Scott Brison has retired from politics—but politics haven’t retired from him

Anne Kingston: A closer look at the veteran politician’s surprise exit reveals yet more intersections between business and government

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Brison rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

“If Scott Brison had not stepped down from cabinet, Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice and attorney general.” That disclaimer has become the official chorus of l’affaire SNC-Lavalin. Justin Trudeau first uttered the talking point on Feb. 15, a week after his government faced allegations that he and senior government officials inappropriately pressured then-attorney general Wilson-Raybould to intervene in a criminal case involving the Montreal-based construction and engineering giant. Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s former principal secretary, reiterated it nearly word for word before the justice committee last week: “If Minister Brison had not resigned, Minister Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice today. That is a fact. And facts are very stubborn things.”

Facts can also take time to emerge. But from the outset of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, Brison’s resignation as president of the Treasury Board was marshalled by the government as the reason why Wilson-Raybould was shuffled to veterans affairs and replaced by David Lametti, a Montreal MP who we now know has left the door open to giving SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement. Thus, had Brison not resigned, it is likely that the SNC-Lavalin controversy would never have come to light—or indeed have even been a controversy, as the decision not to overturn the director of public prosecution’s decision not to give SNC-Lavalin a DPA would have continued to be Wilson-Raybould’s to make.

But Brison did resign. And that resignation, to spend more time with his family, raises questions. In January, those questions focused on Brison’s upcoming involvement in the criminal proceeding against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, once the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, involving allegations of government interference on behalf of a major corporation. Then, only days after Brison left office, it was announced he had taken a full-time position in Toronto in the executive suite of the Bank of Montreal, the same institution where Kevin Lynch, board chairman of SNC-Lavalin, is vice-chairman of BMO Financial. There are interesting vectors worth noting between Brison, SNC-Lavalin and BMO against the backdrop of the Norman and SNC-Lavalin controversies, both of which stem from charges of inappropriate intermingling of politics and business.

In his testimony before the justice committee, Gerald Butts shared details of how Brison told Butts and Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, on Dec. 12 that he planned to resign from cabinet. Brison would tell the PM later that day he “didn’t have to leave cabinet right away,” Butts said, but he was going to tell his constituents two or three days later. In his testimony, Butts said he was surprised: “We had no idea that he was even thinking about retirement.” That view is consistent with reports that only months earlier, when Trudeau canvassed his team at a summer retreat, Brison confirmed he planned to run in the next federal election.

Two days after Brison spoke with Butts and Telford, on Dec. 14, his name appeared on a list of witnesses for the Crown. The list, dated July 5, 2018, was submitted in Ontario Superior Court in the criminal proceeding against Vice-Admiral Norman. Norman faces one breach of trust charge for allegedly leaking cabinet documents related to a $668-million Navy supply ship contract between the federal government—then headed by Stephen Harper—and Quebec’s Davie Shipbuilding (now known as Chantier Davie Canada Inc.) The documents in question relate to a November 2015 cabinet decision by the newly elected Liberals to briefly suspend the contract. Court filings show Brison, a longtime MP for Nova Scotia’s Kings-Hants riding, urged colleagues to pause the project pending more study; he introduced a letter from Davie’s rival, Nova Scotia-based Irving Shipbuilding, asking the government to consider its proposal which would move work to that province. The government proceeded with the Davie contract. Brison has denied lobbying on behalf of the Irvings.

As Butts presented it, no one wanted to accept Brison’s decision to resign as final. A weeks-long full-court press to convince Brison to stay, at least until the summer, commenced. They asked Brison to “take Christmas to think about it, and at least give the Prime Minister a chance to talk him out of it.” Brison leaving would trigger a cabinet shuffle no one wanted, Butts said: “The Prime Minister was happy with the team he had.”

After Christmas, Butts said Brison confirmed he would resign, which meant his job needed to be filled. Trudeau “wanted to move the fewest number of people possible.” He detailed the logistics of the shuffle. These details included then-cabinet minister Jane Philpott stating that Wilson-Raybould would see being moved out of justice as a “demotion” and tied to her refusal to give SNC-Lavalin a DPA; showcased Butts and Trudeau reassuring themselves that the shuffle had nothing to do with the SNC-Lavalin DPA; and made clear Wilson-Raybould viewed her “demotion” as connected to the SNC-Lavalin file. Throughout, Trudeau would repeat that none of this would be happening were it not for Brison’s resignation. (Wilson-Raybould has not been allowed to share publicly her version of events pertaining to the cabinet shuffle or her resignation from cabinet.)

The public knew nothing of these backstage frictions when Brison publicly announced his resignation on Jan. 10 via a two-minute video and Facebook post in which his young family featured prominently. It was time to leave politics, he said: he’d served seven terms; at age 51 he was “ready for new challenges.” Spending time with family—“being husband and daddy”—was his priority.

In media interviews, Brison denied that his role as a witness in the Norman trial, set to begin next August, two months before the federal election, was a factor in his leaving politics. “This is very much a family decision,” he said. Trudeau backed Brison on Jan. 11, saying he respected his decision, even as his government had apparently tried to talk him out of it: “As a parent, I know like so many know the difficult challenge of balancing a demanding job with time spent with young families, so I fully respect his decision.”

On Jan. 14, the day of the cabinet shuffle, Brison said he hadn’t yet made a decision about stepping down as an MP, and that he’d likely return to the private sector—but didn’t have a position lined up. “Nothing concrete,” he told the Globe and Mail. “No job offers or anything like that.” For Brison, the private sector meant business. Before entering politics, Brison ran an appliance store; he’d also worked briefly in investment banking. In 2000, as a Progressive Conservative MP (Brison crossed the floor in 2003), he relinquished his riding temporarily so new PC leader Joe Clark could enter the House of Commons. During his leave, he was named vice-president at Toronto’s Yorkton Securities Inc. (As a Liberal MP, he also served as chairman of Halifax-based SeaFort Capital Inc., a Canadian private equity investment firm backed by the McCain and Sobey families in which he declared a “nominal ownership interest.” He also sat on the board of publicly traded Norvista Resources Corp. a Toronto-based merchant bank focusing on junior mining companies (he resigned when appointed to cabinet in 2015).)

Brison’s ties with Bay Street saw him land in the middle of a 2005 scandal over an email he sent to an investment banker with the brokerage arm of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce one day before the Liberal government unveiled a policy decision not to impose a punitive tax on income trusts: “I think you will be happier very soon … this week probably,” Brison’s email read. Trading in income trusts spiked the following afternoon, prompting an RCMP investigation into a possible leak. Brison denied any insider knowledge of Ottawa’s plans; he was discussing rumours already in the public realm, he said. He expressed regret for sending the email and was never charged with an offence; a CIBC internal review found no evidence of any improper behaviour by any employees.

In his Feb. 6 farewell speech in the House of Commons, Brison announced he’d be stepping down as an MP the next week. Brison’s last day on the Hill was Feb. 10, three days after the SNC-Lavalin story broke. By then, we know now, he had concrete plans. On Feb. 14, four days after being photographed walking away from the Hill with his husband and daughters, the Bank of Montreal announced Brison was its new vice-chair of investment and corporate banking of capital markets based in Toronto. His main responsibilities will include “senior client coverage and business development,” according to a press release; he’ll report to the head of global investment & corporate banking. Whether he will relocate his family from Cheverie, N.S., some 1,800 km from Toronto, is unknown. Brison did not respond to Maclean’s questions.

Banks are frequent landing pads for former pols or top civil servants. Brian Tobin, former Newfoundland premier, was appointed Vice-Chair of BMO in 2013. Frank McKenna has a top job at TD Bank. Kevin Lynch, a former deputy finance minister and clerk of the Privy Council between 2006 and 2009, was named vice-chairman of BMO Financial Group in 2010. In 2017, he was named vice-chairman of the board of SNC-Lavalin; in 2018, he was named chair.

This week, Lynch’s interactions with the government on the SNC-Lavalin file have come under scrutiny, raising concern they could be in potential violation of federal lobbying rules. Wernick testified before the justice committee that he received an Oct. 15 call from Lynch who “expressed his frustration that he did not understand why a [deferred prosecution agreement] was not being considered…. My recollection of the conversation is that he asked, ‘Isn’t there anything that can be done?’ ” Lynch is not registered as a lobbyist for SNC-Lavalin; as such, there is no record of the call in the federal lobbyist registry. On Tuesday, the advocacy group Democracy Watch sent a letter to the commissioner of lobbying, Nancy Bélanger, requesting an independent investigation and ruling on whether Lynch violated the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct by failing to register as a lobbyist for SNC-Lavalin.

Whether Brison and Lynch, fellow Nova Scotians, discussed Brison’s BMO appointment when Brison was in government or after is unknown. (Lynch did not respond to Maclean’s questions and interview requests.) Brison sat on the finance committee in the early 2000s when Lynch was a deputy minister of finance. Early in his tenure as president of the Treasury Board, Brison repeatedly referred to Lynch, among others, as an expert who endorsed increased government spending: “David Dodge and Kevin Lynch, two former deputy ministers of finance, and Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury in the U.S., have all commented on this,” Brison said in April 2016.

As a former cabinet minister, Brison is subject to post-employment obligations laid out under the Conflict of Interest Act. These are intended to prevent former ministers from taking improper advantage of their previous public office and providing advice to any person or organization using information obtained while in public office that is not available to the public. For one, any offers or acceptance of outside employment by office holders still in office must be reported to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner within seven days of receiving an offer and within seven days of accepting. A minister of the Crown who accepts an offer of outside employment is obliged to disclose his or her acceptance in writing to the Prime Minister within seven days. Whether Brison did this, and on what date, is not public information, a spokesperson for the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner says in an email to Maclean’s: “The strict confidentiality requirements of the Conflict of Interest Act prevent us from discussing any public office holder’s disclosures to the Commissioner. This includes disclosures of firm offers of or acceptance of outside employment.”

The Act also prohibits former cabinet ministers from taking a job with any firm with which they had “direct and significant” dealings within one year of leaving office, a prohibition that remains in place for two years after the minister’s last day of work. Lobbying registry records indicate that there was no lobbying by BMO to Brison or the Treasury Board within the past year.

BMO and/or Lynch may well have communicated with Brison during the last 12 months of Brison’s time in office without having to disclose it in the lobbyist registry, says Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher. Lynch is listed as one of BMO Financial’s in-house lobbyists under the category of lobbyists who spend less than 20 per cent of their time lobbying; his name falls under CEO Darryl White’s disclosure filing. But only the senior officer for BMO, in this case White, is required to be listed in the monthly communications disclosures, even if the senior officer is not at the meeting or does not participate in the communication.

Conacher says his organization plans to file a complaint about Brison with the ethics commissioner regarding Brison potentially acting in an advisory role for BMO, which is not allowed under the law. By definition, executive roles are advisory, Conacher says. (When asked whether Brison’s new role had an advisory component, BMO spokesman Paul Gammal directed Maclean’s to the bank’s announcement that he had been hired.) Conacher doesn’t expect change: “I don’t have much hope for a meaningful ruling because [the ethics commissioner] would have had to approve Brison taking the position under section 35 of the Act.”

For now, the SNC-Lavalin case has eclipsed coverage of ongoing pre-trial motions in the Norman case, which shares many of the same players, issues, and allegations of lack of government transparency. Norman’s defence, led by Toronto lawyer Marie Henein, has accused Ministry of National Defence officials of using elaborate code names in an attempt to bury documents the defence is trying to seek past access to information laws. Ironically, ATI was under Brison’s purview when he was president of the Treasury Board. Norman’s lawyers have gone to court to force the federal government to release them. Henein also has threatened to call Butts and Wernick to testify if they don’t produce documents. Brison figures in the defence’s arsenal in others ways; Norman’s lawyers have cited the 2005 income-trust scandal the MP triggered as evidence to prove that leaks in Ottawa are common—and rarely lead to a criminal prosecution. Meanwhile, Brison’s lawyers have sought “standing” for the former politician to ensure he “is not subjected to unjust and unfounded intrusion and attacks upon his privacy and reputation.” As questions mount, one more fact emerges: Scott Brison may have retired from politics, but politics has yet to retire from him.