Near as I can tell, Justin Trudeau’s reelection pitch goes something like this: I will obstruct justice to protect crooked Quebec corporate interests, but at least the attorney general I fire along the way will be a woman of color.
The prime minister has charmed the world as a different sort of leader ruling a different sort of country. The “Lavscam” scandal reminds us that he is actually an ordinary politician running an old-fashioned government captive to deeply conventional special interests.
In 2013, Canada dominated the World Bank’s list of blacklisted companies, thanks to the many hydra-heads of Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin, Canada’s largest construction firm, which has a dark reputation for suspect dealings in developing countries. One longtime client was Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, for whom SNC-Lavalin spent decades building prisons, airports and waterworks. In 2015, Canadian police charged the company under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act for bribing and defrauding Libyan officials.
It is considered incredibly bad form to point out that Quebec is home to a lot of corrupt businesses, and that the corruption of these businesses is often deeply interconnected with the politicians who support and subsidize them. In 2010, Maclean’s published a cover story making a persuasive case that Quebec was “the most corrupt province in Canada” and was shortly thereafter denounced by a unanimous vote in the federal Parliament. Canadian politicians are supposed to regard it as self-evident that Canada’s French province has a right to be wealthy and successful by any means necessary.
Much like his father, one of the few consistent animating causes of Trudeau’s political career has been the appeasement of Quebec, where his family roots run deep. Trudeau once infamously mused about supporting Quebec’s separatist movement and on another occasion insisted that the province simply produces better politicians than the others.
Last year, his government responded to heavy lobbying by SNC-Lavalin and quietly passed legislation that would help the firm escape full punishment for the Libyan affair — including a possible “death sentence” 10-year ban on government contracts — through a new mediation process to steer criminal charges of large corporations to softer outcomes.
Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould is said to have opposed this course of action and used the prerogatives of her office to defy Trudeau’s purported wish to impose the new mediation process on SNC-Lavalin. For this, she was evidently subjected to a “surprise shuffle” and sent to a different government department. After news of Trudeau’s alleged pressuring came to light, Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet entirely.
Some of the breathless coverage that has followed can be explained by the discomfort many feel at being reminded that Trudeau, like many Liberal prime ministers before him, is deeply in hock to Quebec special interests because he is ideologically committed to a worldview in which Quebec is the most essential part of Canada. As the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert noted, the notion that SNC-Lavalin deserves protection from full prosecution is “emerging as a consensus position within Quebec’s chattering and political classes,” to which Trudeau pays enormous heed. Trudeau’s willingness to put his progressivism on hold for the benefit of the province is hardly unprecedented; his government has raised scant protest as increasingly chauvinist Quebec administrations have moved to bully its Muslim population and restrict immigration.
Among Trudeau’s critics, Wilson-Raybould has emerged as the heroine of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, portrayed as an angelic victim of circumstance. The fact that her tenure as head of the Justice Department was defined by many of the Trudeau government’s most contentious social policy initiatives — including the legalization of marijuana, the expansion of “safe injection sites,” the broadening of hate speech laws, doctor-assisted suicide, and a new impaired driving regime widely scorned as draconian — has been quickly forgiven. So, too, has the fact that the Trudeau government displayed little aversion to making politicized legal decisions in the past, such as a 2015 decision to suspend court proceedings to strip the citizenship of Canadians convicted of terrorism — one of Trudeau’s pet causes. Or that the attorney general herself had not been above offering personal commentary on trials she didn’t feel ended the right way.
Instead, an overly credulous media and opposition claims to be shocked to learn that a partisan prime minister may choose to direct the attorney general he appointed to conduct her duties in a fashion consistent with his partisan agenda.
Conservatives have responded to Wilson-Raybould’s dismissal by portraying one of the most ideological members of Trudeau’s government as an uncomplicated heroine in need of unsolicited sympathy and support. Yet the fact that they and others often imply Wilson-Raybould’s dismissal had something to do with her race and gender — a former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, she is the highest-ranking indigenous politician in Canadian history — suggests savviness to the degree Trudeau’s intersectional political coalition remains vulnerable.
Trudeau’s preoccupation with Quebec is now clearly coming at the expense of other priorities, including reconciliation with aboriginal peoples, a project for which Wilson-Raybould was his most credible spokeswoman.
Personnel embarrassment aside, the SNC-Lavalin scandal is also a challenge for the Canadian left more broadly. In contrast to a growing leftist political movement in the United States, which values uncompromising ideological purity, the Liberal Party under Trudeau serves as a monument to the degree parochial concerns of geography and culture still constrain much of Canadian politics.