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Canada's Trudeau says 'an erosion of trust' at root of scandal

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Image: Newly appointed Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybo
Jody Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. -
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Patrick Doyle
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a scandal gripping the Canadian government over political interference in a criminal case reflects "an erosion of trust" between his office and the attorney general.

Trudeau's address Thursday came after his former top aide Gerald Butts delivered testimony to a Parliament justice committee denying the prime minister acted inappropriately.

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Trudeau and senior staff have been accused by the former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould of pressuring her not to prosecute a Canadian company facing corruption charges.

Trudeau admitted to speaking to Wilson-Raybould about the issue on Thursday, but said he didn't know she was feeling pressured by multiple follow-up questions on the issue by other staff members in the subsequent month.

"I was not aware of that erosion of trust," he said adding, "I should have been."

The Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin has been accursed of paying bribes for government contracts in Libya. Wilson-Raybould testified that Trudeau and senior members of his government insisted that she instruct prosecutors to execute an option that would have the firm pay reparations and avoid trial.

A significant number of jobs are at stake — in an election year — if the firm is found guilty. SNC-Lavalin employs 3,400 people in the province of Quebec alone, and a conviction would prohibit the firm from receiving any federal government business for a decade.

In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould said Trudeau expressed concerns about jobs being lost, particularly in his home province.

However, Butts told the committee Wednesday that while officials did express concerns over the endangerment of jobs, he believed "nothing inappropriate occurred here."

Officials had only Wilson-Raybould to get a second opinion, Butts said, adding "we also made it clear that she was free to accept that opinion, or not."

Butts, who served as the prime minister's principal secretary, resigned in the wake of the allegations of political interference in the criminal case.

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The scandal has cost Trudeau's Liberal party two cabinet members, the first being Wilson-Raybould who stepped down on Feb. 12 following a cabinet shuffle that demoted her from attorney general to minister of veteran's affairs.

Treasury Board President Jane Philpott announced her resignation earlier this week in an act of solidarity. "The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system," Philpott wrote in her resignation letter, adding that she had "lost confidence" in how the government was handling the scandal.

Many are calling for more action. Liberal lawmaker Wayne Long called for a "full and transparent" investigation. Opposition Conservative leader Andrew Sheer has gone further demanding that Trudeau resign and a police investigation be launched.