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.
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.
“The reality is, the prime minister’s government is in total crisis mode caused by his personal political interference in a criminal trial … The only person left to resign now is Justin Trudeau himself, whose corrupt government no longer has the confidence of Canadians.”
Trudeau said he intends to name Ian Shugart, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, to replace Wernick.
—with files from Lee Berthiaume
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press