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Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick to quit before October election

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OTTAWA — The SNC-Lavalin affair claimed its fourth resignation Monday as Michael Wernick announced he will step down as the country’s top public servant, having concluded he’s lost the trust of opposition parties.

Opposition parties have been calling for the clerk of the Privy Council’s resignation since he first vehemently rejected allegations that he and others improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Wernick’s combative testimony to the House of Commons justice committee was denounced as partisan and unbecoming of a senior bureaucrat.

Also on Monday, the Liberals who make up a majority on that committee said publicly that they believe it has done all it can, or should, to investigate the affair.

In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, Wernick said he will retire before this fall’s federal election campaign kicks off. He noted that the clerk is supposed to be “an impartial arbiter of whether serious foreign interference” occurs during the campaign, as part of a new federal watchdog panel, and is also supposed to be ready to help whichever party is elected to form government — two roles he no longer believes he can fulfil.

“It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties,” Wernick wrote. “I wish to relinquish these roles before the election. It is essential that Canadians continue to see their world-leading public service as non-partisan and there to provide excellent services to Canadians and the governments they elect.”

Wernick, who has served in senior public service roles for nearly 38 years, has been clerk of the Privy Council since 2016, shortly after the Trudeau Liberals assumed office. Government insiders have said he wanted to retire as clerk a year ago but was persuaded to stay on.

Wilson-Raybould has accused Wernick of making “veiled threats” that she’d lose her job as justice minister and attorney general if she didn’t cave in to pressure last fall from Trudeau and his senior staff to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on charges of bribery and corruption related to contracts in Libya. She has said they pushed her to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with the Montreal engineering giant, which would have forced the company to pay stiff penalties but let it avoid the risk of a criminal conviction that could threaten its financial viability.

Wernick has denied the accusation and maintained that all concerned acted with the highest standards of integrity.

Wilson-Raybould’s concerns about undue pressure only surfaced publicly after she was moved out of the justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs in a mid-January cabinet shuffle. She resigned from cabinet a month later. Her exit was followed by the departure of Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and then the resignation from cabinet of Jane Philpott, who cited loss of confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Wernick’s decision to quit as well proves “this SNC-Lavalin scandal is even bigger than we thought,” said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre.

Trudeau said he intends to name Ian Shugart, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, to replace Wernick.

On his way into the House of Commons, Trudeau thanked the clerk for his “extraordinary service to Canada over many, many decades” and credited his government’s accomplishments “definitely in large part” to Wernick’s leadership of the public service. Trudeau did not respond when asked if he’d sought Wernick’s resignation but his office later said he had not.

Wernick’s letter was released minutes before MPs reconvened for their first question period after a two-week March break, an exchange that proved explosive almost from the get-go.

Opposition members erupted in protest when Trudeau announced he’d appointed former Liberal justice minister Anne McLellan as a special adviser to explore what he called “important questions” about the relationship between the federal government and the minister of justice, who plays a dual role as attorney general. While the justice minister is a political player, the attorney general is supposed to make independent, impartial decisions about prosecutions.

McLellan “will assess the structure that has been in place since Confederation, of a single minister holding the positions of minister of justice and attorney general of Canada,” the prime minister said in a statement. “She will consider whether machinery-of-government or legislative changes may or may not be recommended.”

“Her work will be another important step towards maintaining Canadians’ confidence in their institutions,” he told the Commons.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer mocked the announcement as nothing more than saying “Liberals will investigate Liberals.”

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus ridiculed the idea of a Liberal minister from the era of the sponsorship scandal looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair, which he dubbed “a five-alarm dumpster fire.”

As for Wernick, Angus professed no surprise at his decision to retire.

“I think once we saw how much of an active political player Mr. Wernick was in the SNC scandal, it became impossible for him to carry on his job, which is to have the trust of all parliamentarians on key matters of policy,” he said outside the Commons.

Angus also said Wernick should have “known better” in the way he presented himself before the justice committee, suggesting he was combative, evasive and partisan.

MPs on the committee were taken aback when he prefaced his initial testimony with a diatribe about the deteriorating tenor of political discourse, with incitements to violence that he said made him fear someone will be assassinated during the coming election campaign. He cited the example of a Conservative senator who’d urged truckers in a pipeline protest on Parliament Hill to “roll over every Liberal” in the country.

Wernick engaged in a number of testy exchanges with opposition MPs. In a second appearance, he suggested profane messages he received through the social media “vomitorium” after his first appearance amounted to witness intimidation.

The Liberal-dominated committee is to meet Tuesday to consider opposition demands to recall Wilson-Raybould. She has already testified for nearly four hours but has indicated she has more to say, particularly about the period between her move to Veterans Affairs and her resignation a month later.

But the five Liberals on the justice committee — Edmonton’s Randy Boissonault, Toronto-area MPs Iqra Khalid and Ali Ehassi, B.C.’s Ron McKinnon and Nova Scotia’s Colin Fraser — tipped their hand in an open letter to their fellow Liberal who chairs it, Anthony Housefather.

“The committee has heard from principal witnesses in this matter,” their joint letter says, including Wernick, Wilson-Raybould, and Trudeau’s top aide Gerald Butts. They’ve met for 13 hours of testimony over 11 meetings, it says, and “Canadians can judge for themselves the facts, perspectives and relevant legal principles … As committee members, we have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings.”

McLellan’s work and a separate investigation by the federal ethics commissioner will complete the picture, the letter says.

In the Commons, Trudeau himself likewise argued that the committee has been meeting for five weeks and has heard “all perspectives.” He suggested further inquiry should be left to the federal ethics commissioner.

—with files from Lee Berthiaume

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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‘I’m choosing not to be a victim,’ Danforth shooting survivor says

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daniforth shooting survivor

TORONTO — Danielle Kane struggled with depression in her 20s and even contemplated suicide.

But then she fell in love, enrolled in nursing school and felt she was finally on her way — until a summer night last year when a disturbed man went on a shooting spree in Toronto’s Greektown and a bullet tore through her body.

“Not now,” she thought as she lay on the ground in a pool of blood. “My life is not over.”

Kane, 32, was one of 13 people wounded in the July 22, 2018 rampage that left two dead — Reese Fallon, 18, and Julianna Kozis, 10 — and shocked the city.

That night Kane and her partner, Jerry Pinksen, were celebrating a friend’s birthday on a restaurant patio on Danforth Avenue when they heard what sounded like fireworks. A waitress urged everyone to go inside because there was a shooter on the loose. Kane was incredulous, but she took her glass of wine and followed Pinksen inside.

“We were safe,” she said in a recent interview.

Another patron said there was a victim outside, so Pinksen, an emergency department nurse, rushed out to help. Kane pulled on his arm, briefly worried about his safety, then decided to join him.

“We work in ER together and when there is an emergency, it’s all hands on deck,” she said.

Kane took two steps outside before she saw a dark figure standing on the street, just metres from the pair.

“I do remember thinking how odd it was he was just standing there,” Kane said.

Then she saw the gunman, 29-year-old Faisal Hussain, open fire. She turned slightly and the bullet grazed her left forearm, burning it, before entering her body. It ripped through her abdomen, missed her aorta by a few centimetres and her spinal cord by a millimetre then ricocheted off her spine and exited her body through her right shoulder.

She collapsed and broke her ribs on the fall. She couldn’t feel her legs, and she had trouble breathing — her diaphragm and one lung collapsed, the other lung started to fill with blood.

Pinksen heard her scream and rushed back, carrying her inside the restaurant.

He remembered the shock and anger he felt at that moment.

“Then it clicked, she doesn’t need this, she needs Jerry the nurse now,” he said. He helped stabilize her and they waited until paramedics arrived.

Kane spent the next 11 days in a medically induced coma.

“That was the hardest, her in a coma, on a breathing machine, looking at the screen hoping things get better,” said Pinksen, 35.

Doctors performed four surgeries on Kane.

The first was to fuse her spine after the bullet shattered her T-11 vertebrae. The doctors told her the bullet didn’t sever her spinal cord, but passed so close that the energy from the bullet transferred to the spinal cord, causing massive cell death and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.

She had three surgeries to repair her abdomen. When surgeons went in to get a look inside, they found food — ceviche and lamb pasta from dinner — all over her chest wall.

“That would have been a huge source of infection,” Pinksen said. “Catching it early saved her life, too.”

The last year has been a journey for the pair.

She spent two months at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute learning to live as a paraplegic.

“Everything has changed for me,” Kane said.

Pain is her biggest problem now.

“The pain is more disabling than a lack of ability to walk,” Kane said. Her lower back hurts and she has a constant “tingly, burning sensation” in her legs.

“From a caregiver and a partner, sometimes it’s difficult playing those different roles and seeing someone you care about struggle with pain,” Pinksen said. “It’s such a preoccupying force in our lives.”

She said cannabis helps. Physiotherapy also helps, but she’s hit her OHIP-supported limit.

Fortunately, the couple received more than $200,000 from a GoFundMe campaign launched by a friend. With the money, they’re moving to Oshawa, Ont., to be closer to her school, where she hopes to take a few classes come January to ease back into the nursing program. She plans to join a centre where she’ll continue her physiotherapy.

The money has also allowed Pinksen to take a leave from work to help out at home.

“Without that money, I would have been stressed out and my recovery would have been more difficult,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I’m so relaxed. That and Jerry!”

They are renovating the house to make it accessible, the couple said.

Mentally, there have been ups and downs, Kane said. Depression rears its dark head from time to time. But she has found solace in meditation and the idea that life is suffering punctuated with moments of joy.

“I feel with all the suffering I’ve had, I have a great capacity for joy,” Kane said with a laugh.

She sometimes thinks about the past — what it was like to dance and run and jump — that can take her down to a dark place.

“I try to catch myself and distance myself from the thought and let it float away,” she said.

She also thinks about the shooter. Police said Hussain, who killed himself moments after the shooting spree, lived with severe mental health issues since childhood and had a history of harming himself along with a fascination with death and violence.

“I forgive him,” she said. “I definitely have moments where he’s not my favourite person, but I see him as a human being who struggled and didn’t get help. I can only imagine how awful his life must have been to be so isolated and tortured by violent thoughts.”

But she refuses to be kept down.

“I don’t feel traumatized because I’ve taken it back,” she said. “I feel like I don’t want to be a victim. I’m choosing not to be a victim.”

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press


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CRA program to help poor file taxes yields noticeable bump in people helped

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CRA headquarters

OTTAWA — A federal program designed to help low-income Canadians file their taxes has boosted the number of returns it’s handled in the year since the government increased its funding.

The extra money allows volunteer-driven clinics run by more than 3,000 groups to operate year-round.

Now, the agency is looking to improve the program to help more low-income Canadians qualify for supports administered through the tax system, including the Canada Child Benefit that goes up in value this weekend.

Figures provided by the Canada Revenue Agency show a six-per-cent increase in the number of tax returns filed through the program this year compared to last year.

In raw numbers, the CRA says more than 835,000 returns were filed by people who are homeless, Indigenous, newcomers, seniors or disabled.

The boost is double those seen in previous years, before the Liberals increased annual spending on the “community volunteer income-tax program” to $13 million in the 2018 budget.

The Canadian Press


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