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Canadian PM Justin Trudeau says 'erosion of trust' at core of government scandal

The embattled prime minister was unapologetic and reiterated that no undue pressure had been put on his former justice minister.
Image: Newly appointed Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould poses for a photo with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. Patrick Doyle / Reuters file

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a scandal gripping the Canadian government over political interference in a criminal case reflects "an erosion of trust" between his office and the former attorney general, but maintained he did nothing wrong.

Trudeau and senior staff have been accused by the former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould of pressuring her not to prosecute a Canadian company facing corruption charges.

Trudeau admitted to speaking to Wilson-Raybould about the issue during a nationally televised new conference Thursday, but said he didn't know she was feeling pressured by follow-up questions from his staff, including his principle secretary, in subsequent months.

"I was not aware of that erosion of trust," he said adding, "I should have been."

The Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin has been accused of paying bribes for government contracts in Libya. Wilson-Raybould testified that Trudeau and senior members of his government insisted that she instruct prosecutors to execute an option that would have the firm pay reparations and avoid trial.

SNC-Lavalin employs 3,400 people in the province of Quebec alone, and a conviction would prohibit the firm from receiving any federal government business for a decade — which would put a significant number of jobs at stake.

The prime minister, who is up for re-election in October, admitted Thursday that he did stress the importance of protecting jobs when he spoke to Wilson-Raybould. But when asked if he was apologizing, Trudeau responded, "I continue to say there was no inappropriate pressure."

Trudeau's address came after his former top aide Gerald Butts delivered testimony to a Parliament justice committee on Wednesday denying the prime minister had acted inappropriately.

Officials had only suggested to Wilson-Raybould that she get a second opinion on the case, Butts said, adding "we also made it clear that she was free to accept that opinion, or not."

Butts, who served as the prime minister's principal secretary, resigned in the wake of the allegations of political interference in the criminal case.

The scandal has cost Trudeau's Liberal party two cabinet members, the first being Wilson-Raybould who resigned on Feb. 12 following a cabinet shuffle that demoted her from attorney general to minister of veterans affairs.She said she believes she was demoted for failure to give in to the pressure.

Treasury Board President Jane Philpott announced her resignation earlier this week in an act of solidarity.

"The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system," Philpott wrote in her resignation letter, adding that she had "lost confidence" in how the government was handling the scandal.

Trudeau said during his press conference that he wasn't initially aware of the reasons behind Wilson-Raybould's resignation but "wished" he had learned of it sooner.

"There are things we have to reflect on and do better next time," he said.

Trudeau said he would call on third-party experts to review the processes between political offices and judicial matters and raised the question of whether the role of justice minister and attorney general should continue to be held by one person.

Many are calling for more action. Liberal lawmaker Wayne Long called for a "full and transparent" investigation. Opposition Conservative leader Andrew Sheer has gone further, demanding that Trudeau resign and a police investigation be launched.