A political scandal that has already cost Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a key cabinet minister, has now claimed one of the top advisors in his inner circle.

Gerald Butts, a long-time friend and advisor of Trudeau, has resigned his position as principal secretary in the prime minister's office, due to allegations that he unduly put pressure on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to strike a plea bargain deal with Quebec construction company SNC-Lavalin so that it could avoid a criminal conviction on corruption charges.

Trudeau shuffled Wilson-Raybould out of the justice portfolio, sending her to veterans affairs in January. But she resigned from this position on Feb. 12, less than a week after the Globe and Mail published a report that cited anonymous sources who claimed she was pressured by Trudeau's office to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the scandal, Butts denied the allegations but said they left him no choice but to resign.

"I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in his office pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould. We honoured the unique role of the attorney general. At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians," Butts said in his statement.

"Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the attorney general is simply not true. Canadians are rightly proud of their public institutions. They should be, because they work. But the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the prime minister and his office is doing for all Canadians. My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend. It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away."

Butts also stressed that the prime minister's office was "much larger and more important than any of its staff."

"I have served it to the best of my abilities, and I have at all times given the prime minister free and unfettered advice. I have served the public interest, not the interests of any individual or any narrow private interest of any kind, at any time," he added. "Life is full of uncertainties, but I am absolutely certain of that."

Butts was one of several government officials and opposition MPs who have been lobbied by SNC-Lavalin about its desire to avoid a criminal conviction, since this would force the government to ban the Quebec company from bidding on any federal public contracts. Legislation exists in other countries such as the United States to allow large companies to strike similar deals to avoid unintended economic consequences that could cost thousands of jobs if they are placed in a situation where they can no longer bid on billions of dollars worth of government contracts.

SNC-Lavalin is a major multinational company that employs about 9,000 people across Canada in a range of sectors including, mining, infrastructure, oil and gas, and clean energy. The lobbying was related to a prosecution over company officials who offered bribes to obtain contracts in Libya.

The former and current premiers of Quebec, Philippe Couillard and François Legault, have also called for the federal government to strike a plea bargain deal with the company that would see it punished for criminal behaviour, but spared a criminal conviction.

SNC-Lavalin executives have been tied to other scandals in Canada and around the world, including a recent case involving millions of dollars worth of bribes that were paid to officials at the McGill University Health Centre to ensure that the company would get a contract worth more than $1 billion to build the new English Montreal superhospital.

Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau, House of Commons, Ottawa
Gerald Butts, a long-time advisor of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, walks down a corridor outside the House of Commons in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2018. File photo by Alex Tétreault

Soon after the news broke of Butts' departure, Trudeau issued a statement praising the outgoing advisor for his track record.

"Gerald Butts served this government — and our country — with integrity, sage advice and devotion," Trudeau wrote on Twitter. "I want to thank him for his service and continued friendship."

Butts and Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford are considered to be among the top advisors in the prime minister's inner circle. They both played key roles in shaping the 2015 Liberal election platform, later continuing to serve the prime minister in his office after the Liberals formed a majority government.

Once dubbed the "policy ninja" by Liberal MP Roger Cuzner, Butts has also been credited with shaping the Liberal party's winning 2015 campaign. He previously served as a key advisor to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty.

Butts says he encouraged Wilson-Raybould to run in 2015

Butts offered praise for both former minister Wilson-Raybould and his colleague Telford in his farewell statement.

Wilson-Raybould, a former First Nations chief and Crown prosecutor, was the first Indigenous person to be attorney general in Canada.

"I want to say a word about my relationship with Ms. Wilson-Raybould," he wrote. "I encouraged her to run for the Liberal Party of Canada, and worked hard to support her as a candidate and then cabinet minister. From my perspective, our relationship has always been defined by mutual respect, candour and an honest desire to work together.

"On a personal note, I wish to thank the prime minister for the opportunity to work with him, his cabinet and the Liberal caucus. They are great people who are dedicated to improving their country. I also want to thank my colleague, Katie Telford. The last seven years simply do not happen without her. Nobody knows that more than I do. And to my colleagues in the PMO, it has been the highest honour of my professional life to have worked together with all of you on behalf of all Canadians. I wish them all well, and they have my full support.

Gerald Butts, Heather Scoffield, Ottawa, budget
Gerald Butts chats with journalist Heather Scoffield inside a lockup for the federal budget on March 22, 2017 in Ottawa. File photo by Alex Tétreault

Opposition Conservative MP Michelle Rempel immediately went on the offensive following the news of Butts' departure, suggesting that it raises serious questions about who is running the country. She also awkwardly attempted to link the SNC-Lavalin scandal to Canada's struggles in recent years to get a new major oil pipeline approved and built.

"Hot take: Butt’s (sic) resignation raises more questions about the SNC lavalin (sic) issue than ever before," she wrote on Twitter. "It’s now officially PMO said vs she (can’t talk). Lots to dig up and unpack. Meanwhile, Canada needs a pipeline, is in the middle of major foreign policy issues, etc. What a disaster."

Meantime, the NDP's parliamentary leader, Guy Caron, said the news highlights the importance of holding public hearings about the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

"The resignations are piling up around @JustinTrudeau," Caron wrote on Twitter. "It is obvious that (Wilson-Raybould) and the prime minister's closest advisors must be able to come to testify publicly and freely on the SNC-Lavalin affair."

Green Leader Elizabeth May also renewed her own calls for a public inquiry, while noting that Butts was "a person of sharp intellect and a good heart."

Butts delivers message about climate change

Butts grew up in Glace Bay, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. He later met Trudeau at McGill University in Montreal, where both were members of the debating club, National Observer reported in 2015. He also worked in provincial politics as a key advisor to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, before he temporarily left politics in 2008 to accept a position as CEO of conservation group WWF-Canada.

Butts concluded his statement by stressing the importance of tackling climate change.

"Our kids and grandkids will judge us on one issue above all others," he wrote. "That issue is climate change. I hope the response to it becomes the collective, non-partisan, urgent effort that science clearly says is required. I hope that happens soon.

"Every hard problem requires a thoughtful, collaborative solution from the country it affects. Those solutions in turn depend on good, hard-working people who devote their time and energy to public service. Canada has those people in abundance. While it is fashionable sometimes in some quarters to denigrate politicians and public servants, my experience is that the women and men who serve Canadians in elected office and the professional public service are honest, decent, hard-working people who put service of country beyond self every day. Life is many days, and there are hard days in public life, but there are no bad ones. I hope I did the job in a way that would have made my parents proud and will make my children consider public service."

Editor's note: This article was updated at 3:18 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2019 with additional background and reaction from opposition MPs.

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I am saddened by the loss of clear thinking people in our government, and I am disturbed by citing of 'anonymous allegations' in some references of this unfolding story. It is so easy to pull and tear at politicians. We should all be looking for a clear reason for the turmoil in Ottawa. Too many people are standing down, and leaving us with what? There is too much wild speculation and I suspect by the time the conservatives pull up all their stories it will further muddy the waters.

Butts: "Our kids and grandkids will judge us on one issue above all others. That issue is climate change. I hope the response to it becomes the collective, non-partisan, urgent effort that science clearly says is required. I hope that happens soon.

Gerry Butts was a key player in the tainted deal between Ottawa and Alberta: AB's support for a federal carbon tax in exchange for a new export pipeline (TMEP).
New export pipelines and oilsands expansion go together. Oilsands expansion cannot be reconciled with Canada's climate targets.
This cynical quid pro quo was a fiasco. (After the Federal Court ruling on TMX, Notley pulled her support for a national carbon price.)

"The inside story of Kinder Morgan's approval"
Just 3 days after the Oct. 19, 2015 federal election, a half-dozen of the most powerful political insiders in the country gathered for dinner in the Byward Market, a historic section of the nation’s capital filled with high-end restaurants, boutiques, courtyards and artisan shops.
…Notley made clear that she couldn’t agree to a national climate plan unless she got her pipeline. And Trudeau … would have had difficulty approving that pipeline without a broad national consensus on a carbon tax.
(Postmedia, Jan 6, 2017)

In his book, "The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada", Donald Gutstein details how neoliberal "progressive" politicians like Trudeau and Notley subverted the climate change agenda and enabled Big Oil's "predatory delay":

"The Big Stall traces the origins of the govt’s climate change plan back to Big Oil. It shows how, in the last fifteen years, Big Oil has infiltrated provincial and federal govts, academia, media and the non-profit sector to sway govt and public opinion on the realities of climate change
"This is how Big Oil and think tanks unraveled the Kyoto Protocol and how Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau came to deliver the Business Council of Canada’s energy plan. Donald Gutstein explains how and why the door has been left wide open for oil companies to determine their own futures in Canada, and to go on fracking new "natural" gas wells, building new oilsands plants and constructing new pipelines.
"The Trudeau govt’s purchase of the TM pipeline in 2018 illustrates how entrenched neoliberalism has become. Under neoliberalism, the role of govt is to create and enforce markets and prop them up when they fail, just as Trudeau did."

"The Rise and Fall of Trudeau’s ‘Grand Bargain’ on Climate" (The Tyee, 14 Nov 2018)

The "Big Stall" is a plan to fail.
History will indict all the players in this unholy alliance: from John Manley at the Business Council of Canada to PM Trudeau, Gerald Butts, and Catherine McKenna in Ottawa to Rachel Notley, Brian Topp, and Andrew Leach in AB to ENGO sell-outs like Pembina’s Marlo Raynolds and Ed Whittingham, Tim Gray of Environmental Defence, and Karen Mahon of Stand.earth.

"Justin Trudeau’s grand bargain with Big Oil exposed in Donald Gutstein's The Big Stall
"Gutstein reports in The Big Stall that six months after the Winnipeg Consensus was drafted, in 2009, heavy hitters involved in the energy industry and representatives of a small number of environmental organizations met in Banff.
"Among them was the Pembina Institute’s Marlo Raynolds, who later became chief of staff to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
Another person at this event was GERALD BUTTS, president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, who is now the senior political adviser to Trudeau. D’Aquino’s successor, former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, was also present.
“But the biggest news from Banff was the presence of six representatives of a new player on the scene, the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC),” Gutstein writes. “This organization was incorporated the same month the Winnipeg Consensus was reached, October 2009. It had the backing of Canada’s largest fossil fuel companies, like Shell Canada, Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources, and Suncor Energy, pipeline companies TransCanada Corporation and Enbridge, plus the major fossil fuel industry associations and especially the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.”
"Gutstein told the Straight that he believes Manley was groomed for his position as president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada because he would be well positioned to endorse a carbon tax as part of a grand bargain that would also ensure a Liberal government would include pipeline projects in any national climate plan."

Hi Geoff,

I've had a lot of questions about TMX and the Liberal government ..

Being newly elected and a vocal proponent of 'social license', why not subject TMX to new, better rules .. and get social license as Mr. Trudeau was talking about during the election campaign? It probably would have been politically easier, and more consistent to do that?

And after being told by the Federal Court of Appeal that the NEB had failed in its duty to consult on TMX .. why not look at the corporate culture at the NEB before plowing ahead with the do-over? How could one reasonably expect that the same 'culture' will behave differently?

Finally this government's support for TMX (including purchasing it), at the time seemed like, electorally at least, a plan to fail. Burn down at least half of your support BC in exchange for how many Liberals elected in Alberta in the next election? These are smart people. What was the calculus?

All this to say, there must be more to the story than I've been able to figure out.

Thank you for this - I'll take a look at the articles you mention :)