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Despite briefing, Canada PM still puzzled by minister's resignation

Despite briefing, Canada PM still puzzled by minister's resignation
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 -
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CHRIS WATTIE(Reuters)
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By David Ljunggren

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 though she addressed the Cabinet on Tuesday.

Trudeau is battling a crisis that centres on 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 had 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 did not answer directly when asked about a report in the Globe and Mail newspaper saying Wilson-Raybould told the Cabinet she had come under improper pressure from officials.

The issue could threaten the ruling Liberals' chances in an election this October. Trudeau aide Gerald Butts, a major architect of the Liberals' surprise victory in October 2015, quit on Monday while insisting he had done nothing wrong.

Opposition politicians have accused the Liberals of a cover-up and have demanded a full public inquiry.

SNC-Lavalin is a major employer in Quebec province, where the Liberals say they need to capture more seats to have a chance of winning a majority government in October.

"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 Butts, but 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 added the hashtag #IStandWithHer.

Wilson-Raybould - who told the House of Commons on Wednesday, "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 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)

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