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Liberals line up behind Justin Trudeau’s handling of SNC-Lavalin allegations




There is some tension in the ranks as the drama plays out — one MP called the situation “appalling” and condemned Trudeau’s criticism of Wilson-Raybould for her alleged inaction in flagging any improper pressure.

But another MP seemed to capture of the mood of many as he downplayed the potential political impact, noting he had encountered no reaction from constituents during this break week spent in the riding. “I’m not at all convinced this is a tipping thing,” the Toronto-area MP said.

In fact, he said, the issue may play to Trudeau’s advantage in Quebec, where there are concerns that a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin would exact a steep financial penalty on the Quebec firm and with it, job losses.

On Thursday, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, chair of the Commons justice committee that will hold hearings into the affair, floated the idea that Wilson-Raybould was replaced by Quebec MP David Lametti as justice minister because of language.

“There’s a lot of legal issues coming up in Quebec and the prime minister may well have decided he needed a justice minister that could speak French,” Housefather said in an interview with Montreal radio station CJAD.

“The idea that she was shuffled because of this unproven allegation to me is quite ridiculous,” Housefather said.

The MP for Mount Royal said it was “fairly clear” that Wilson-Raybould was “unhappy” at being shuffled but said those decisions are always the prime minister’s prerogative.

“The prime minister has the undisputed right to choose who is in what cabinet position, and there’s millions of reasons that people can be shuffled from one position to another,” Housefather said in the radio interview.

Wilson-Raybould has not yet spoken on the matter, citing solicitor-client privilege. But in the letter announcing her resignation, she said she was seeking the advice of former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell “on the topics that I am legally permitted to discuss in this matter.”

Conservative and New Democrats have urged Trudeau to waive privilege, giving Wilson-Raybould freedom to speak if she wants.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, whose motion to call the former attorney general and key political staff was struck down by Liberals on Wednesday, said pressure might be the only thing to convince Liberal members of the justice committee to call Wilson-Raybould to answer questions about the affair.

“Canadians are really concerned about this. They are maybe having flashbacks to the sponsorship scandal and days of denial and insider corruption,” he said. “If that continues to be the reaction, then that pressure will build, and I think that’s the only thing that will crack open the lid.”

Caucus sources said the prime minister sought to reassure MPs during a teleconference call from Winnipeg on Tuesday, hours after Wilson-Raybould’s sudden resignation. The call was for MPs only, not staff.

Trudeau told his caucus that Wilson-Raybould’s resignation was a surprise, reiterated what he’d said publicly, and assured them “that ‘guys, we’re OK here, we’re absolutely confident that nothing untoward or nothing outside of what we could do was done,’” according to one caucus source.

“He said just keep your powder dry and this will all sort itself out,” the MP said.

The MP said Trudeau was “confident that we’re OK,” adding that many MPs recognize that “he needs our help and support now.

“There are a lot of newcomers in caucus who haven’t been through this kind of thing before. It’s been a lot of rainbows and unicorns and this is the first bit of rough water that we’ve faced, but people believe in Trudeau. They know him to be a good person, an honest person. He’s a principled guy.”

On the other hand, the MP said, “nobody knows” what Wilson-Raybould is thinking but in the dispute over whether there was pressure, “most are thinking it is an issue of interpretation.”

However, the MP was not critical of Wilson-Raybould, and suggested it’s not unusual for a rookie minister not to have a lot of allies in caucus because they’re new to Ottawa and suddenly land busy jobs.

“She was there to make a difference, not really to make a lot of friends.”

Another MP said it’s obvious the Prime Minister’s Office is concerned about how the caucus would react, because in addition to the Tuesday conference call there were followup phone calls by PMO officials the next day to caucus members.

The MP said Trudeau was clearly seeking to shore up support with his call.

“I could feel he was under stress, but he sounded sincere, thoughtful. There was no cockiness. Sometimes he can be cocky and shoot from the hip, but there was no cockiness,” the MP said, adding that it was a “confidence-building call.”

The MP, who has since spoken to others as well, said it was clear that many MPs are giving the prime minister “the benefit of doubt.”

He ascribed support for Trudeau to the “level of affection and loyalty towards the prime minister.” There would be “no comparison” to whatever might be felt toward Wilson-Raybould, he said.

That MP suggested the dispute is the result of perceptions and signals crossed: “A message given and a message received will always be different.

“So the message given by the PMO, obviously there was a message given about this: Are you doing this? What’s this? What are the consequences? That’s appropriate conversation. Message received: Could be pressure. Message received after the divorce papers are filed, after you find out there’s a girlfriend, after you find out all those things: Oh, I was being pressured.

“To me this looks like revisionist feelings.

“She hears it when she’s justice minister one way then when she’s demoted and looking at her career and her reputation and all that stuff she hears it differently, and says why was I demoted, maybe I didn’t do what they wanted me to do, maybe I was being pressured.”

The MP had spoken to about half a dozen other MPs, and said, “I’m hearing the benefit of the doubt going to the prime minister.”

But not all Liberals are on board. One MP called the situation “appalling” and said the government’s poor handling of the controversy has only highlighted issues of arrogance, running roughshod over MPs and the problems of centralized decision-making in the prime minister’s office.

“There is a great political risk because it all attacks the credibility and character of the leader. He’s not coming across well, not at all,” the MP said.

He said prime minister’s strategic decision to publicly declare that the onus was on Wilson-Raybould to flag any improper pressure only invites her to fight back.

“Why would you put her into a situation where you’ve ruffled more feathers, caused more irritation, caused anger, a bit of anguish? What do you expect her to do?” the MP said.

And there have been public expressions of support for Wilson-Raybould from her former cabinet colleagues.

In a statement to the Star Thursday, Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said that Wilson-Rayboud’s advice was “invaluable as a candidate and member of our team.”

“Her dedication to fundamental change in Canada’s relationship with First Nations is unparalleled — she will continue to be a strong voice and I hope to continue working with her on these critical issues,” Bennett said.

Toronto-area MP Jane Philpott, the President of the Treasury Board, took to Twitter earlier in the week to post a picture of her with Wilson-Raybould and an encouraging note: “You taught me so much — particularly about Indigenous history, rights and justice … I know you will continue to serve Canadians.”

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




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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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




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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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




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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