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Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick: What’s his job description? How much power does he hold?

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Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick sat before a committee of MPs Thursday and explained that he was holding a position that has existed in one form or another for 800 years.

While Canada has been a country for a much shorter period, in the U.K. the privy council has served to advise monarchs on legislation, justice and the functioning of government for centuries.

Wernick’s appearance before the justice committee served to open the door of Canada’s “private council” and shed some light on the role of the privy council clerk in a democratically elected government.

In Canada, the clerk holds three positions. The first is to act as the deputy minister for the prime minister, fulfilling a bureaucratic role. The second is to be secretary of the federal cabinet and the third is to act as the head of the federal public service.

Werneck laid out that part of the job but more importantly he detailed how he fulfilled those roles with respect to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office in the ongoing court case involving SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

The committee asked Wernick to appear because it is examining whether Trudeau or someone in his office tried to pressure Jody Wilson-Raybould — when she held the dual role of attorney general and justice minister — to allow SNC-Lavalin to avoid charges on corruption and fraud by offering it the option of a remediation agreement as an alternative to prosecution.

Wernick said that he did, in fact, speak with Wilson-Raybould about the decision to prosecute the firm, making the case that there would be economic consequences for the Montréal-based company and its 9,000 plus Canadian employees if she chose to disregard the remediation option.

While no former clerks of the privy council would speak to CBC News on the record, a source with intimate knowledge of the position explained that making a strong case to Wilson-Raybould to seek remediation was an entirely justified position for the clerk to take.

Clerks ‘want good decision making’

The source said that the clerk’s role, in a sense, makes them responsible for cabinet decision making by ensuring the appropriate steps are taken to execute cabinet decisions.

The clerk also has the responsibility to ensure that the public interest is considered in cabinet decisions.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the clerk to call the attorney general and and say: ‘have you considered employment in Montreal’ in the decision they are going to make,” the source said.

Watch Michael Wernick address MPs:

Michael Wernick the Clerk of the Privy Council spoke to the Commons Justice committee on Thursday 3:39

The attorney general, however, can disregard the public interest under the law, the source said, if it is determined that a person at the centre of a case has been found guilty of corrupting foreign officials. But the clerk still provides the advice.

“An effective clerk will make sure that ministers have these facts because they also want good decision making. They want everything on the table for them to take into account,” David McLaughlin, a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and deputy minister to New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.

Appropriate vs. inappropriate pressure

The source also said that the line between appropriate pressure and pressure that crosses the line is not complicated.

If, in the case of Wilson-Raybould, the prime minister told her that she had to make a specific decision or she would be kicked out of cabinet, that would be crossing the line, the source said.

Watch David McLaughlin discuss the job of privy council clerk:

Brian Mulroney’s former chief of staff David McLaughlin weighs in on the first day of the justice committee’s probe. 8:23

But the level of pressure would be appropriate, and just, if the prime minister told Wilson-Raybould that she should take the weekend to really think over her decision because prosecuting SNC-Lavalin could put thousands of people out of work and potentially sink an important Canadian company.

“There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever, and it doesn’t matter who the prime minister uses as his messenger, whether it’s the clerk, a member of the PMO’s staff or [he] tells the minister himself,” the source said.

Cabinet confidence

The clerk is also responsible for determining what documents or discussions are covered by cabinet confidence and ensuring that cabinet confidences persist in perpetuity. All of his rulings are final and cannot be appealed to a court.

So if the clerk decides that a conversation or written correspondence between two ministers or a minister and the prime minister are a cabinet confidence, then the content of that discussion remains confidential.

“His job is not political at all,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “I’ll define the clerk this way: it’s operationally oriented but politically sensitive. In contrast, the Prime Minister’s Office is politically oriented but has to be operationally sensitive.”

Wiseman said the role is “absolutely non-partisan.”

That’s something McLaughlin said Wernick demonstrated well during his appearance at committee. While the position is non-partisan, the prime minister can appoint whomever he wants to the role. 

Wernick, it should be noted, was appointed to the position of deputy clerk of the privy council and associate secretary to cabinet by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and promoted to clerk by Trudeau.

“His job is not to give political advice,” said Wiseman. 

The clerk is there to anticipate issues or concerns that will arise as a direct result of policy decisions and to inform the prime minister of what those are.

“That’s part of the background analysis, basically trying to assess what will be the consequences of a particular decision, what are the pros, what are the cons,” said Yan Campagnolo, assistant law professor at the University of Ottawa. “Certainly that’s something that public servants do in general, and the clerk is at the top of the pyramid,” 

Watch Wernick criticize media coverage of the SNC-Lavalin case: 

‘I’m here to say to you that the Globe and Mail article contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory,’ Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, said. 5:31

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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