Justice minister takes new oath after wording prompted by SNC-Lavalin affair left out

OTTAWA – The new federal justice minister and attorney general swore a fresh oath Tuesday after officials discovered the one he recited just last week left out wording ushered in following the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Toronto MP Arif Virani, who once worked as a human rights and constitutional lawyer, took over the key portfolio from David Lametti in the recent federal cabinet shuffle, among the biggest since the Liberal government assumed office nearly eight years ago.

A political storm hit the Liberals in early 2019 amid allegations prime ministerial aides leaned on Jody Wilson-Raybould, attorney general at the time, to ensure there was a deal to avoid prosecution of engineering firm SNC-Lavalin on corruption and fraud charges.

The federal ethics watchdog also found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act.

The affair highlighted the fact the jobs of justice minister and attorney general are held by the same person in Canada, which is not the case in some countries.

The attorney general is meant to operate independent of political interests in providing the government non-partisan legal advice and overseeing prosecutions. The justice minister, on the other hand, is empowered to make decisions that can advance partisan interests and answers directly to the prime minister.

After the controversy erupted, Wilson-Raybould, who was no longer minister, testified before a parliamentary committee that thought should be given to splitting the roles into two distinct positions to avoid future conflicts by removing the attorney general from the cabinet table altogether, a move some experts supported.

She told MPs “there have been times where I have raised the issue internally when I was the minister” and possibly could have spoken to colleagues about the matter.

That feeling was ultimately not shared by Anne McLellan, the former Liberal cabinet minister Trudeau tapped to explore the option.

In a report released in August 2019, she recommended against separating the roles, saying she did not think it would enhance prosecutorial independence. She warned it would risk watering down the legal advice provided to cabinet colleagues because an attorney general from outside the cabinet room would be viewed by those around the table as missing the necessary political context.

McLellan nonetheless made a series of recommendations, including a change to the oath of office of the justice minister and attorney general to specifically cite the latter’s “unique role in upholding the rule of law, giving independent legal advice, and making decisions about prosecutions independently.”

Lametti adopted new language emphasizing the independence of the attorney general position following the 2019 federal election, saying it was designed to better clarify the roles. At the time, he pledged that as attorney general he would “uphold the Constitution, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of the prosecutorial function.”

He did not swear an oath after the Liberals’ 2021 election victory, given he was keeping his cabinet job.

The new language was not in the oath sworn by Virani, and The Canadian Press began inquiring Monday as to why.

Privy Council Office spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold called the absence an “administrative error” that would be remedied in a new virtual oath swearing Tuesday.

“It is important to recognize the distinct and unique dual roles performed by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada,” wrote Bujold. He said the mistake was noticed last week, prompting officials to arrange for Virani to “retake the oath of office to be consistent with the McLellan report recommendation.”

Before entering cabinet, Virani served as parliamentary secretary to Wilson-Raybould and later Lametti.

One of Lametti’s last acts as minister was a directive, issued in July, to better clarify the process for when the director of public prosecutions informs the attorney general about a case of “general interest” — a response to another recommendation that followed the SNC-Lavalin matter.

By Nadeem Faisal baiga