There was an awkward pause at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday morning after a reporter asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether he would apologize for a crisis that had engulfed his government for over a month.
“I will be making an Inuit apology this afternoon,” said the prime minister, referring to his upcoming visit to Iqaluit to apologize for government mistreatment of Inuit during tuberculosis epidemics in the mid-20th century.
But there was no apology for the matter that had brought about 50 journalists to Trudeau’s early-morning question and answer session.
The reporter had to prompt him that the question referred to concerns that he and other members of government had inappropriately pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
The Quebec engineering and construction company has been lobbying the government and opposition politicians for years about the issue, raising concerns that a conviction could result in it being banned from bidding on lucrative federal public works contracts for up to a decade.
"I think that discussions we're having this morning, what we've seen in the testimony or participation in not just the justice committee process but also the ethics commissioner process, is something that Canadians can look to, to see that we do take very seriously the need to continue to give Canadians confidence in their institutions and, indeed, in the rule of law," he said later.
Prime ministers do not always appear in front of reporters to answer questions on serious scandals. Trudeau's predecessor, Stephen Harper, rarely delivered news conferences in the press theatre in Ottawa, where a journalist from the parliamentary press gallery is able to control the flow of questions, allowing follow-ups, and preventing a political staffer from intervening to stop questions they want to avoid.
In fact, Harper once told reporters during the 2015 election campaign that limiting them to five questions per day and preventing follow-up queries was a long-standing Conservative Party policy, the Canadian Press reported in August 2015.
However, Trudeau's appearance may have led to a new twist in the controversy, as shortly after his press conference, one of his caucus members issued an eyebrow-raising tweet.
Quoting Trudeau's words about fostering an environment where caucus feels comfortable coming to him with concerns, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes then added, "I did come to you recently. Twice. Remember your reactions?"
Trudeau says he was blind to 'erosion of trust'
Caesar-Chavannes' office declined a request by National Observer for an interview to expand on her remarks, and did not answer questions about her concerns and Trudeau's reaction.
In his remarks Thursday, Trudeau accepted blame for being blind to what he called an “erosion of trust” between himself and Wilson-Raybould.
"There was an erosion of trust between my office and specifically my former principal secretary and the former minister of justice and attorney general," he said. "I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have been."
Yet despite the SNC-Lavalin affair leading to the resignations of his top aide and two of his most competent ministers, he continued to claim there was “no inappropriate pressure” placed on the former justice minister to intervene in SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution. And he continued to state Wilson-Raybould “did not come to me” in the matter.
The prime minister's remarks came shortly before the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, led by director of public prosecutions Kathleen Roussel, the key player who Wilson-Raybould refused to go against, tweeted that "prosecutorial independence is key to our mandate."
"Our prosecutors must be objective, independent and dispassionate, as well as free from improper influence—including political influence," the organization tweeted, only its third tweet on an account that sent out its very first tweet on March 6.
In his remarks, the prime minister also made it clear he saw the public policy challenge inherent in the fraud and corruption charges facing the firm.
He said first how "SNC-Lavalin is a company that employs 9,000 Canadians across this company — country," before adding “they are also a company facing serious criminal charges." He then concluded, “these are the types of situations that make governing a challenge."
It is not clear whether 9,000 jobs are actually in danger. When Trudeau's longtime friend and former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, testified about the SNC-Lavalin issue before the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday, he was unable to provide evidence to back up the jobs claim.
Butts would only say he received internal government briefings on the matter.
The PM has arrived pic.twitter.com/t4L28E2iSB— Carl Meyer / meyer.bsky.social (@ottawacarl) March 7, 2019
'Yes, I mentioned I was the member from Papineau'
Meanwhile, Trudeau said he had learned a few things about how to respond to concerns raised within his office, his cabinet and caucus.
"As we look back over the past weeks," he said, "there are many lessons to be learned and many things that we would like to have done differently, and that is certainly part of the reflection we need to have going forward."
The prime minister announced his government would seek external advice on issues related to the SNC-Lavalin affair, such as potentially splitting the role of justice minister and attorney general, as well as “operating policies and practices” across cabinet and political staff as they relate to judicial matters.
Trudeau also confirmed he had raised his role as member of Parliament for the Montreal-area riding of Papineau during a September meeting with Wilson-Raybould, but said that this was one of the most important jobs of elected federal politicians — to represent their constituents.
“Yes, I mentioned I was the member from Papineau,” Trudeau said. “I care about the families, workers and students who live in my riding...it is our job as Parliamentarians to defend the interests of the communities we were elected to represent, to be the voice of those communities in Ottawa."
Trudeau then appeared to offer a different version of events surrounding the Sept. 17 meeting that he had held with Wilson-Raybould and the country’s top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick.
At that meeting, the former minister testified that she had looked the prime minister in the eye and asked him if he was politically interfering with her role as attorney general, and he had responded "no, no, no – we just need to find a solution."
The way Trudeau tells it, he told Wilson-Raybould he was “preoccupied” with the number of potential job losses at SNC-Lavalin. “This is something that I was clear on and that I asked her, even though I heard that she had made a decision, she indicated to me that she had made a decision, I asked her if she could revisit that decision, if she was open to considering to looking at it once again. And she said that she would."
Reviewing the testimony, Trudeau said he now understands that Wilson-Raybould "went back and revisited it over the following days and reconfirmed her decision for herself, and then felt that it was inappropriate when we continued to talk about it, and have conversations about it, over the course of the fall. I wish she had come forward to me in the fall...she did not."
'There are many lessons to be learned'
The way Wilson-Raybould described it during her testimony, she had made it clear at the time that she would not be changing her mind.
She said Wernick spoke to her deputy and said she could speak to the director, but she responded “no I would not.” She said she explained to the Wernick and Trudeau that she had already talked with her deputy about “what my position was on the matter.”
While she said she did agree to “have a further conversation with my deputy and the clerk,” she also added that she then stated, “but that these 10 conversations would not change my mind.”
The prime minister also would not elaborate on the contents of conversations between political staffers and Wilson-Raybould that she had revealed in her testimony.
Wilson-Raybould had said one of Trudeau’s staffers, Mathieu Bouchard, told her that "we can have the best policy in the world, but we need to get re-elected."
As well, she said Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s chief of staff Ben Chin told her office that if they didn’t get a deal with SNC-Lavalin, “it's the Quebec election right now, so we can't have that happen.”
"There were detailed conversations on a broad range of things that were discussed and laid bare in the various testimonies that we heard over the past weeks," Trudeau responded.
"What I can tell you is my team and everyone in this government always remains focused on how we make sure that we're protecting jobs and building a better future for Canadians, and doing so in a way that protects our institutions."
The differing explanations come after Wernick's return to the justice committee resulted in revelations about a mid-October call that Wernick held with the former clerk of the privy council, Kevin Lynch, who held Wernick's job during the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Lynch is now the chair of the board of SNC-Lavalin, and Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt wondered why he would be able to secure a call with Canada's top civil servant in the middle of serious deliberations on the company's future.
Wernick defended taking the call from Lynch by saying it was "not improper to have communications with the company" and that the conversation was over the phone, "not a meeting," and "lasted less than 10 minutes."
"Mr. Lynch, as the chair of the board, expressed his frustration that he did not understand why a DPA was not being considered and he knew that the board, in its trustee relationships for the shareholders in the company, was going to have to take some tough decisions in October and November," said Wernick.
He said Lynch asked “isn't there anything that can be done?” and he had replied "in the firmest, curtest possible terms, 'no,' he would have to go through the attorney general and the DPP through his counsel."
"Can you not see how disturbing this could be for Canadians to see former clerks, who are now chairs of boards of SNC-Lavalin, have easy access and immediate access into the central office of this government, into your office...do you not see that as a problem for this country?" Raitt asked."
"No," Wernick replied.
'A complete phony act of fake sincerity'
Opposition members did not see Trudeau's remarks as offering even a shread of remorse.
“What we saw today was a complete phony act of fake sincerity,” said Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, at a press conference in Toronto. “After everything we’ve seen, his best explanation for Canadians is that it was just a misunderstanding."
The prime minister doesn’t understand that “the truth cannot be experienced differently,” Scheer argued. He said he stood by his earlier call for Trudeau to resign, saying the prime minister can’t manage the affairs of his own office.
“If he doesn’t do the right thing and step aside, Canadians will determine his fate this fall,” he said.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted that what he saw at Trudeau's press conference "wasn’t accountability or an apology, it was the prime minister blaming everyone but himself."
"It was the prime minister discrediting the detailed testimony of Canada’s first Indigenous woman attorney general," he added. He said the “erosion of trust” referred to by Trudeau was actually with Canadians. Singh has been calling for a public inquiry on the matter, and reiterated that call Thursday.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May said she was "astonished" by Trudeau's statement, saying it was clear that the effort to get SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement "continues to drive all aspects of handling the issue.”
“We are not in a position to look back at mistakes made. We are in the throes of an ongoing effort to get a DPA for SNC-Lavalin."
Editor's note: This story was updated several times on March 7, 2019, most recently at 3:01 p.m. Eastern time to include additional information and quotes from Trudeau's press conference and reaction.