OTTAWA — It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in Ottawa, that a cabinet minister responsible for a tricky file must be in want of a loyal chief of staff.After a handful of prospects went through the revolving doors of her office in her first few years as minister of justice and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould seemed finally to have found such a person in Jessica Prince, whose name is suddenly widely known after her former boss’s dramatic testimony at a House of Commons justice committee hearing Wednesday.Wilson-Raybould exhaustively described what she termed “a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada.” And at every turn, there was her chief of staff: an Oxford-educated lawyer who had taken the job last April having joined the minister’s office as a policy advisor two years earlier.A longtime Liberal volunteer from Victoria, B.C., she studied political science at McGill before attending law school in the UK. After being called to the bar in Canada she worked for five years on Bay Street — first at Thornton Grout Finnigan LLP, which specializes in bankruptcy and commercial law, then at Polley Faith LLP. With that firm she appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark medical assistance in dying case in 2015 on behalf of intervenors the Canadian Medical Association — a file she would work on for Wilson-Raybould in 2016, after joining the Department of Justice. Working there was like “Disneyland for lawyers,” Prince quipped in a spring 2018 Q&A with litigator and blogger Erin Cowling, her role at Justice seeing her serve as the department’s “point person” on cannabis legalization and assist with sexual assault law reform. Within months, however, she would become one of the key players at the heart of a national question about the Liberal government’s respect for the rule of law itself.
Jessica Prince is Jody Wilson-Raybould’s former chief of staff.
Twitter/The Canadian Press
By September of last year Wilson-Raybould had made up her mind that engineering firm SNC-Lavalin should not be offered a remediation agreement so it could avoid criminal prosecution on corruption charges. Over the course of the next four months Prince stood by the minister’s decision, according to the testimony, and seems to have risked her job to do so. It was often she who bore the brunt of pressure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest advisors, who demanded a change of course, and relayed to her minister, in writing and in detail, conversations that have now been brought to public light. The two had a “necessary closeness,” as Wilson-Raybould described it.In January Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her role as attorney general after an escalation in what she called “veiled threats” from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s proxies. The Conservative Party is asking the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate whether officials including Trudeau, top civil servant Michael Wernick, Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts, who resigned last week, and Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford broke the law by “provoking fear” in the attorney general, an offence in the criminal code.Prince followed Wilson-Raybould into the lower-profile veterans affairs ministry, something she was under no obligation to do, but not before learning from the deputy minister of justice that Trudeau expected a new minister to quickly be ready to discuss SNC-Lavalin.Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet earlier this month. Prince is now on leave, having revealed on Twitter last month she was expecting a baby, but remains in her role at Veterans Affairs. She did not respond to a request for an interview. She retains the loyalty of some who stayed and now serve the new justice minister, David Lametti. “I think the world of Jess Prince. She was a terrific boss,” said director of communications David Taylor.Lisa Raitt, a former Conservative minister, said in an interview Thursday that in Ottawa, the kind of loyalty Prince had to have to follow her minister to a new portfolio is “worth its weight in gold.”In focusing a line of questioning on Prince during the committee Wednesday, Raitt said she tried to establish that Prince spoke for Wilson-Raybould much the same way that Butts and Telford spoke for Trudeau. “It’s not enough to defend yourself by saying, ‘I was only talking to staff, it’s only staff.’ No, no, no — when you’re talking to Jessica Prince, you’re talking to Jody Wilson-Raybould, period. And people would know that,” she said.Adding to the potential pressure Prince could’ve felt, chiefs of staff for ministers typically serve “at the pleasure of the PMO,” Raitt said, and report to the prime minister’s chief of staff. Telford or Butts could have said to Prince, “‘We’re not going to need your services anymore if you can’t convince your minister to do this for us,’” she said. In the committee, Wilson-Raybould told Raitt she couldn’t speak to her former chief’s level of fear, but said Prince, “an extraordinary human being and an extraordinary lawyer,” had been “quite upset” after a particular meeting with Butts and Telford in December.According to text messages from Prince Wilson-Raybould read out to the committee, Butts told her chief of staff “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference,” and Telford told her, “we don’t want to debate legalities anymore.”Much has been made of Wilson-Raybould’s fortitude despite a whisper campaign in Ottawa, after her demotion, about how difficult she had been to work with. There is evidence aplenty that Prince, whose resume is chock-full of awards, scholarships, pro-bono work and public speaking, was not going to be a shrinking violet in the face of external pressure, either.As a young lawyer on Bay Street, Prince had been a rising legal star and a vocal feminist. In an August 2015 article for Canadian Lawyer headlined “Call out the bullies,” Prince wrote about the sexism and intimidation that young women often face in the legal profession. “I resent,” she wrote, “that so much energy and emphasis is being put on what we can do — as the victims of bad behaviour — to cope with it, and not on what can be done to stop the behaviour itself.” She vowed to do her best to stand up to bullying behaviour in the future.• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: mariedanielles