Relatively benign scandal could topple Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau
Toronto – There’s no money, no sex and nothing illegal happened. This is what passes for a scandal in Canada.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been engulfed in allegations involving possible collusion with Russia and secret payments to buy the silence of a porn star. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing a controversy that seems trivial by comparison, but it could topple him in elections later this year.
Two high-profile women ministers in Trudeau’s Cabinet, including Canada’s first indigenous justice minister, resigned in protest, and his top aide and best friend quit too.
The former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, says Trudeau and senior members of his government pressured her in a case involving a major Canadian engineering company accused of corruption related to its business dealings in Libya. Trudeau reportedly leaned on the attorney general to instruct prosecutors to reach the equivalent of plea deal, which would avoid a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, because he felt that jobs were at stake.
“People south of the border would be astonished to think that this is the type of scandal that they have in Canada,” said Eddie Goldenberg, a former adviser to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Many countries would be jealous of a scandal that went no further than a prime minster asking another minister to do something she is legally entitled to do, Goldenberg said.
“I just don’t really see it as a scandal,” he said. “There is a political correctness here. Nobody wants to go after an indigenous woman minister. It’s become politically incorrect to question the former minister.”
Trudeau has said he asked Wilson-Raybould to revisit her decision not to instruct prosecutors and said she agreed to consider that. He denied applying any inappropriate pressure, saying he and his officials were only pointing out that prosecution could endanger thousands of jobs.
SNC-Lavalin has pleaded not guilty to fraud and corruption charges related to allegations it paid about $35 million (CA$47 million) in bribes to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011.
“It’s a pseudo-scandal. It’s crap. What the hell? You are doing business in Libya and you are not bribing?” said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto. “It does suggest to me that the director of public prosecutions … is also nuts. And so is Wilson-Raybould. These people are delusional.”
Wilson-Raybould was demoted from her role as attorney general and justice minister in January as part of a Cabinet shuffle by Trudeau. She has testified that she believes she lost the justice job because she did not give in to “sustained” pressure to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
That solution would have avoided a potential criminal conviction that would bar the company from receiving any federal government business for a decade. The company is a major employer in Quebec, Trudeau’s home province. It has about 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.
The company publicly led the lobbying charge for a law that allows for deferred prosecution agreements as a way to resolve the criminal charges it faces. The new attorney general has not ruled out approving a settlement.
Wilson-Raybould has said herself that the pressure from Trudeau and others was not illegal and that she was not explicitly instructed to do a remediation agreement.
Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s former principal secretary and best friend who resigned, said nothing inappropriate was alleged until after Wilson-Raybould left the Cabinet, suggesting she felt sour grapes about losing her dream job.
Opposition Conservative Andrew Scheer leader has demanded that Trudeau resign, saying he tried to interfere in a criminal prosecution. Canadian media have covered the story as intensely as American networks have covered Trump, noted Nelson Wiseman, a professor at the University of Toronto.
“Trudeau would not be able to get away with what Trump does because the political cultures and the state of political polarization of the two countries are still quite different,” Wiseman said.
The differences among Canadian media outlets, for example, are “relatively narrow compared to the chasms between Fox and MSNBC or CNN. The American media are reporting on two different worlds. The Canadian media are reporting on the same Wilson-Raybould-Trudeau story,” Wiseman added.
Daniel Beland, a politics professor at McGill University in Montreal, said Trudeau has framed himself differently than Trump. Trump said sympathetic things about Russia during the campaign and was elected despite that and other controversies, giving him “the sense that he can do anything and his base will still follow him.”
Trudeau, meanwhile, promised transparency while describing himself as a feminist who was also determined to right the wrongs against Canada’s indigenous people. Women make up half of his cabinet.
“He depicted himself as a feminist, as someone who believes in indigenous reconciliation, and then you have two of his top female Cabinet ministers resign, and they are depicting him in a very different light,” Beland said.
Trudeau said he tried to foster an environment where his lawmakers can come to him with concerns, but one of his female Liberal party colleagues, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, took issue with that, tweeting, “I did come to you recently. Twice. Remember your reactions?”
“When you add women, please do not expect the status quo. Expect us to make correct decisions, stand for what is right and exit when values are compromised,” she also tweeted.
Caesar-Chavannes, who is not running for re-election, has issued messages of support for Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, a respected Cabinet minister who said she lost confidence in how the government has handled the affair.
“It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our Attorney General should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases,” Philpott wrote in the resignation letter to Trudeau.
Other Liberal lawmakers have expressed confidence in Trudeau. The federal election is in October.
Antonia Maioni, McGill University’s dean of arts, said citizens of every democracy will look at the Trump scandals and say everything else is small potatoes.
But, she added, “I’m not sure Trump is a good reference point here. Leaders fall in parliamentary systems for many other reasons beyond personal scandal.”