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Butts: PMO did “all we could” to dissuade Brison from leaving

Gerald Butts said “We did all we could to dissuade [Brison], to take Christmas to think about it, and at least give the Prime Minister a chance to talk him out of it.” during his testimony Wednesday. - Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts says Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be justice minister if Scott Brison hadn’t quit cabinet.

Butts told the House of Commons Justice committee on Wednesday it was the resignation of former treasury board president and long-time Kings-Hants MP Scott Brison alone that forced the Jan. 14 cabinet shuffle, and ultimately turned Wilson-Raybould against the PMO.

Wearing a shovel and pick lapel pin, a nod to his Cape Breton coal-mining family roots, Butts, a longtime friend and close confidant of Trudeau, painted a very different picture of his communication with Wilson-Raybould than she did in her committee appearance a week earlier.

Butts’ much-anticipated testimony focused on what he characterized as a breakdown in communication between the PMO and Wilson-Raybould that ultimately led to his resignation last month.

Instead of the pressure and thinly-veiled threats described by Wilson-Raybould, Butts said he only asked the former attorney general to consider a second opinion on the matter of a deferred prosecution arrangement in the SNC Lavalin Case.

“If Minister Brison had not resigned, Minister Wilson-Raybould would still be Minister of Justice today.”

            -Gerald Butts

Butts insinuated in his testimony that Wilson-Raybould’s concerns about pressure from the PMO on SNC Lavalin only surfaced following her shuffle from the high-profile justice role, which she described as her dream job, to the veterans affairs portfolio — a move largely seen as a demotion.

Butts said the trouble began when Brison approached him at the caucus Christmas party on Dec. 12 to tell him that he was not running again and would be leaving cabinet.

“We had no idea that he was even thinking about retirement,” Butts said in his testimony.

Butts said he immediately sought help from people who knew Brison both in Nova Scotia and in Ottawa, and spent weeks trying to convince him to stay in order to avoid a major cabinet shuffle on short notice.

“We did all we could to dissuade him, to take Christmas to think about it, and at least give the prime minister a chance to talk him out of it.”

Butts said his main concern was the Liberals’ position in the Maritimes, specifically Nova Scotia. The recent announcement that longtime Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey was planning to retire and rookie West Nova MP Colin Fraser, who is also on the justice committee, was considering not running in the 2019 election, coupled with Brison’s departure, gave Butts reason to worry.

Gerald Butts testifies before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC Lavalin Affair. - Canadian Press
Gerald Butts testifies before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC Lavalin Affair. - Canadian Press

“I knew if the prime minister chose a minister from the class of 2015 (for cabinet, longtime Cape Breton MPs Rodger) Cuzner and (Mark) Eyking could interpret that as a signal and perhaps not run again either. In short, in the span of a few months, we would go from holding all 11 seats in Nova Scotia with strong incumbents to having five of them open in the next election,” Butts told the committee.

In the end, South Shore-St. Margarets MP Bernadette Jordan, who was first elected in 2015, was appointed to cabinet, and Eyking announced he was not running again soon after the shuffle, though he said his reasons were personal.

Complicating the matter further, Butts said, both Brison and Casey represent ridings where the Conservatives have traditionally been strong — in fact, both men were once Tory MPs.

He also said he was worried about the problem spreading into traditional Tory strongholds in New Brunswick.

It became clear that Brison could not be convinced to stick around until the summer — he officially announced his plans to step away from politics and left cabinet in early January, citing family reasons, vacating his seat a month later to take a job with the Bank of Montreal.

Butts said the PMO began crafting a cabinet shuffle that would see as few moves as possible. Because the Treasury Board is such an important position, Trudeau insisted it could not be filled by a new minister.

“This left us two large challenges: we needed a Nova Scotia minister and a Treasury Board chair with ministerial experience. No Nova Scotian, except (Geoff) Regan, had been a minister before and he is the Speaker of the House of Commons,” Butts said.

“We did all we could to dissuade [Brison], to take Christmas to think about it, and at least give the Prime Minister a chance to talk him out of it.”

            -Gerald Butts

All signs pointed to then-Indigenous affairs minister Jane Philpott — who has since resigned from cabinet due to the PMO’s handling of the entire affair — as the best woman for the job.

But, Butts said, the PM wanted to ensure whoever was shuffled into Indigenous services would send a strong signal that work on that portfolio would keep going at the same pace, and it needed to be someone whose position could be filled by someone outside of cabinet in order to keep the shuffle contained.

Butts said they agreed the only person who fit the bill was Wilson-Raybould, the country’s first Indigenous justice minister.

Trudeau knew there were several capable and experienced lawyers in caucus who could be justice minister, Butts said, but very few who could handle Indigenous service as well as Wilson-Raybould.

The plan, Butts said, was simple: Philpott to Treasury Board, Wilson-Raybould to Indigenous services, David Lametti, a distinguished McGill Law professor, into justice, and Jordan into the new rural affairs portfolio that caucus had been lobbying for, filling the vacancy for Nova Scotia. But things didn’t go as planned.

According to Butts, Philpott was the first to suggest Wilson-Raybould would see the shuffle as related to her decisions on SNC-Lavalin. Then, during a phone call with the PM, Wilson-Raybould made the same assertion, and in what Butts called an unprecedented move, turned down the portfolio.

Butts said Wilson-Raybould told the PM she had spent her life opposed to the Indian Act, and couldn’t be in charge of the programs administered under its authority.

Ultimately, Wilson-Raybould would be offered the veterans affairs portfolio, which she accepted.

“If Minister Brison had not resigned, Minister Wilson-Raybould would still be Minister of Justice today,” Butts said. “That is a fact. A fact that is inconsistent and incompatible with the story many are trying to tell.”

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