t holding out any hope that the committee will hear from additional witnesses.

The Conservatives are piling pressure on five Liberal MPs who will determine today whether a House of Commons committee will investigate an allegation that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressured to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution. (The Canadian Press)

During a protracted afternoon meeting that was testy at times, Liberals pushed back on the Opposition’s desire to broaden the inquiry’s scope into allegations that are already the subject of an investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.

At the committee meeting, the Liberals sought to downplay the controversy. Mississauga MP Iqra Khalid accused the opposition of “political posturing” and making hay “out of nothing.”

B.C. MP Ron McKinnon justified his vote opposing a broader investigation, saying, “we don’t have any real evidence of wrongdoing.”

The Liberals used their majority on the justice committee Wednesday to shut down a bid by Conservatives and New Democrats to summon Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau aides Gerald Butts, left, and Mathieu Bouchard, right, to testify.
The Liberals used their majority on the justice committee Wednesday to shut down a bid by Conservatives and New Democrats to summon Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau aides Gerald Butts, left, and Mathieu Bouchard, right, to testify.  (The Canadian Press file photo/Office of the Prime Minister)

Boissonault, MP for Edmonton Centre, accused Conservative MPs of trying to conduct a “fishing expedition” and a “witch hunt” into the SNC-Lavalin affair as the prime minister insisted publicly his government had broken no rules in its dealings with Wilson-Raybould.

As three-hour drama at committee was unfolding, the prime minister was on the defensive in Sudbury, where he again insisted his office had done no wrong.

Trudeau said his officials followed all the “norms and the principles of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law” in discussions with Wilson-Raybould about SNC-Lavalin’s fate.

Trudeau indicated the topic — which he cast as discussions about ways “to create jobs and economic growth” — was a pressing concern, saying “this is a constant conversation in cabinet.”

“And all those conversations…have always been carried out based on well-established rules,” said the prime minister.

Trudeau again blamed Wilson-Raybould for failing to come forward with any concerns about improper influence before her sudden resignation Tuesday. He pointed to her acceptance of another cabinet post just last month as evidence she had no real concerns.

“If anyone, any minister, including the former attorney general, felt that there was — that we were not living up to that standard — it was her responsibility to come and speak to me directly about that. She did not do that in the fall, and she accepted another position in this government when I made the cabinet shuffle.”

But at committee, Conservative Pierre Poilievre lashed into Trudeau’s reasoning, saying Wilson-Raybould is unable to respond to the prime minister’s “attack” because she is bound by solicitor-client privilege.

“He directly attacked her, saying it was her job to stop wrongdoing from happening in his office,” Poilievre said.

“But what is most despicable and cowardly about this attack is that he was attacking someone who is legally incapable of defending herself. She can’t fight back. She can’t speak,” he said.

“It’s time that we let her speak,” he said.

After the meeting, Boissonault said there’s nothing preventing Wilson-Raybould from speaking out now, even as he acknowledged she is bound by solicitor-client privilege.

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“I think it’s important for Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak to Canadians on her own terms. It’s not something we need to do here at the justice committee,” he said.

But the Conservatives and the NDP say others needed to be called including the director of public prosecutions Kathleen Roussel; chief of staff to the prime minister Katie Telford; senior PMO advisers Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques who were lobbied by SNC-Lavalin, and Wilson-Raybould’s former chief of staff Jessica Prince.

The Liberal MP denounced Opposition suggestions that SNC-Lavalin had gotten the Liberal government to change the law to allow deferred prosecutions for companies like the Quebec engineering giant facing fraud charges.

In the closest thing to an explanation anyone on the government benches has offered for the change since the scandal broke last week, Boissonault said Canada adopted the legal change to allow deferred prosecutions for companies facing fraud charges to align with its trading allies and called Opposition allegations of political favouritism “specious.”

Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau’s director of communications, said in an interview the prime minister spoke with Wilson-Raybould about SNC-Lavalin once last fall, on Sept. 17, some three weeks before the public prosecutor’s office declined, on Oct. 9, SNC-Lavalin’s pleas to negotiate a deal.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again blamed Jody Wilson-Raybould for failing to come forward with any concerns about improper influence before her sudden resignation Tuesday. He pointed to her acceptance of another cabinet post just last month as evidence she had no real concerns.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again blamed Jody Wilson-Raybould for failing to come forward with any concerns about improper influence before her sudden resignation Tuesday. He pointed to her acceptance of another cabinet post just last month as evidence she had no real concerns.  (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian PRess file photo)

Ahmad said Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould discussed “a variety of things including this issue” but declined to provide further details, saying only what Trudeau told reporters: that the government had conducted itself appropriately. Ahmad said that goes for all the prime minister’s team.

Ahmad said Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford had no conversations with Wilson-Raybould about the matter.

The government had previously confirmed that Butts also met with the former justice minister on Dec. 5, that she had raised SNC-Lavalin, and he told her to speak to Wernick about it.

The lobby registry shows SNC-Lavalin lobbied Trudeau’s office 18 times on the subject of “justice and law enforcement” since February 2016, with 15 of the 18 contacts involving Bouchard. Two of SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying contacts were with senior adviser Elder Marques. Trudeau’s Principal Secretary Gerald Butts and former senior adviser Cyrus Reporter were each lobbied once by the company, the registry shows.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer did not rule out referring it to the RCMP saying “all options are on the table” and again called on Trudeau to waive “whatever privilege he thinks he may have.”

With files from Alex Ballingall

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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