Jody Wilson-Raybould: ‘The Liberal party is not something I understand anymore’

The former AG talks to Maclean’s about recording her call with Michael Wernick, her relationship with Gerry Butts and the dangers of blind loyalty

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Independent MP and former Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks to reporters before Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, a day after being removed from the Liberal caucus on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

There are two ways this might go now for Jody Wilson-Raybould: creation of an icon or writing of a footnote. To her admirers, the former justice minister’s attributes seem lastingly potent. She was the woman who rose higher in federal politics than any previous Indigenous politician, only to be driven out on a point of principle. To her critics, including many of her former Liberal colleagues, she just wasn’t a team player and didn’t understand the compromises high office demands.

Wilson-Raybould, 48, was first elected a Liberal MP in Vancouver in 2015, having been recruited by Justin Trudeau on the strength of her record as a B.C. First Nations leader. He made her his first justice minister, then demoted her to Veterans Affairs early this year. Wilson-Raybould suspects she fell out of favour after resisting months of pressure from Trudeau and senior officials to use her power as attorney general to give SNC-Lavalin a way of avoiding a bribery trial through a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA).

Trudeau denies that was the reason. But Wilson-Raybould quit his cabinet as the controversy raged, and he kicked her out of the Liberal caucus on April 2, along with her ally, former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott. The following afternoon, she sat with Maclean’s for this extensive interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. (To read our interview with Jane Philpott, go here)

Q: When you were attorney general, you had the legal power to override the Director of Public Prosecutions and give SNC-Lavalin a chance to negotiate a DPA. Why was it wrong for the PMO to urge you to use that power or at least seek an outside, expert opinion on whether you should?

A: The basic principle in this particular case, and why there’s been all this discussion, I believe has been lost. And it is the fundamental principle that a prosecutor needs to be independent in terms of the decisions that he or she makes. They need to be able to exercise their discretion unfettered from politics, partisans or otherwise. In this case, with respect to SNC-Lavalin, I was provided with what’s called a Section 13 note, in which the prosecutor tells me about a particular case.

As with any Section 13 note, as the head prosecutor, or the attorney general, I looked at it. I read the explanation from the prosecutor. I decided not to take action because I respected the independent prosecutor’s exercise of her discretion in this case, and I did not deem it appropriate in this case to intervene. That was based on how she presented it to me and other due diligence that I did.

Q: What’s in that Section 13 report is confidential. But do you believe that if it were public, opinion would shift?

A: I think it crosses the line for me to answer that question. But I think it’s not the right question for people to ask. I think people are getting too focused on DPAs, on SNC-Lavalin, on the nature of that company. There’s been so much spin and hyperbole and talking about people experiencing things differently that the actual issue at bar has been lost.

Q: And what is that question?

A: It is not whether SNC-Lavalin deserves a deferred prosecution agreement, but do we have confidence in our institutions that we’ve set up legislatively, providing discretion to prosecutors to do their job, and make the decisions based on the tools that we as legislators gave them?

In this case, we gave an additional tool to prosecutors called the Deferred Prosecution Agreement. They did their job. They exercised their discretion. And in exercising their discretion, recognizing that this would be something that would be of general interest, they sent the attorney general the note. I could have exercised my authority, but I didn’t have to. I didn’t in this case because I trusted and knew that the prosecutor was doing her job.

Q: Recording Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, without telling him, and then releasing the tape to the House justice committee, seemed to violate the trust between civil servants and politicians. Why did you do it?

A: I acknowledge that there are people, including people that I know personally, that have asked me the same question. I think it’s a legitimate question to ask. I was in a place as the attorney general, having had gone through many months of conversations, of pressure. Not just me, but my staff. I was at a heightened level of anxiety and of the belief that my position as the attorney general was at risk—at risk not for something that I did wrong, but something that I was doing in order to protect the Prime Minister. And I needed to protect myself, knowing that I was going in to have a conversation with the clerk, and knowing that the clerk had had conversations with the Prime Minister, based on what my chief of staff told me.

Q: You were at home on the phone. Had you been in your office, I think you’ve suggested rather than recording, you would have had someone listen in and take notes.

A: If I was in Ottawa, absolutely. I thought that something very inappropriate was going to happen, and I wanted to make sure that I had a correct record of it, so I taped it.

Q: Why release the full audio file, rather than a transcript, or even key excerpts?

A: I had never had any intention of making that tape public. I was taken aback from hearing subsequent witnesses and their evidence. I knew it not to be the case. I wanted the truth out there. And I wanted people to be able to hear what was said and done and make the determination for themselves.

In any other circumstance, it would be inappropriate. This was an extraordinary circumstance. It was a reasonable thing to do in a completely unreasonable reality. And I look at people commenting, and saying ‘Oh, it was all scripted,’ and ‘Oh, yeah, she planned it,’ and people throwing around words like ‘entrapment.’ I find it ludicrous that people are focused on the taping as opposed to the contents of the tape. I hope people focus on the contents.

Q: You had publicly said critical things in speeches about the pace of Indigenous reconciliation under your own government. Is it possible that even before SNC-Lavalin emerged as a big issue, you were seen by the PMO as a stubborn, maybe troublesome cabinet minister, and they were wary of you?

A: Anything’s possible. You’d have to ask somebody in the PMO about their perceptions of me. I don’t apologize for advocating strongly about the files that I was responsible for around Indigenous issues, and obviously my speeches speak for themselves in that regard.

Q: But is it possible your working relationship with the PMO was not great independent of the SNC-Lavalin file?

A: I understand what you’re asking. I just don’t know if I can answer that. When you speak truth, sometimes people do not necessarily like that, or that’s not expedient. And people may—and I don’t know—find that frustrating.

Q: Did your relationship with the Prime Minister’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, only break down suddenly at the very end, around the early January cabinet shuffle?

A: Gerry and I didn’t have a negative relationship. Gerry always used to say, I talk to you more than I talk to any other cabinet minister. That’s true, I guess. We were always able to talk about issues. That’s not to say we agreed on everything. It’s not to say I wasn’t frustrated, or he wasn’t, but we were always able to talk about them.

And I went to the Dec. 5 meeting [with Butts over dinner at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier] and the vast majority of our conversation was not around SNC-Lavalin. I wanted to let him know just to stop the ongoing pressure on SNC-Lavalin. Gerry didn’t make me feel pressured. But I wanted him to know that this was happening [from others in the government] and that it had to stop.

I don’t believe I ever characterized the meeting that I had with Gerry that he was imparting pressure on me, or that I felt pressure from what he said, saying we need to find a solution to [SNC-Lavalin], all that kind of stuff. I said my piece to him on it, and then I didn’t feel the need to say anything else to him on it, because that was it.

Q: One way to look at events is that there was a well-orchestrated campaign to pressure you and your staff. The other is that it was a poorly coordinated, haphazard effort on a difficult file. We’ve heard Wernick neglected to even report back on his key conversation with you to the Prime Minster. That doesn’t suggest a well-organized approach. What do you think?

A: It’s an interesting question, actually. So, in those two scenarios, orchestrated or botched, the end objective was to interfere in a prosecution. Irrespective of the means, it doesn’t justify the end.

Q: In that sense, you don’t think it matters?

A: The only consistency throughout that was I was doing my job and saying stop, I’m trying to protect the Prime Minister. So, in either of those scenarios, back to the actual issue here: You can’t interfere with the independence of the prosecutor. That’s what I was trying to uphold.

Q: The fact that you wanted to remain a Liberal right up until yesterday perplexes some people, including some Liberal MPs I’ve talked with. They think loyalty to the leader is sacrosanct and caucus unity is inviolable. Is there something to that?

A: I believe in loyalty. I believe in solidarity. I believe in being a member of a team. What I don’t believe in is that you have blind loyalty, or that you have loyalty in isolation of facts and evidence and in absence of wanting to see the truth. I mean, blind loyalty is not something that underpins a democracy; it underpins another kind of politics, in my mind.

Q: And the Liberal party?

A: The Liberal party is not something that I understand anymore. I believe that if you do not stick to your principles and to your values, or you remove yourself from those principles for loyalty, then you really don’t have anything to stand on. There’s no foundation. If you compromise principles for loyalty and solidarity, then you become complicit in something that’s wrong. That’s how I see it. I feel badly for my former colleagues. I can, to a certain degree, understand their anger, their frustration, or thinking that I’m a—whatever they want to call me—not a team player.

Q: They say you can’t be trusted.

A: Trust is a two-way street. And if my being in a caucus or in a party that doesn’t appreciate me speaking about something that happened, or they can’t see something that happened, or they focus on the fact that a tape was made as opposed to the contents of that tape because of some blind loyalty to one person, I find that devastating for a democracy. I don’t believe that a political party should be defined by one person.

Why I stayed and wanted to stay in the Liberal party, as I once thought it was, was because I was elected as one and I believe in its values—what I thought were its values—around inclusion and justice and equality. And those are still things that I hold dear. It’s the closest ideology that I can identify with in terms of a political party.

I’m not necessarily a partisan. I don’t think that issues are confined to one party; they transcend them, particularly big issues like Indigenous reconciliation or climate change, and to confine ourselves to those boxes is somewhat debilitating to actually achieving objectives. So, I still can’t understand why I’m ejected from a party whose values and principles I uphold.

Q: It was fascinating to see you and Jane Philpott in the House gallery during the Daughters of the Vote event on April 3. Hundreds of young women sitting where the MPs usually sit. The timing seemed kind of exquisite.

A: The timing was exquisite. I had the opportunity to go to a reception that they had a couple of days before. There was this line-up of all of these young leaders wanting to take their picture with me, and talking about their own personal experiences, and thanking me for speaking truth and standing up for what I believe in in the face of all adversity. So that was really moving to me.

Q: And then the event held in the House.

A: We went there, obviously, to support the 338 young ladies, but also to hear Kim Campbell, whom I think is an amazing person. She was speaking. And then the young people successively got up and talked about particular issues and spoke about them in a way, from personal experience and wanting to solve those issues. I had tears in my eyes. I know that Jane did as well.

I still can’t reconcile in my mind that I’m sitting as an independent MP on the other side of the House [from the Liberal benches], when I was doing what they were doing, but I’m expelled from caucus. But what they did for me today was give me hope that there are amazing people that believe in standing up and speaking your truth, that your voice matters. As much as I’ve gone through some really awful things, and my family has over the last while, it just makes me happy.

Q: Are you going to run in next fall’s election, do you think?

A: I really have to think about that. I didn’t get involved in federal politics very easily. I didn’t take the decision to get involved lightly. And the decision to get out of federal politics, it’s not going to be an easy one either—and I’m not foreshadowing anything! I’m here for a reason and to accomplish certain things, and to be a part of actually changing the way people see politicians and see politics.