It’s been a burning question for weeks in politics — what did Jody Wilson-Raybould do to get bounced out of her job as justice minister in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet?
Well, now we know one theory about her firing offence: an alleged refusal to do a legal favour for SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec firm with long and lucrative ties to the federal Liberals.
And so, the once-burning question in the capital’s chattering corridors of power is now a flaming bag of trouble sitting on the very doorstep of the Prime Minister’s office. In the process, the biggest victim of Trudeau’s relatively minor cabinet shuffle last month is now perceived as its loudest whistleblower, whether she embraces that new role or not.
Not that Wilson-Raybould, now veterans affairs minister, was particularly loud on Thursday. In fact, she didn’t have a thing to say in the wake of the Globe and Mail’s explosive story of how the former justice minister reportedly stood in the way of a deal to let SNC-Lavalin detour around prosecutions that could have blocked it from receiving government contracts for years to come.
Wilson-Raybould’s silence, however, was far louder than the prime minister’s carefully chosen words of denial, about how his office had not “directed” the former minister to give the go-ahead to what’s known as a “deferred prosecution” of SNC-Lavalin.
“That is between me and the government as the government’s previous lawyer,” Wilson-Raybould was quoted as saying in the Globe’s scoop, as well as a cryptic, “I don’t have a comment on that,” in reply to more pointed questions about how she handled the SNC-Lavalin case.
Pro tip: “No comment” only works as a clever misdirection in fictionalized political journalism. In real life, it is often regarded as confirmation. That’s certainly how Wilson-Raybould’s failure to comment was being interpreted in government and opposition circles on Thursday.
Speaking of no comment, Trudeau hasn’t really explained why he plucked Wilson-Raybould out of her post as Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister and put her in charge of a department where many political careers go to die.
That silence also created an opening, particularly for rumours and resentment. I attended a dinner last week in honour of Robert Burns, attended by a significant contingent of female cabinet ministers and Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes. When it came time for Caesar-Chavannes to speak, she stepped up to the podium with a hilarious poke at Scots and Burns culture in general, but also a couple of sharp jabs in particular to her own government.
One of those jabs was aimed squarely at the ouster of Wilson-Raybould from the justice job, and a joke about how an Indigenous woman lost her post for doing it well and unsettling the “white man.” Many in the room did a sharp intake of breath — did someone say that out loud? Wilson-Raybould, for her part, laughed and applauded loudly.
It was a telling indication of what could be a more widespread morale problem in Trudeau’s government as an election looms, not to mention a foreshadowing of this week’s trouble. Wilson-Raybould’s demotion has opened up a conversation about who’s in favour with the tight circle of power in the PMO and who’s fallen out of favour — and why is that circle so tight, anyway?
This newest bombshell of a story comes directly out of that conversation, with the bonus addition of alleged corruption and too-cosy ties with big Quebec donors — the kind of thing that put Liberals in the political wilderness for nearly a decade not so long ago. SNC-Lavalin, many were reminding us on Thursday, was the same firm that was detouring around election laws for much of that decade to put roughly $110,000 in the party’s pocket in those lean years.
As all political communication operatives know, the ring of truth is often more believable than the complicated truth. Wilson-Raybould’s demotion may well have been a complicated result of many things, and it should be noted, without getting into the details here, that these deferred prosecutions to which she allegedly objected are legal and even defensible in many cases.
But it has all the ingredients of the well-worn political narrative in Canada — a Liberal PMO too cosy with Quebec, a defiant hero and a corporate villain with ties to sketchy donations.
Governments are often frustrated by their inability to write their own stories. But this is another example of an old lesson in politics: the most dangerous tales are those told by aggrieved insiders, often without saying any more than “no comment.”
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt