In November 2015, shortly after being sworn in, new Treasury Board President Scott Brison went to bat for Irving Shipyards, a company owned by the billionaire Irving family.
The Canadian Navy needed an interim supply ship due to the lagging construction schedule of a replacement. The previous Conservative government had just negotiated a $670 million deal with Davie Shipyard, based near Quebec City, to refit a commercial vessel and lease it to the Navy for five years.
And in a November Cabinet committee meeting, news reports say Brison argued for a review of the decision – and against the Minister of Defence – to review the decision. Irving Shipyards had been lobbying new cabinet ministers about their alternate proposal, one which had been rejected by the previous government.
Irving Shipyard is located in Halifax, not far from Brison’s riding of King’s Hants.
In the end, the Liberals stuck with the Conservative plan to contract Davie Shipyards. But news of the political intervention became public. And Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the head of the Navy, was fingered for it. He was suspended then, in spring 2018, criminally charged with breach of trust.
Norman’s defence team has made it plain that it would be attacking Brison and working to expose a relationship with the billionaire Irving family. Later, on December 14, documents tabled in court showed Minister Brison would be on the defence’s witness list. Within the next ten days, Brison met with Trudeau and a decision was made that Brison would step down from cabinet and resign from politics. For family reasons, of course. That decision was only made public late last week.
With the case scheduled to start in court in August — and an election campaign starting in September — no doubt Liberal strategists were not keen on having Norman’s lawyer, Marie Henein, cross-examine the Treasury Board President on the ins and outs of his communications with the Irvings. That sort of news would re-up stories about the Aga Khan’s billionaire island, Morneau’s forgotten French villa and other reminders that this isn’t a government that puts the working person first.
Brison will still be in court and it may still be quite embarrassing. But there will be no risk of him facing calls to resign.
Also today, along with Brison, another key Liberal got moved out of the way – Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The logic for Wilson-Raybould’s move isn’t as clear. That she’s been shuffled to Veteran’s Affairs – a clear demotion – sends the signal it’s not just about helping her out of the hot-seat of anti-pipeline protest and Indigenous land rights issues in British Columbia, her home province. If the goal was to insulate Wilson-Raybould from accusations she’d given bad legal advice to cabinet on pipeline conflicts with Indigenous rights, or had sold-out Indigenous people, the demotion wouldn’t be presented as such an object lesson.
Interestingly, as the shuffle was underway, Global TV report Mercedes Stephenson tweeted that “a number of Liberals” had indicated to her that “Cabinet members and PMO were not thrilled with her performance” in Justice.
That leaves open a lot of space. But given the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint protest of a BC gasline project and Trudeau’s evident plan to re-approve Trans Mountain through BC (the Federal Court of Appeal having sent the Liberals back to do the Indigenous consultation and accommodation correctly), it may be Wilson-Raybould’s legal advice and political instincts weren’t what the pipeline lobby wanted to hear.
Cabinet discussions are private – possible leaks from Vice-Admirals notwithstanding – so we may never know how Wildon-Raybould came to deserve her demotion. But whatever the reason for it, the fact of her move out of Justice puts Wilson-Raybould – BC politician and Indigenous person – on the sideline with Scott Brison, and out of a line of fire that could ricochet onto Trudeau himself.