Justin Trudeau confounded Canada’s pundit class by taking the leadership of the near-dead federal Liberal Party (which held only 35 of 338 seats in the House of Commons) and blitzkrieging to a smashing majority victory in October 2015.
The son of Canada’s longtime prime minister, Pierre, Trudeau’s brand was “sunny ways.” He sold himself as unwaveringly feminist.
His good looks, political pedigree, and platitudinous slogans won hearts and minds the world over. Rolling Stone anointed him the “free world’s best hope” in a July 2017 cover story; two months earlier, Vogue graced its cover with a steamy photo of Trudeau gazing into the eyes of his wife, hand firmly planted on her behind, sheathed in a form-fitting dress. Liberal Americans swooned, seduced especially by his talk about his gender-balanced cabinet.
Among them was Jody Wilson-Raybould, an aboriginal woman of the We Wai Kai First Nation, representing a neighborhood in downtown Vancouver. A seasoned prosecutor, she was sworn in to one of the most powerful cabinet positions in the new government: minister of justice and attorney general. The first indigenous woman to be so honored, Wilson-Raybould lent gravitas and credibility to the PM’s oft-repeated commitment to address longstanding reconciliation issues with Canadian aboriginals. And, of course, she was a woman.
Wilson-Raybould distinguished herself as a highly competent, smart, and forceful cabinet minister. She forged a particularly strong professional and personal relationship with another cabinet heavyweight, Dr. Jane Philpott. A physician who held the Health and newly created Indigenous Services portfolios, Philpott was well respected for being brilliant, hard-working, and principled.
There were whisperings of discord at the cabinet table regarding the approach to aboriginal issues, but they were largely contained until January 2019. Prompted by the unexpected resignation of another minister, there was a limited cabinet shuffle—which featured the surprising demotion of Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs and Philpott being moved to Treasury Board.
Three weeks later, the Globe and Mail published the story that may yet bring down the Trudeau House of Cards. It appears that Wilson-Raybould had been punished for refusing to be corrupted by naked political considerations. In September 2018, she refused to overturn the decision of the top prosecutor in her ministry—that a major Canadian engineering company called SNC-Lavalin face a criminal trial on multiple charges.
SNC-Lavalin has been criminally charged in Canada with one count each of fraud and corruption stemming from years of engagement with the Qaddafi regime in Libya. In addition to more than $150 million of alleged bribe payments, the company is also alleged to have procured and paid for prostitutes when Qaddafi’s son Saadi visited Canada in 2008.
The company is not a first-time offender, having been found guilty of a rather sordid string of offenses by various authorities around the globe, including the World Bank.
If convicted, SNC-Lavalin faces the possibility of a 10-year prohibition on bidding for federal-government contracts. But a new and untested law in Canada has authorized a form of “deferred prosecution” for a corporation in legal trouble (such a system also exists in the United States). However, Canadian law places limits on deferred prosecutions—and the director of public prosecutions in Canada determined that under the law’s provisions, SNC-Lavalin did not qualify.
Wilson-Raybould carefully reviewed the matter in September and agreed with the findings, electing not to override the recommendation of her top prosecutor.
At this point, SNC-Lavalin went to work to change things. From September through December 2018, SNC-Lavalin officials and registered lobbyists knocked on many doors, including those of the prime minister, the minister of finance, senior staffers in Trudeau’s office, and key ministries.
The company offered up various scenarios: The loss of government business due to a conviction would bankrupt it; it would be forced to move its headquarters to London, England; 9,000 jobs in Canada, mostly in Quebec, would disappear.
All are bunk. Only 15 percent of SNC-Lavalin business is with the Canadian federal government, hardly a bankruptcy scenario. The company has just renovated its office space in Montreal and signed on to a 20-year lease, making a move to pricey London a bizarre proposition. And not a shred of evidence has been provided to support the notion that the Quebec-based jobs would evaporate.
You might think that Trudeau, every bit the progressive, would respond to this pressure with populist outrage at the efforts of an evil corporation to manipulate the government. Hardly. Senior advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office repeatedly urged Wilson-Raybould to find a more “reasonable” approach to the impasse. She was pushed to consider “new evidence” and rely upon that to reconsider her decision. Problem is, there was no new evidence.
Wilson-Reybould repeatedly reminded officials that political considerations were not only irrelevant for her to consider but also constitutionally inappropriate. To no avail.
What was going on here? SNC-Lavalin knew a provincial election was upcoming in Quebec, and a national vote would take place in October 2019. And it decided to play the Quebec card.
The slightest threat of discontent from vote-rich Quebec terrifies most sitting prime ministers and leads them to capitulate to whatever demands are made by the province.
Even Trudeau, who tends to see himself above the day-to-day fray of governing—describing his role as prime minister as “ceremonial in nature”—got deep into the muck. In a meeting in September with Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin case, he spoke about the imminent Quebec elections. “I am an MP in Quebec,” he reminded her , “the member for Papineau.”
Wilson-Raybould refused all entreaties, steadfastly reminding a revolving door of powerful men that she had done her work and that continued lobbying for her to “reconsider” her position was inappropriate. Many legal experts and journalists have expressed the view that this ongoing pressure may have been illegal and could constitute obstruction of justice.
In January, Wilson-Raybould was demoted to the Veterans Affairs portfolio. David Lametti, the member of parliament for the constituency in which SNC Lavalin is located, got her job. He and his deputy minister were instructed that he was to master the SNC-Lavalin file immediately and be prepared to take a “fresh look.”
Initial leaks following Wilson-Reybould’s demotion disparaged her as being “difficult” and “all about Jody.” Particularly coming from a “feminist” government, that went over like a lead balloon. The Prime Minister’s Office (to understand the term, think “the White House,” or “10 Downing Street”) changed its message daily, leaning heavily on the halo effect—Trudeau’s glamor and Teflon—that had served it so well for three years. Trudeau and his caucus uttered, robotically, lines about jobs and having done nothing wrong, convincing no one and confusing everyone.
On Monday, February 12, in an ill-advised comment, the PM confidently asserted that Wilson-Raybould’s continuing presence at the cabinet table spoke for itself, affirming that all was well in the House of Trudeau.
The next day, Wilson-Raybould resigned from the cabinet.
A week later, Gerald Butts—Trudeau’s best friend from university, alter ego, and his powerful principal secretary—resigned. A central figure in the Wilson-Raybould intrigue, Butts told the nation that his presence was distracting from the important business at hand and he wanted to be free to defend his reputation—although, in the same breath he protested that he had done nothing wrong.
For three weeks, Trudeau and other senior officials clumsily offered what seemed to be increasingly panicked and disjointed explanations as to what had and had not occurred. The star of this drama, Wilson-Reybould, was silent, adhering to the confidentiality imposed on her by cabinet and solicitor-client confidentiality. It was only after unrelenting media and public pressure that Trudeau agreed to allow her to speak freely—but only about what happened up to the date of the cabinet shuffle.
And when she spoke: Wow.
In late February, Wilson-Reybould appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee. She eviscerated Trudeau and his office with devastating precision and lawyerly dispassion, laying bare their rather amateur undermining of her authority and, more important, apparent ignorance, disregard, or both, concerning the inviolable independence of the attorney general’s office.
In the wake of her testimony and a day before Trudeau intimate Gerald Butts was to appear before the committee, Jane Philpott announced her resignation from the cabinet, stating: “The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system. It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that the AG should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion….Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”
Against this dramatic backdrop, Butts was understandingly nervous when reading his statement to the committee.
He persisted in explaining that all he wanted to do was protect jobs and for Wilson-Reybould to consider a second opinion. What he seems not to understand is that many consider this very persistence to undermine the independence and competence of the attorney general.
Among the many pleas made was one by senior Quebec adviser in Trudeau’s office, Mathieu Bouchard, who reminded Wilson-Reybould’s chief of staff in October: “We can have the best policy in the world but we need to be re-elected.”
Other senior political officials pushed her to accept a “second opinion” to be commissioned from retired Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, intended to provide the AG with the excuse needed to provide “cover” for such action.
These efforts culminated with a meeting on December 18, between Wilson-Reybould’s chief of staff, Jessica Prince, PMO Principal Secretary Butts, and Katie Telford, another leading official from the Prime Minister’s Office. According to Wilson-Reybould’s testimony, Butts told Prince: “There is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference.”
To which Telford is reported to have added: “We don’t want to debate legalities anymore….We aren’t lawyers, but there has to be some solution here.”
What was on display here was either a profound lack of understanding or extreme disregard for the independence of the justice system from political influence. This is anything but a partisan issue and speaks to the integrity of the most basic democratic values.
Then, on Friday, March 8, a Federal Court of Canada ruling on Wilson-Reybould’s decision was rendered. Justice Catherine Kane unequivocally affirmed Wilson-Reybould’s position and its legal soundness.
The following day, the Globe and Mail published a withering editorial that stated, in part: “If members of a government are free to approach an attorney-general on other criminal cases—not to lobby, but just to, you know, share their thoughts‚—we are no longer living in a rule-of-law country. Repeatedly providing the attorney-general with ‘information’ and ‘context’ about how to resolve a case is highly problematic, especially when that ‘context’ is coming from the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The Prime Minister’s Office made a tremendous, if spectacularly failed, effort to treat this as “much ado about nothing.” Speaking to the Justice Committee, Butts attempted to dismiss it all as a misunderstanding among colleagues who really had no improper intent but just wanted to save jobs.
The concern with the constitutional integrity of Canada’s justice system has been taken up by the international press, a surge of negative attention to which Trudeau is unaccustomed. And then, in mid-March, the OECD issued a statement that it would “closely monitor” Canada’s investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair, in particular, allegations that PM Trudeau and his office may have interfered politically in the prosecutorial process. If OECD concerns are substantiated, Canada could find itself in violation of a multilateral anti-bribery convention to which it is a signatory.
Canadians, an eminently fair lot, are no longer buying the breezy explanations or saccharine platitudes. There is a palpable crankiness among the public and the previously adulatory press. This displeasure is reflected in current polling data, which records plummeting numbers for the Liberal government and, more pointedly, Trudeau personally.
If an election were held today (it is scheduled for October 2019), the opposition Conservative Party of Canada would form a government with either a resounding minority or, possibly, a majority mandate.
Should Trudeau begin to honor his pledge to govern “differently” and more transparently, then he may still salvage, somewhat, what appear at the moment to be dim electoral prospects. However, based on his conduct of the last month or so, the likelihood of overweening hubris may well continue to cloud his better judgement and continue the self-inflicted death spiral that has, thus far, prevailed.
* Vivian Bercovici adds: “In the interest of full disclosure, the reader should be aware that I was recalled by PM Trudeau effective June 2016. On June 29, 2018, I initiated a lawsuit against the AG Canada for damages arising from harassment and other tortious conduct, including the withholding of my personal pension contributions.”