Canada's top civil servant said he fears "someone is going to be shot" during the upcoming federal election campaign in blunt opening comments to a committee investigating the government's role in the SNC-Lavalin controversy.
Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick told the House of Commons justice committee he was worried about a sharp escalation in the rhetoric used to gain advantage in the political realm that was poisoning public discourse.
"I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like 'treason' and 'traitor' in open discourse. Those are the words that lead to assassination," Wernick told the MPs.
"I'm worried that somebody's going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign," he said.
Wernick lamented the "vomitorium of social media" and worried that the reputations of honourable people who have served their country were "being besmirched and dragged through the market square."
The clerk of the Privy Council Office holds a non-partisan position that leads the central department in Canada's public service, offering advice to the prime minister and providing direction to other federal departments and agencies. The position is appointed by the prime minister and normally offered to a veteran public servant with a strong track record of service.
His warnings about extremism likely came as a surprise to most attendees in the meeting who were expecting him to discuss the controversy that followed a newspaper report in the Globe and Mail that alleged that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office had pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal prosecution of Quebec engineering company, SNC-Lavalin.
Trudeau appointed Wernick, 62, to take over the clerk position in January 2016. Wernick had previously served as deputy clerk for two years starting in 2014, when former prime minister Stephen Harper was in power.
The public servant also served as deputy minister of the Aboriginal Affairs Department from 2006 to 2014.
Michael Wernick lamented the "vomitorium of social media" and worried that the reputations of honourable people who have served their country were "being besmirched and dragged through the market square."
During Thursday's hearing, Wernick also singled out a Conservative politician, who, earlier in the week, had urged a crowd of angry truckers and other protesters on Parliament Hill to "roll over every Liberal left in the country." Although Wernick didn't mention the politician, Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, by name, the clerk said that the comments were "totally unacceptable" in light of an attack by the driver of a van who killed 10 people in Toronto last April.
"I hope that you as parliamentarians are going to condemn that," Wernick added.
Wernick, who is also secretary to the cabinet and as such someone who would be privy to its deliberations, disputed a Globe and Mail report from Feb. 7 that alleged political interference in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, saying it included errors and unfounded speculation and was defamatory.
Wernick said that then-attorney-general Wilson-Raybould was unwilling to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin despite efforts by the Trudeau government to help the company avoid criminal prosecution on charges of bribery and corruption.
Wilson-Raybould has since resigned from cabinet and Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts has also stepped down, saying that no one in the Prime Minister's Office had done anything wrong.