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As MPs pull all-nighter, Philpott breathes fresh life into SNC-Lavalin scandal

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  • OTTAWA — Former cabinet minister Jane Philpott fanned the flames of the SNC-Lavalin fire Thursday as Liberals struggled to douse the controversy and focus Canadians’ attention on their pre-election budget.

    Philpott gave an interview to Maclean’s magazine in which she said there is “much more to the story” of improper pressure allegedly exerted on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to avert a criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

    The early-morning publication of the interview coincided with a Conservative-orchestrated filibuster, landing like a bombshell in the House of Commons where exhausted MPs were in their 12th hour of non-stop voting, line by line, on the government’s spending plans. The filibuster, which continued into the night Thursday, was intended to protest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s refusal to offer a blanket waiver of privilege and confidentiality that Wilson-Raybould has claimed is necessary if she is to fully tell her side of the story.

    In the late afternoon, Conservatives believed they had caught the Liberals shorthanded, with not enough of them ready to vote to pass one item. Since spending votes are confidence measures, the government would have fallen had any of the spending measures been defeated.

    Liberals quickly flooded into the chamber, male MPs hastily doing up their neckties for decorum. Assistant deputy speaker Anthony Rota, an Ontario Liberal then in the chair, cited a Commons rule to say that it’s not the speaker’s duty to police whether members were in the chamber at the critical time to be eligible to vote. Liberals eventually carried the motion, as opposition MPs heckled.

    Philpott, who resigned early this month as Treasury Board president, told Maclean’s that she raised concerns with Trudeau, during a Jan. 6 discussion about an imminent cabinet shuffle, that Wilson-Raybould was being moved out of Justice because of her refusal to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case.

    “I think Canadians might want to know why I would have raised that with the prime minister a month before the public knew about it. Why would I have felt that there was a reason why Minister Wilson-Raybould should not be shuffled?” she said. “My sense is that Canadians would like to know the whole story.”

    But Philpott actually appears to already be free to talk about that Jan. 6 conversation with Trudeau: The government has waived solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality for last fall, when Wilson-Raybould alleges she was improperly pressured, until Jan. 14, when she was moved to the Veterans Affairs portfolio. The waiver applies not just to Wilson-Raybould but to “any persons who directly participated in discussions with her” relating to the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin for alleged corrupt practices in Libya.

    That waiver allowed Wilson-Raybould to testify for nearly four hours before the House of Commons justice committee.

    Trudeau rejected Thursday the opposition parties’ contention, echoed by Philpott, that a broader waiver is required to cover the period between Jan. 14 and Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from cabinet a month later.

    “It was extremely important that the former attorney general be allowed to share completely her perspectives, her experiences on this issue, and that is what she was able to do,” he said after an announcement in Mississauga, pumping up the latest budget’s promise to invest $2.2 billion more in municipal infrastructure projects.

    “The issue at question is the issue of pressure around the Lavalin issue while she was attorney general and she got to speak fully to that.”

    Trudeau also gave his version of the Jan. 6 conversation with Philpott, during which he informed her she would be moving to Treasury Board and that Wilson-Raybould would be taking her place at Indigenous Services. His version echoed the testimony of his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, to the justice committee.

    “She asked me directly if this was in link to the SNC-Lavalin decision and I told her no, it was not,” Trudeau said. “She then mentioned it might be a challenge for Jody Wilson-Raybould to take on the role of Indigenous Services and I asked her for her help, which she gladly offered to give, in explaining to Jody Wilson-Raybould how exciting this job was and what a great thing it would be for her to have that role.”

    Wilson-Raybould ultimately turned down the move to Indigenous Services and Trudeau moved her instead to Veterans Affairs. She resigned a month later.

    Neither Philpott nor Wilson-Raybould voted Wednesday on a Conservative motion calling for a broader waiver. Nor did they speak during debate on the motion in the Commons, where anything they said would have been protected by parliamentary privilege.

    While she conceded speaking up in the Commons is “technically possible,” Philpott told Maclean’s that debates wouldn’t give the ex-ministers the “hours of time” needed to fully tell their stories. 

    Since any vote involving government spending is automatically a confidence vote, Liberals were required to be out in force throughout the all-night, all-day voting marathon to avoid potential defeat of the government. But although Philpott and Wilson-Raybould remain members of the Liberal caucus, they were exempted from having to show up, in the interests of not exacerbating tensions with their sleep-deprived colleagues.

    Conservative MP Michelle Rempel construed that as further evidence of a “culture of intimidation” against the former ministers who’ve “been put under a gag order” by Trudeau.

    “I find it really difficult to watch as two strong female colleagues continue to be shut down,” she said.

    However, Trudeau continued to try to paper over tensions among Liberal caucus members, even after Philpott’s intervention added fuel to the fire. He continued to say the ex-ministers are welcome to remain in the Liberal caucus, despite their criticisms of him just seven months before an election. While they disagree over the SNC-Lavalin matter, Trudeau said all Liberals are united on the “big things” like investing in the middle class, fighting climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

    NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pounced on Philpott’s interview to bolster his call for a public inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin affair.

    “If the prime minister and the Liberal government has nothing to hide, why don’t they waive all solicitor-client privilege and call for all witnesses to testify and answer all questions that Canadians have. If they have nothing to hide, why won’t they do that?” Singh said.

    The filibuster resulted in the cancellation of Thursday’s question period and scheduled debate on government bills. Committee meetings were also cancelled as the filibuster continued into the night with no end in sight.

    Only a couple of dozen opposition MPs needed to be in the chamber at one time so they had plenty of opportunity to grab a few hours of sleep.

    The Liberals, however, were forced to keep most of their MPs in the chamber at all times, to avoid being caught short on any of the votes.

    Most Liberal MPs had laptops on their desks and appeared to be doing work, reading or, in some cases, watching movies. A few read books. One, Toronto-area MP Jennifer O’Connell, sat with a blanket wrapped around her legs. They were periodically allowed to leave the chamber to catch a few winks on cots, as reinforcements replaced them.

    The Conservatives periodically offered to end the vote marathon, if Trudeau would agree to waive confidentiality and let Wilson-Raybould and all others involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair testify fully. The Liberals rejected each offer and the voting resumed.

    Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press



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    Soldiers deploying to flood-prone areas as water levels rise in New Brunswick

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  • FREDERICTON — About 120 Canadian soldiers will soon be deployed in western New Brunswick to help residents threatened by rising floodwaters.

    The soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in southern New Brunswick have been tasked with helping fill sandbags and assisting with evacuating homes, if necessary.

    Lt.-Col. Sean French, commander of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, says the soldiers are also prepared to conduct “wellness checks” in various communities, using heavy vehicles that can move through deep water.

    Water levels in the Saint John River Basin are expected to rise significantly over the next few days, reaching or passing flood stage in several areas.

    With heavy rain expected to continue through the day, particularly in northern New Brunswick, residents of 15 communities have been warned to remain on high alert.

    Greg MacCallum, director of New Brunswick’s Emergency Measures Organization, says the rising waters are sure to lead to road closures in several areas, particularly in the Fredericton area and communities farther south.

     

    The Canadian Press



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    Rain, wind equals no 4-20 blow out for Parliament Hill, but West Coast shines

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  • OTTAWA — It was a blow out, man, the kind that’s a total drag.

    Protesters dotted one half of Parliament Hill’s front lawn on a blustery, rainy Saturday at the climax the first 4-20 “Weed Day” demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana.

    The turnout disappointed organizers who expected thousands more, but a festive atmosphere prevailed as the Peace Tower clock struck 4:20 p.m., sparking simultaneous smart phone photography and the lighting of joints, bongs and pipes.

    “The weather didn’t co-operate. It kind of shut us down,” Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said moments earlier. “Coming and going, we’ve probably seen about 3,000, but right now, probably about a thousand.”

    A bout of blowing rain earlier in the afternoon meant the shutdown of a public address system, and a made for a sparse gathering of perhaps several dozen people, most huddled under plastic ponchos or tarps.

    Sara Bakir, 29, of Ottawa was one of early arrivals, dressed in a dark hoodie under a black umbrella.

    “It’s still nice to be out with a few like-minded people,” she said laughing, and casting her eyes at the empty and soaked brownish yellow lawn. 

    Organizers learned a tough lesson even before the rain started falling — new freedoms bring great bureaucracy.

    Mac said his group is encountering more red tape Saturday than on past April 20 protests.

    Organizers can’t use the steps to the now-closed Centre Block, which means spectators will need a front row position on the lawn to see or hear — something Mac calls a “huge letdown.” 

    “Hearing is already a problem so not being able to see is a crushing blow,” he said.

    Organizers have also been told to limit musical performers to just two, Mac said, adding that isn’t in the rules of how to hold a public event on the Hill. 

    New limits on auto access also meant organizers had to haul equipment and material by hand up to the lawn from Wellington Street, he added.

    “It’s frustrating because legalization was supposed to … make things easier and not more complicated,” he said.

    Lingering post-legalization concerns are sustaining a sense of protest among 4-20 event organizers across the country.

    They include concerns over the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana, slow progress on legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession, and the fact that provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land-use laws for growing pot.

    The federal government also has yet to legalize edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so. 

    “Everything about legalization has made things harder, which is the opposite of what is was supposed to be,” said Mac.

    Others were more upbeat and saw Saturday’s event as an inspiration to the world.

    “Again, the world is watching, and I’m very proud of Canada today and Canadians,” said Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia.

    She said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot, and she expected people from Germany and Britain to take part in Saturday’s festivities on the Hill.

    It was a far cry from Ottawa’s subdued festivities on the West Coast, as hoards of people crowded Vancouver’s Sunset Beach to mark the city’s 25th annual 4-20 event warmed by rays of glorious spring sunshine amid a low lying marijuana haze.

    A much smaller crowd gathered at the front lawn of British Columbia’s legislature in Victoria, but the mood was equally celebratory and defiant.

    “Today, in many ways, is bittersweet for us,” said long-time marijuana activist Ted Smith, who led the countdown chant to 4:20 p.m. in Victoria. “We’re happy it’s legalized, sure, but there’s a lot of things to protest.”

    Smith, in between puffs from a large joint, said the current marijuana rules are biased against entrepreneurs who want to sell their products in much the same way as craft brewers and winemakers.

    And a downpour didn’t dampen the festivities at Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end, where revellers trampled through the muddy grass to the steady thrum of house music.

    Cannabis artisans sold their wares at tarp-covered stands, many expressing hope that they could one day emerge from the “grey market” to set up shop at brick-and-mortar storefronts.

    Justin Loizos, owner of the Just Compassion marijuana dispensary in Toronto, said the mood Saturday was more celebratory than in past 4-20 gatherings, which felt more like protests.

    The current regime may not be the “legalization people asked for,” Loizos said, but the cannabis community should take heart in just how far Canada has come.

    “I see a lot of people complaining, whatever — don’t,” he said. “We’re just going to celebrate here and enjoy the day.”

    — with files from Adina Bresge and Dirk Meissner.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press




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