Canada PM puzzled by minister's resignation, despite briefing

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday said he was still puzzled by the decision of former veterans affairs minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to quit last week, even after she addressed the Cabinet on Tuesday.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to journalists before the start of a Liberal Party caucus meeting in the West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Trudeau is battling allegations that his officials last year pressured Wilson-Raybould, then justice minister, to ensure construction company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc avoided a corruption and bribery trial.

Trudeau insists there was no wrongdoing and said Wilson-Raybould has not made clear her reasons for leaving. In an unusual move, she was allowed to address her Cabinet colleagues on Tuesday, even though she was no longer a minister.

“I continue to be surprised by Jody Wilson-Raybould’s decision ... This is not a decision that remains clear to me,” he told a televised news conference in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Trudeau’s version of events was backed up by Michael Wernick, the head of the federal civil service, who was present for several top-level meetings with Wilson-Raybould last year and said nothing untoward had happened.

“There was no inappropriate pressure put on the minister at any time,” Wernick told the House of Commons justice committee on Thursday, saying Wilson-Raybould had had plenty of opportunities to complain had she felt the need to.

Wilson-Raybould, who on Wednesday said “I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth”, is consulting lawyers to determine how much she is able to say. She is due to address the justice committee next week.

The Globe and Mail on Thursday said Wilson-Raybould told the Cabinet she had come under improper pressure from officials.

“How she interprets and perceives those conversations she can tell you next week. I can tell you my view very firmly is they were entirely appropriate, lawful, legal,” said Wernick, a civil servant who is not a member of Parliament.

The issue could threaten the ruling Liberals’ election chances this October. Opposition politicians have accused the Liberals of a cover-up and want a full public inquiry.

SNC-Lavalin is a major employer in the province of Quebec province, where the Liberals say they need to capture more seats in the October election to have a chance of holding on to power.

“We believe in the independence of the judiciary and we believe in fighting for good jobs,” said Trudeau.

The prime minister on Wednesday sought to calm restless parliamentarians at a meeting to discuss the resignations of Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau aide Gerald Butts, a major architect of the Liberals’ surprise victory in October 2015, who quit on Monday while insisting he had done nothing wrong.

Trudeau sidestepped questions about how he planned to handle the crisis, party sources said.

Signs of stress remain. Two Liberal legislators voted with the opposition on Wednesday in a failed bid to launch a public inquiry, while a female Liberal member of parliament tweeted her support for Wilson-Raybould, adding the hash tag #IStandWithHer.

The former minister, who the Globe and Mail said had ignored the pressure to go easy on SNC-Lavalin, was demoted from the justice ministry last month.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Steve Orlofsky