OTTAWA -- Protecting at-risk jobs has been at the centre of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government’s defence of its conduct in relation to the still-simmering SNC-Lavalin scandal, but when asked what evidence they have to back that stance, one federal minister was unable to give any.

In an interview on CTV’s Question Period, Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility Minister Carla Qualtrough said that there would “definitely” be jobs in jeopardy, but she couldn’t give “a direct number.”

The 9,000 or so people that SNC-Lavalin employs, other spinoff jobs, pensioners, and investors in Canada have been cited by the Trudeau Liberals repeatedly through the controversy.

The scandal centres around allegations from the former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould that she faced high-level "veiled threats" and "sustained" political interference from nearly a dozen senior officials between September and December 2018 to seek a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, which is facing bribery and corruption charges over business dealings in Libya. If the company was criminally convicted they could be banned from securing Canadian government contracts for a decade, potentially putting jobs on the line.

In Trudeau’s Thursday press conference the word “jobs” was uttered over a dozen times.

“We had heard representations from various sources, including the company itself, that this was an issue of deep concern to them and that it would potentially have consequences as dire as the company having to leave Canada altogether, and that would be something that obviously would have a severe impact on the thousands of people employed right across the country,” Trudeau said. When asked what evidence he had at the time, Trudeau cited “representations from various sources, including the company itself.”

Repeatedly asked by host Evan Solomon what evidence the federal government has to defend its stance, or how many jobs could actually be on the line, Qualtrough said that she couldn’t give “a direct number.”

“History would tell you that when corporations are convicted, jobs are lost, sometimes companies go bankrupt, sometimes their headquarters leave the country. So the potential of job loss is a significant factor. You know what, can we tell you exactly the precise number? No. But we can tell you that jobs are in jeopardy and that's enough that it warrants consideration,” Qualtrough said.

The jobs defence was also raised by Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts when he testified before the House Justice Committee. He said that Trudeau gave direction to his top aides, that through the entire process, they were to keep in mind the thousands of jobs.

“The fact that the company involved employs so many people across the country heightens the importance of the matter. That was the entirety of our advice to the attorney general which we made clear she was free to accept, or not,” Butts said.

But during questioning from Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Butts said he could not recall a specific study being done at the government level, in terms of the actual economic or employment impact there would be to SNC-Lavalin if it was not granted a deferred prosecution agreement.

It was later revealed that the federal justice department had prepared a report about the consequences a criminal conviction may have on SNC-Lavalin, but that was withheld from the Privy Council Office -- the top level of the bureaucracy -- at the request of Wilson-Raybould’s office.

Qualtrough -- who said that she, too, thought she lost her “dream job” when she was shuffled out of her role as minister for sport and persons with disabilities and into her current role -- has now been given additional responsibilities as acting Treasury Board President to fill the hole left when Jane Philpott announced she was quitting cabinet out of a loss of confidence Trudeau over the handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

She said there is no regret about citing the 9,000 jobs figure without specific evidence to defend the government, and the companies’ argument that if a criminal conviction was made, the Quebec engineering and construction giant could be in dire straits.

On CTV’s Question Period, opposition MPs seized on the Liberals’ job argument, saying that it’s not backed up by evidence.

“The company has an agreement with the Caisse de dépôt, the Quebec pension fund to stay for seven years in Montreal. It has signed a 20-year lease, it has renovated its headquarters... it has contracts that must be executed here in Canada,” said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre. “So that is a blatant falsehood.”

NDP MP Tracey Ramsey pointed to the thousands of other Canadians who she said the current government has done little to nothing to remedy.

“If I am an auto worker in Oshawa, if I am a Sears worker that watched the company leave and I don’t have my pension, if I am a steel and aluminum worker in this country -- there are many workers that this government has not stood up for, has not created public policy to protect jobs for, has not done anything for,” Ramsey said.

‘Sliding scale’ ban on the table

Qualtrough did confirm that the federal government is still looking at amending the federal integrity regime, which impacts which companies get contracts with tax dollars.

Since 2017 the government has been consulting on, and reviewing the regime, specifically looking at the contract ban for those criminally convicted. SNC-Lavalin has voiced their support for these changes, as it can be seen to be an alternative way for them to avoid the impacts of a criminal conviction.

“Yes, the proposal on the table right now given the broadening of the scope of the things that will be covered is to do a sliding scale of 0-10 years, or up to 10 years for criminal convictions in some cases,” Qualtrough said.

She said that an absolute exemption from the ban for this, or any company is not on the table at cabinet, but that because they are looking at broadening the kinds of crimes that could be captured by these rules, there should be a range in the punishment to reflect the varying types of offences.

Qualtrough said the decision for where on this scale any offender could land will be made by an independent registrar.