Liberal MP apologizes for suggesting Wilson-Raybould was shuffled for not speaking French
OTTAWA – Quebec Liberal MP and chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee Anthony Housefather has apologized for floating the idea that Jody-Wilson Raybould may have been shuffled out of her job as justice minister because her French language skills are lacking.
"There's millions of reasons that people can be shuffled from one position to another, including the fact, for example, that there's a lot of legal issues coming up in Quebec and the prime minister may well have decided he needed a Justice Minister that could speak French," Housefather said during a Quebec radio interview on Thursday. He cited the “charter of values” being proposed in Quebec as one example of why Trudeau might want a justice minister who can communicate with Quebecers.
This new line of speculation came amid questions over whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved Wilson-Raybould into veterans affairs after she refused to bow to alleged pressure to ask federal prosecutors to make a deal in the corruption and fraud case against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
That has been a connection opposition MPs have drawn following reporting from The Globe and Mail that alleged that the Prime Minister's Office leaned on Wilson-Raybould -- who was the attorney general at the time -- to have federal prosecutors pursue a remediation agreement rather than criminal prosecution, which she did not do. CTV News has not independently verified the story.
"I want to apologize… I never should have tried to speculate about something like this. I have no direct knowledge," Housefather tweeted Thursday night.
Prior to his apology, when asked about his comments Housefather told CTV News that he was just speculating based on his own personal view as a Quebec MP.
Though her French proficiency wasn’t a one-off suggestion, he repeated his theory again in an interview on an Ottawa radio station.
"There's going to be extensive need in Quebec for somebody who has the Justice file to speak to Quebecers in French and she doesn't speak French and so there may be other reasons, very different reasons from the ones that the Conservatives and the NDP are trying to frame, why she may have been shuffled in Cabinet," Housefather said.
He went on to say while it’s easy to speculate, you'd have to ask Trudeau or Wilson-Raybould for the real reason behind what many saw as a demotion. During the French radio interview, Housefather said it was clear she was unhappy about the shuffle. She has since tendered her resignation from Trudeau’s cabinet.
"The Liberals appointed her to that position in November 2015, she didn’t speak French then, she doesn't speak French now based on what I know, so things haven't changed and I think this is a pretty weak excuse or rationale for what happened in January," said McGill political science professor Daniel Beland on CTV's Power Play.
Housefather's comments also came the day after the committee he chairs shut down the opposition's efforts to ask for Wilson-Raybould to testify as part of its coming probe of the SNC-Lavalin affair. Instead they’ve agreed to a limited witness list for now, and broadly the topics at the heart of the story.
During Wednesday's committee meeting opposition MPs questioned Housefather’s independence as the chair over other comments he’s made recently, including that he believes the prime minister in this matter.
On Thursday he said that the committee is inherently partisan and cited that as a reason why the parliamentary avenue was not the best for a full investigation.
"Our committee being a partisan committee is not an independent venue to do a proper analysis. We’ll do our best but you’re going to see a lot of back and forth that you wouldn’t see if it was actually a court or an independent person doing an investigation," Housefather said during the Quebec radio chat.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen equated his remarks to what has been seen to be "smear campaign" against Wilson-Raybould from unnamed Liberals over the last week who claim she was "difficult to get along with."
"Stop it and let her and other key witnesses testify at committee," Cullen tweeted.
His comments were made while members of Trudeau's cabinet sought to stick to the same message coming from Trudeau's office on the entire affair.
"I was sad with the news, certainly very disappointed," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. "I think the Prime Minister has been clear and I think what is also really important is that we continue moving forward," she said on CTV News Channel.
"I think it's important that we respect Jody Wilson-Raybould’s decision… my view is that she’s going to be someone who can continue to add value," Finance Minister Bill Morneau said on Thursday at an event where he was joined by Labour Minister Patty Hajdu.
Hajdu called Wilson-Raybould a "valuable team member," and she looks forward to seeing her next week in the House.
Crisis communications expert Jennifer Stewart criticized the government’s approach to messaging on this case.
"Not having a united front and having different pieces of information dribbled out into the media by party members is not well informed," she told CTV News.