We need an independent inquiry into the Jody Wilson-Raybould/SNC-Lavalin affair

The November 2015 appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould as Canada’s Minister of Justice was a moment of genuine pride.

As a Canadian, no matter that I lead an opposition party, I was so moved by the historic breakthrough. Wilson-Raybould had become the first Indigenous person to serve as Canada’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice. As a prominent lawyer, well-known champion of British Columbia Indigenous rights and member of the Vancouver Island We Wai Kai First Nation, Wilson-Raybould’s appointment spoke of our new prime minister’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and to the imperative for gender equality.

Jody Wilson-Raybould signs a book after Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle, in Ottawa on Jan. 14. This week, she resigned from the federal cabinet.

I knew Jody Wilson-Raybould by reputation before I came to know her as a friend. Her family’s role in Indigenous issues in British Columbia is long and storied. The famous anecdote of her father, Bill Wilson, telling former prime minister Pierre Trudeau that he had two daughters at home – and both were destined to be prime minister – seems more deeply steeped in portent by the minute.

Less than four years from that sunny November stroll to Rideau Hall, the sudden demotion of Wilson-Raybould from minister of Justice to Veterans Affairs, followed by her abrupt departure from cabinet, has undone any warm glow of pride in her initial appointment. Claims of progress on reconciliation and of respect for strong women have been dealt a serious blow. Like Justin Trudeau’s tattoo of trickster raven – the work of Haida artist Robert Davidson, appropriated from a website by Trudeau without recognizing his act as theft – so much of this story is of good intentions absent real understanding.

Claims of progress on reconciliation and of respect for strong women have been dealt a serious blow.
But this fall from grace is rooted in a serious allegation of inappropriate, and even potentially criminal, actions by those surrounding the prime minister. The allegation, carried on the front page of the Globe and Mail, was that pressure had been brought to bear on Wilson-Raybould to give SNC-Lavalin a newly minted “get out of jail free” card. The 2018 omnibus budget bill had included a new provision in the Criminal Code to allow for “deferred prosecution agreements.”

All we know for sure is that the former attorney general and minister of justice did not give SNC-Lavalin an “out” from charges. Now she sits as the most uncomfortable of the Liberal backbench, ready for whatever is to come, with the legal representation of former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell.

Unnamed Liberal party insiders have made matters worse by assigning various character flaws to Wilson-Raybould. At best, they tend to fall in the category of generalizations typically thrown at strong women by the old boys’ club.

Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May wants the prime minister to let Jody Wilson-Raybould speak. SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

We need an independent inquiry. The Ethics Commissioner is not the right place to seek such an inquiry; neither is the justice committee. We need an RCMP investigation reporting to an independent-minded and respected commissioner. And it should not, nor need not, take long.

We need to know whether pressure was brought to bear on our former minister of justice to go easy on SNC-Lavalin. And, if there was pressure, we need to know who applied it and if it rose to the level of criminal obstruction of justice.

These are questions that cannot be swept under the rug. We must, as Canadians, have faith in our institutions. The prime minister must take responsibility for whatever occurred. His first step is to waive, on behalf of the government of Canada, solicitor-client privilege so that his former minister can speak.

Jody Wilson Raybould’s Kwak’wala name – in her own tradition – is Puglaas. It means something approaching “woman born to noble people.” Her people, and many others, feel pride in her and her accomplishments. Our prime minister should let her speak.

This article originally was published in the Ottawa Citizen.