Ottawa Citizen


Trudeau adviser Butts resigns amid SNC furor


As a student at McGill University in the 1990s, Justin Trudeau sat down near some stone pillars and posed for a photo with another student, who decades later would emerge as the architect of his policies as prime minister — Gerald Butts.

The two were clad in nearly identical attire — sandals, ripped acid-washed jeans and white T-shirts. Trudeau included the photo of them in his 2014 autobiogra­phy — an indication of how close the two have been.

On Monday, after seven years hovering near Trudeau’s elbow as his chief advisor on policy and strategy, Butts resigned as Principal Secretary amid accusation­s that the Prime Minister’s Office interfered in the criminal prosecutio­n of the giant Montreal engineerin­g and constructi­on firm SNCLavalin Group Inc. Though Butts called such accusation­s “simply not true,” he acknowledg­ed that he had become a distractio­n and decided to remove himself.

Having helped persuade Trudeau to run for office, having helped write the Prime Minister’s autobiogra­phy and having helped run his campaign, he departs as the SNC scandal envelops the PMO.

“There’s no denying this is a body blow to the government and the prime minister,” said Charlie Bird, a former senior staffer to a federal Liberal minister and now a managing principal at the Toronto office of public affairs firm Earnsdale Strategies.

“(He) was really key to the government’s policy agenda and what it’s been able to accomplish to date.”

Neither Trudeau nor Butts would comment about how his resignatio­n unfolded; Butts said in a statement on Twitter that he offered to resign and Trudeau accepted.

In his own Twitter post, the prime minister said they remain friends and thanked Butts for his “integrity, sage advice and devotion.”

In recent weeks, Butts had emerged as a central figure in the unfolding scandal. Earlier this month, the Globe and Mail reported that the prime minister’s office had pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to broach a settlement with SNC-Lavalin on charges its executives co-ordinated tens of millions of dollars in bribes to Libyan government officials to win contracts there.

Though Trudeau denies interferin­g, Wilson-Raybould resigned last week, raising fresh questions about what had happened. Some reports suggest Butts had met and spoken to Wilson-Raybould about the case.

Butts, usually hovering in the background, had moved front and centre and faced new scrutiny.

“When you’re in those jobs, you do your best not to become part of the storyline,” said Edward Goldenberg, a former chief of staff to Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. “In parliament­ary democracy, it’s for ministers to be part of the story, not staff.”

What happens now, including who will replace Butts and how Trudeau will adjust to the change, remains to be seen.

The two men, who met at McGill, forged their bonds in debate club. In an interview with McGill News, Trudeau said the experience helped convince him he wasn’t cut out for a career as a lawyer or a debater.

Nonetheles­s, in 2013, like a throwback to his college days, he was smack back in a debate while running the campaign that would land him in the PMO, and Butts was advising during each commercial break.

“Butts ... practicall­y pinned his friend against the wall,” according to a 2015 Maclean’s profile. “He slung a jacketed arm over Trudeau’s shoulder and spoke in hushed tones, inches from his face. It wasn’t so much aggressive as intensely friendly — a boxer with his longtime coach — with Trudeau occasional­ly nodding at Butts’s words.”

That helped reinforce a stereotype that Butts served as the brain of the operations while Trudeau provided the charming smile and personalit­y to woo voters.

Their life stories, are of course vastly different: Butts, 47, born to a coal miner and nurse in Cape Breton, graduated from McGill, and after earning a master’s degree even briefly pursued a PhD in literature at York University in Toronto.

Before finishing his degree, he entered politics, rose through the ranks of former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s office and later became chief executive of World Wildlife Foundation-Canada.

Trudeau, meanwhile, the son of a former prime minister, pursued a career as a teacher after McGill until decades later, Butts helped convince him to run for office.

According to a 2015 article in the Ottawa Citizen, as early as 2000, days after Pierre Trudeau’s death, the pair talked about the younger Trudeau running for office. The issue came up again throughout the intervenin­g years, including over dinner in Toronto, where Butts lived with his wife and two children.

“I often did get the sense that they often would finish each other’s sentences,” said Jonathan Kay, who helped Trudeau with his autobiogra­phy and is a former columnist for the National Post.

Kay said their personalit­ies helped balance each other out, and the stereotype of Butts as the brains behind the operation is a mistake.

“They were very much equals,” he said, adding, “when they’re together they balance each other out.”

Butts, who is an avid twitter user even while occupying one of the highest positions in government, noted in his statement on the social media platform that one issue stands out to him as most important.

“That issue is climate change,” he wrote. “I hope the response to it becomes the collective, non-partisan, urgent effort that science clearly says is required. I hope that happens soon.”

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