Gerald Butts came to the justice committee not to bury Canada’s former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould but to praise her. He told the committee that he was not going to “quarrel” with Wilson-Raybould’s evidence and pledged not to say a “single negative word about her.”
And then he did just that.
In the folksiest way possible, Butts called Wilson-Raybould a liar who fabricated evidence. He really had no choice because Wilson-Raybould’s evidence, as confirmed by evidence of virtually everyone who has spoken about the SNC-Lavalin affair, paints a picture of a government content, when it suits it, to undermine the rule of law.
Remember, Wilson-Raybould had testified that Butts told her the PMO needed “a solution on the SNC stuff” and told her that she needed to “find a solution.” Wilson-Raybould also testified that Butts told her chief of staff that “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”
This is damning evidence that the PMO saw the AG’s decision not to overrule the director of public prosecutions and offer SNC a deferred prosecution agreement as a problem that needed fixing. Butts testified that the only problem that needed solving was to make sure due consideration was given to a decision. He says he did not have a preferred outcome and did not utter the words Wilson-Raybould said he did.
Butts also testified that, contrary to Wilson-Raybould’s evidence, he never linked the SNC issue to electoral politics. He said his staff didn’t either, even though he was not present for those conversations, because they are all good people who would never do that.
There are not two truths here. Either Butts and his staff said these things or they didn’t.
And then Butts went on to insinuate that Wilson-Raybould was not up to the job of considering the SNC issue. He told the committee that she made her decision too quickly and, since deferred prosecution agreements were a new law that had never been applied before, any reasonable person would want a second legal opinion.
At this point, the double speak poisons Butts’ narrative because when there was criticism that the DPA regime was slipped into an omnibus budget implementation bill without study the government was quick to point out that it had consulted more than 370 participants and received 75 written submissions prior to enacting the DPA laws. Wilson-Raybould not only had the benefit of those submissions but the expertise of her department, a detailed briefing note from the prosecutors, SNC’s submissions and her own expertise.
Butts’ evidence that he just wanted Wilson-Raybould to consider other opinions stretches any notions of credulity. Butts suggested that they could seek a second opinion from former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. And what would McLachlin bring to the table on this issue — she has never dealt with the new remediation agreement provisions before either.
A second legal opinion, friendly newspapers articles and outside counsel are more clearly a tool of pressure to achieve a preferred result rather than some noble intellectual exercise.
And then Butts dragged out the tired talking point that Wilson-Raybould did not raise her concerns. She did not raise a hue and cry. It is, implies Butts, her fault for not speaking out.
Except that, according to her very credible evidence, she did speak out — over and over and over again.
According to Wilson-Raybould, between September and December of 2018, she told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that she had made her decision and told him to stop pressing her and then she told the clerk of the privy council office, the office of the minister of finance and operatives from the PMO the same thing. It is unfathomable, short of willful blindness, that Butts would be unaware of these conversations.
Butts delivered a master class in the art of character assassination with a smile. He clearly did quarrel with Wilson-Raybould’s evidence and said more than a single negative word about her.
And Butts’ evidence is itself not without its flaws.
Butts was undermined the very next day by Trudeau who did not explicitly reject Wilson-Raybould’s assertions. Trudeau even confirmed he did link SNC to electoral politics when he confirmed he told Wilson-Raybold that there is an election in Quebec and that he was “an MP in Quebec, the member for Papineau.”
Butts testified he only learned for the first time, while watching the former attorney general's testimony, that she had made a final decision on Sept. 16. He used this lack of knowledge to justify why the PMO persisted in pressing Wilson-Raybould. But then, in the next breath, Butts claims that he was principally concerned about the fact that Wilson-Raybould only considered whether to pursue a remediation agreement for 12 days before she made her decision.
How can the quickness of a decision Butts did not even know about motivate his actions?
On a close examination, Butts' evidence falls short on almost every level. He is sure about things he can’t possibly be sure about, he is fuzzy on other important details, he contradicts himself and he is contradicted by others.
Butts sought to undermine Wilson-Raybould, but more importantly, he sought to blur the line of impropriety. It was not about politics, it was about public policy. It was not about questioning the decision, it was about providing second opinions. It was not imposing pressure but providing information. It was not a co-ordinated campaign but a confluence of independent concerned actors.
If a line is blurred enough, it becomes impossible to tell where it begins or ends and it becomes impossible to cross.
In the end, Butts may have raised a doubt in the minds of some about whether the government’s actions were well intentioned but improper or malicious and illegal.
And this is really where Butts’ evidence fails to provide any satisfaction. Because raising a doubt about government impropriety when the rule of law is at stake is a pretty low bar to cross when so much is at stake.
We should not just have a doubt about whether the government acted improperly, we must be sure that it did not.