OTTAWA — In the ongoing debate over the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin and what kind of “pressure” was put on ex-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to prevent it, the pundit classes of Quebec and the rest of Canada are singing different songs.
Since the Globe and Mail published a report last week alleging the Prime Minister’s Office pushed Wilson-Raybould to help the company avoid prosecution, a chorus of voices in Quebec has sought to defend the Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, its importance to the provincial and national economy and the appropriateness of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s desire to save some 8,600 Canadian jobs.
The opinion pages and panels of talking heads in English-Canadian media have largely focused on the question of whether a refusal to bow to undue “pressure” from Trudeau’s office led to Wilson-Raybould’s demotion to the veterans affairs file last month and ultimately her resignation on Tuesday.
In Quebec, par contre, the commentariat is more critical of Wilson-Raybould. They are more concerned about why the then-justice minister wouldn’t push the Director of Public Prosecutions to allow SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement — a way for the firm to make amends for corruption charges incurred doing business in Libya without risking a long-term freeze on its ability to take public contracts. Liberals had inserted provisions for that kind of arrangement in the 2018 federal budget. Why then wouldn’t the provision be used, Quebec columnists wonder?
Here’s some of what they’ve been telling their readers and listeners.
The PMO may have done the right thing, Yves Boisvert argued in La Presse in the wake of the Globe’s report last week, saying a deferred prosecution agreement makes sense in this case. The same day came a take from L’actualité’s Alec Castonguay that it’s possible Wilson-Raybould wasn’t a “heroine standing up to power,” and that Trudeau seemed to be advocating for something sensible.
Gérald Fillion argued in a Monday analysis for Radio-Canada (CBC’s French-language counterpart) that SNC-Lavalin is under siege, and in danger. The real question, he wrote, is why the government, why Wilson-Raybould, wouldn’t use the tools Liberals had just put into place. Likewise Le Devoir’s Denis Saint-Martin said the absence of “pressure” by the PMO would’ve been more surprising than this so-called scandal, given SNC-Lavalin’s economic heft.
The next day, on Radio-Canada’s news program Le télé journal, an expert on public and private governance, Michel Nadeau, defended the prime minister. “He told Quebecers, ‘Look, with SNC-Lavalin, I did what I had to do,’” Nadeau said in French, paraphrasing Trudeau. “‘And those who had something to say about it could have raised their hands, or come to me. But Wilson-Raybould didn’t present herself.’” The real mystery, he said, was why bureaucrats would obstruct an agreement for SNC-Lavalin when the same is done for multinational companies across the world, and in light of the company’s role in “building modern Quebec.”
On Tuesday Michel Girard, for the Journal de Montreal, added his voice to the mix to declare “mortal consequences” if SNC-Lavalin is prosecuted and convicted. Opposition leaders, he wrote, should be asked why they won’t support SNC-Lavalin like Quebec Premier François Legault does — a pertinent question for Quebecers in a federal election year.
On his TVA Nouvelles program Monday, television personality and former provincial party leader Mario Dumont said no one is denying the company engaged in corruption. But he offered an explanation of the issue that outlined how SNC-Lavalin, under a deferred prosecution agreement, would still have to pay significant fines, and how similar agreements have been used in other countries including the United Kingdom and United States. In a column for the Journal Wednesday, he further argued that Trudeau’s actions to help secure such a thing were “serious and responsible,” what one would expect of a head of government. The only error, he said, was that Trudeau had done all this in secret.
Franco-Quebec coverage of the situation hasn’t been without its skeptics. For La Presse, François Cardinal wondered Wednesday why so many commentators had made their beds on the issue before having all the facts, and urged that Wilson-Raybould should be allowed to say her piece. Another La Presse columnist, Patrick Lagacé, noted that SNC-Lavalin created this mess in the first place by engaging in corrupt activities. “I must have slumbered in a deep hibernation to have missed the moment when we collectively decided that corruption and collusion on a grand scale isn’t so bad,” Jonathan Trudeau wrote for the Journal Wednesday.
But underlying many of the arguments is a fundamental sense that English Canada is biased against Quebec and its companies. Why punish thousands of workers when those who engaged in corruption are now outside of the company, Jean-Robert Sansfaçon asked in Le Devoir Tuesday? Why not allow for a solution that will prevent the dismantlement of such an important Quebec entity?
“I can’t help but wonder whether English Canada’s punditocracy would be as indignant if the prime minister’s office had seemingly been trying to save a Toronto- or Calgary-based multinational corporation instead of a Quebec one,” wrote Lise Ravary, in English, for the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday. “SNC-Lavalin is Canada’s largest engineering firm. Not just Quebec’s.”
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