A murky scandal threatens to mar Trudeau's – and Canada's – good names

Why We Wrote This

You may not know it from abroad, but Canada is riveted by a scandal that could erode Justin Trudeau’s standing on rule of law, and even gender and indigenous rights. Could Canada be like everywhere else?

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/AP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embraced by then Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould after delivering a speech on the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 14, 2018.

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When Justin Trudeau was propelled to Canada’s highest office in 2015, it was his brand as a fresh and youthful face, positive politics, and a new and more transparent way of governance that drew the electorate to him. But now, as prime minister, he is caught up in a scandal that threatens to bring his government’s high aspirations back down to earth.

The scandal began after The Globe and Mail published a report earlier this month that alleged that the prime minister’s office put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was justice minister to help a Quebec firm avoid criminal prosecution for its dealings in Libya. According to the newspaper, she resisted. She was demoted to veterans affairs minister in January and has since resigned.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould is a powerful symbol of Mr. Trudeau’s branding. She personified both his pledge to build a new relationship with indigenous people in Canada and his commitment to gender equality. That highlights the scandal’s contrast with everything that Trudeau stands for: a respite to the pressures squeezing the rule of law, human rights, and liberal values in the rest of the world.

This week Canadians could start to piece together a political saga that, until now, has left the country with more questions than answers even as it threatens to undermine the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The scandal, over whether the prime minister’s office pressured its justice ministry to help a Quebec firm facing fraud charges, has consumed the nation for the past two weeks. Each detail that has dripped into the public domain has generated multiple opinion columns and dominated airwaves.

Part of that scrutiny owes to the federal electoral season – with the opposition seizing on any whiff of Mr. Trudeau tainting the rule of law as the nation heads to the polls this fall. But it’s also captured public attention because it seems to stand in opposition to everything that Trudeau, and the Canada he represents, stands for: a respite to the pressures squeezing the rule of law, human rights, and liberal values in the rest of the world.

When Trudeau was propelled into power, it was his brand as a fresh and youthful face, positive politics, and a new and more transparent way of governance that drew the electorate to him. While more than three years of decisionmaking at the top have necessarily damaged his “real change” brand, he remains a beacon for many middle-power countries in the world, especially as the United States under President Trump has put into question the American commitment to a rules-based, international order.

Now Trudeau faces charges that his government is, essentially, just like everybody else’s.

A woman born to noble people

The scandal began after The Globe and Mail published a report earlier this month that alleged that the prime minister’s office put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was justice minister to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution for its dealings in Libya. According to the newspaper, she resisted. She was demoted to veterans affairs minister in January and has since resigned – without revealing anything about why, citing solicitor-client privilege.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould is a powerful symbol of Trudeau’s branding. She both personified his pledge to build a new relationship with indigenous people in Canada as a historic reconciliation and his commitment to gender equality.

And while the main issue that could damage Trudeau concerns the rule of law, Alex Marland, author of “Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control,” says that gender and race add to the scandal at a sensitive moment.

“If the attorney general happened to be a white guy, to what extent would the story be an issue? It would still be an issue,” he says. “It’s just that because it happens to be an indigenous woman and this particular prime minister – and not even just the prime minister, it’s just the nature of society at the moment. It’s really a sensitive thing to have a white man and a prime minister demote an indigenous woman, especially in Canada where we’re going through this period of reconciliation.”

When the scandal broke, Trudeau immediately said he did not “direct” Wilson-Raybould to reach an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin, which faces charges of fraud and corruption. The firm employs 9,000 people in Quebec, a province that will be crucial for the Liberals in the election. But Trudeau’s carefully constructed statement only led to speculation that he was engaging in a semantics game because the government had something to hide. He tried to stifle it by saying her continued presence in his cabinet spoke for itself. The next day she stepped down, signing her resignation “Puglaas,” her name in her native Kwak’wala language, which means “a woman born to noble people.”

Days later Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s longtime friend and influential principal secretary, resigned. In his letter he said there was no untoward pressure placed on Wilson-Raybould, but his resignation only turned up the speculation.

It was only in testimony in the House of Commons justice committee last week that Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council of Canada, shed some light on a basic timeline of meetings that have taken place. He essentially admitted a degree of pressure placed on the justice minister but said that it wasn’t inappropriate.

This week Wilson-Raybould is expected to testify in front of that same committee, sharing her side of the story – and answers about the government’s alleged pressure. Canadians eagerly await her version, about which she has only said she hopes to “have the opportunity to speak my truth.”

Souring on Trudeau?

Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research says Wilson-Raybould’s silence has been “devastating.” “It has allowed the opposition parties to project the worst possible interpretation of what happened.” Her testimony could reveal a major, minor, or even no problem for Trudeau, says Mr. Nanos. But it’s a risky moment nonetheless.

“First of all it includes the courts,” he says. “Second of all there’s a gender dimension. Third of all there’s an indigenous dimension. And finally and most importantly it involves the prime minister directly.”

A poll conducted by the firm Leger for The Canadian Press in the midst of the scandal this month showed 41 percent of respondents saying that they believe the prime minister did something wrong regarding the engineering company and the justice minister, while 12 percent believed he hadn’t. Another 41 percent were unsure.

Trudeau, while remaining popular abroad, has suffered in image at home similar to the way that former President Barack Obama did, says Mireille Lalancette, a professor in political communication at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “Trudeau’s brand is not a blank canvas anymore. When he was elected, as was the case for Obama, they were all about the positive, so people could project anything on them. The fact that they need to make decisions and sometimes hard ones, this modifies the brand.”

The political damage is compounded by this being an election year, with opposition on the right and left seizing the moment to attack him. The case feeds into some of the older themes in Canadian politics, like favoritism played to Quebec.

Yet that Wilson-Raybould is an indigenous woman makes the scandal potentially far more damaging. Sources leaked to national media that Wilson-Raybould was “difficult.” One cartoon that was widely circulated showed Wilson-Raybould gagged and bound in the corner of a boxing ring. It drew widespread criticism for its apparent references of abuse both to women and indigenous people. Trudeau apologized for not condemning sooner such attacks.

Regardless of what happened, Wilson-Raybould’s removal from the justice ministry is widely perceived as a demotion – fueling criticism that Trudeau is not truly committed to the government’s relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples in Canada despite his rhetoric. In a June 2017 statement Trudeau declared that “no relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

Nanos says that the case is disappointing for those who care about gender and indigenous issues. But he says Trudeau remains a strong advocate. “I think the reality is that for people who are interested in gender equality or indigenous issues, I’m not sure how they’re going to get any other prime minister that is more into and supportive of both of those.”

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