Justin Trudeau won the 2015 Canadian election on his sunny image and a promise to do politics differently. In March 2019, Trudeau is mired in scandal after demoting his attorney general when she refused to interfere in the prosecution of a Canadian engineering firm accused of bribing Libyan officials.
What’s going on?
Let’s start from the beginning. SNC-Lavalin, the Montreal-based firm at the center of the controversy, is an engineering firm with 50,000 employees worldwide. From 2001 to 2011, the firm allegedly paid the regime of Moammar Gaddafi tens of millions of dollars in bribes. In February, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police formally charged SNC-Lavalin and two subsidiaries with violating the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act.
A conviction would leave SNC-Lavalin ineligible to bid on Canadian government contracts for a decade, which could bankrupt the firm. In a separate case, a former SNC-Lavalin vice president pleaded guilty to skirting election finance rules: at issue was $97,000 in SNC-Lavalin-directed illegal campaign contributions to the Liberal Party between 2004 and 2011. Trudeau became Liberal Party leader in 2013.
What does Trudeau think about this?
Here’s the problem. The government slipped a provision into the 2018 budget that would allow firms accused of paying bribes to enter into deferred prosecution agreements, sparing them from the 10-year ban on government contracting. But the director of public prosecutions, a nonpartisan civil servant, determined in September 2018 that SNC-Lavalin didn’t meet the criteria set out in the new law and refused to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement. It was then that Trudeau and his staff began twisting the attorney general’s arm.
Who is Jody Wilson-Raybould?
As attorney general, Wilson-Raybould had the authority to overrule the director of public prosecutions and offer SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement. After studying the case, Wilson-Raybould agreed that SNC-Lavalin wasn’t eligible for an agreement.
Wilson-Raybould says this is when Trudeau and his aides wouldn’t take no for an answer. Hand-picked by Trudeau to be his minister of justice and attorney general, Wilson-Raybould is the first Indigenous woman to hold the office. Her presence in the cabinet became an emblem of Trudeau’s pledge of reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations — as well as a confirmation of Trudeau’s strong commitment to a gender-balanced cabinet.
But what did Trudeau and his team do?
Wilson-Raybould says Trudeau and 10 high-ranking government officials — including Principal Secretary Gerry Butts, Chief of Staff Katie Telford, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and the country’s highest-ranking civil servant, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick — pressured her last fall to take into account the partisan ramifications of her decision. Legal experts argue this runs clearly against Canada’s “constitutional convention” that the attorney general has an independent role.
Testifying before the House of Commons justice committee on Feb. 27, Wilson-Raybould said she had a meeting with Trudeau and Wernick: “[Wernick] said, ‘They will likely be moving [their offices from Montreal] to London if [you do not halt the prosecution], and there is an election in Quebec soon.’ At that point, the prime minister jumped in, stressing that there is an election in Quebec and that ‘I am an MP in Quebec — the member for Papineau.’ ”
She reported on another meeting, where Butts and Telford told Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff that “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference” and that they “don’t want to debate legalities any more.” Wilson-Raybould would not budge, and on Jan. 14 Trudeau fired her as minister of justice and attorney general and demoted her to minister for veterans affairs.
What’s the political fallout for the Trudeau government?
Trudeau relied on his image as an honest, upbeat and feminist politician to win office in 2015. After Wilson-Raybould’s testimony last week, some pundits believe the political damage is severe, perhaps beyond repair. Since the Globe and Mail broke the story in early February, the Trudeau team has clumsily tried to explain it away, first arguing they hadn’t directed her to make any particular decision, then that they hadn’t pressured her, then that they hadn’t improperly pressured her.
Three weeks ago, Trudeau claimed to still have Wilson-Raybould’s support, saying, “Her presence in cabinet should actually speak for itself.” The next day, Wilson-Raybould resigned.
Anonymous sources then tried to smear her as a pushy woman who was difficult to work with. That backfired spectacularly, with feminists and Indigenous leaders rallying to Wilson-Raybould’s side. Now Trudeau’s team says he wanted her to consider the jobs that would be lost if SNC-Lavalin were found guilty.
And what about the next election?
Canadians will go to the polls in October, and what once looked like an assured Liberal victory is now in doubt. Liberal Party poll numbers have fallen by three percentage points, and the opposition Conservative Party is now in first place. If an election were held last week, the poll numbers suggest the Conservatives would have won 153 seats in the House of Commons to the Liberals’ 152 seats, with third parties holding the balance of power.
The Liberal caucus appears divided between those who applauded Wilson-Raybould for, as they see it, speaking truth to power and those who are furious that their reelection chances now seem at risk. Meanwhile, Gerry Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and the architect of his rise to power, had to resign, following the allegations of improper pressure on the attorney general.
Could this get any worse?
Jane Philpott, another member of Trudeau’s cabinet and a close friend of Wilson-Raybould, resigned Monday, saying that she has lost confidence in the prime minister. She wrote: “I must abide by my core values, my ethical responsibilities, constitutional obligations. There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”
Cabinet ministers have resigned in the past over differences in politics and policy. Here’s what’s different: There is no precedent in Canada for a prime minister to lose a minister who believes the prime minister’s actions are unethical. Justin Trudeau has just lost two.
Tyler Kustra is a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a former economic adviser to the Parliament of Canada.