OTTAWA — In an unexpected move, the Liberals shut down a parliamentary committee that was about to hear from top RCMP officials on why it did not pursue a criminal investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s actions in relation to the SNC-Lavalin affair.
At the start of the meeting on Monday, Liberal MP Mona Fortier took the floor to complain that members of the parliamentary committee on ethics had only learned late Friday afternoon that it was switching gears from its study on TikTok and would instead hear from the RCMP.
RCMP Commissioner Michael Duheme and Sergeant Frédéric Pincince, who was in charge of the investigation into SNC-Lavalin, were scheduled to offer a “briefing session” on the matter after questions arose from documents released last week by the group Democracy Watch that shed light on the federal police force’s decision to shut down their investigation after four years.
Fortier mentioned that any changes to the schedule of a committee usually require a 48-hour notice period and said the move to invite the RCMP officials was made at the “last minute.”
“This had not been discussed whatsoever by the committee. I think the committee should have at least had the opportunity to debate a motion and to present it in due form,” she said, before moving a motion to adjourn the meeting, resulting in a shouting match from both sides.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett said the government MPs were “looking to shut down a hearing on a very serious matter with respect to a criminal investigation into the prime minister” and said the situation was “not acceptable.”
Less than five minutes into the meeting, the majority of Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and NDP MPs voted to adjourn and the Conservatives voted against. Committee chair John Brassard offered his apologies to Duheme and Pincince who were waiting to offer their remarks.
Since 2019, the RCMP has been attempting to determine whether Trudeau had breached any criminal laws in pressuring former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to let SNC-Lavalin benefit from a deferred prosecution agreement.
The Montreal construction firm was heavily lobbying the federal government in 2018 to avoid a criminal prosecution in a fraud and corruption case, which they claimed would have had devastating economic consequences in Quebec.
But Wilson-Raybould remained firm on her decision not to intervene in the Director of Public Prosecution’s decision, which led to senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office to making attempts to persuade Wilson-Raybould to re-examine the idea of seeking external advice on the matter.
Wilson-Raybould was eventually replaced as justice minister and attorney general during a cabinet shuffle in early 2019, and ejected from the Liberal caucus. Trudeau, for his part, was found to have contravened the Conflict of Interest Act by the ethics commissioner.
Records made public last week by Democracy Watch show the RCMP mostly relied on public claims made by the actors involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair to come to their conclusions, and only interviewed three people over the course of four years: Wilson-Raybould, her former chief of staff Jessica Prince and former deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin.
Documents also reveal that the RCMP did not even try to apply to obtain a search warrant to access confidential cabinet documents, records or communications, saying there was “insufficient evidence” based on the publicly available information to believe that a criminal offence had been committed.
An assessment report prepared by Sergeant Pincince in February 2021 reads that the conclusion reached in the document “does not translate to the absence of a criminal offence.”
“Instead, given the current legislative framework, the overall assessment of the evidence, and the evidence threshold required for a criminal conviction, it is believed that there is insufficient evidence to support further investigative actions or a criminal prosecution,” reads the report.
The RCMP offered a few examples to discredit the idea that a criminal prosecution was warranted in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
For instance, when questioned by a parliamentary committee in 2019, Wilson-Raybould “characterized the situation as being inappropriate as opposed to illegal” — an opinion that the federal police force thought could “defeat a criminal prosecution” if presented in court.
The RCMP also believed that the cabinet shuffle, in which Wilson-Raybould was ousted from her role, “would likely be the strongest theory towards an offence of obstructing justice” if it was meant to explicitly allow the attorney general to take a different approach on SNC-Lavalin.
But officials from the Prime Minister’s Office linked the cabinet changes to Scott Brison’s departure from politics and denied any connection to the SNC-Lavalin affair.
In March 2021, RCMP superintendent Mike MacLean sent an email to Sgt. Pincince asking him to confirm that “we pushed as hard as possible and explored every avenue to meet and speak to any/all witnesses” and “that we have exhausted all avenues to get evidence.”
It was nearly two years later, in January 2023, that the assessment report was submitted to Wilson-Raybould and the file was reviewed for conclusion last May.
Our website is the place for the latest breaking news, exclusive scoops, longreads and provocative commentary. Please bookmark nationalpost.com and sign up for our politics newsletter, First Reading, here.