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."
Thanks for the notes of encouragement to all who have reached out. @jodilhbutts and I appreciate the love and support. But public institutions are bigger and more important than any of their temporary occupants. Please see my statement. https://t.co/LkybmLiYbG— Gerald Butts (@gmbutts) February 18, 2019
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.
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.
Gerald Butts served this government - and our country - with integrity, sage advice and devotion. I want to thank him for his service and continued friendship. Please read his statement today: pic.twitter.com/VIaEHJMMe4— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) February 18, 2019
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.
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."
Hot take: Butt’s resignation raises more questions about the SNC lavalin issue than ever before. 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.— Michelle Rempel Garner (@MichelleRempel) February 18, 2019
Brison, Raybould, Butts, major resignations, no bench strength behind them. It’s like the PMO is on fire but no fire trucks are coming to put it out. This is particularly bad given the pipeline issue, Chinese relations, etc. Canadians deserve better than Trudeau.— Michelle Rempel Garner (@MichelleRempel) February 18, 2019
Major question: who is running Canada now? It sure as heck isn’t Trudeau. pic.twitter.com/MLBlVMeqTb— Michelle Rempel Garner (@MichelleRempel) February 18, 2019
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.