The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Justin Trudeau’s rise to power seemed charmed. Now he faces a fight for his political life.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, left, and Jane Philpott, center, watch as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 14. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose to power as a press-whispering, selfie-snapping progressive icon who promised transparency and went viral for promoting women. 

But after four years in the spotlight, Trudeau’s government faces accusations of shady brokering and backroom bullying, of sexism and hypocrisy. Though Trudeau has tried to defend his government’s actions, he seems, suddenly, at a loss for words — at least the right ones.

Former members of his cabinet are speaking out. The press is having a field day. Maclean’s, a national magazine, ran a cover with picture of a grinning Trudeau and the words, “The Imposter,” in all caps. Foreign Policy asked whether Canada’s “golden boy” has lost his shine.

The scope of the scandal is such that many Canadians are wondering if he will hold on to his majority government the upcoming election.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was interrupted by a heckler while talking about a second member of his Cabinet who resigned March 4. (Video: Reuters)

Whatever happens, Trudeau’s rock star status seems like a thing of the past.

“The problem is that this particular scandal goes to his carefully crafted image,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

The crisis shaking Ottawa started as a legal matter but has devolved, over weeks, into a political scandal that touches on a number of hot-button Canadian issues, from the status of Quebec to corporate influence, to indigenous and women’s rights. 

At the heart of the scandal are claims that Trudeau’s team pressured Canada’s first indigenous attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to cut a deal with an engineering firm from Trudeau’s home province, Quebec, and the implication that he demoted her to veterans affairs when she refused. 

The company, Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, was charged by Canadian authorities in 2015 for allegedly using bribes to secure business deals in Moammar Gaddafi-era Libya. The case is ongoing.

It did not make major headlines until last month, when a report in the Globe and Mail claimed that Trudeau’s team “pressed” Wilson-Raybould to cut SNC-Lavalin a deal known as a deferred prosecution agreement.

These agreements, which are used in several countries, allow corporations to avoid criminal convictions in return for admitting wrongdoing, paying a fine and committing to stricter compliance rules. 

Trudeau responded to the Globe and Mail report by stating that his team did not “direct” Wilson-Raybould’s decision.

On Feb. 12, Wilson-Raybould resigned from her post as minister of veteran affairs, hiring a high-profile lawyer, but saying little else.

In the political furor that followed, Trudeau’s most powerful aide, Gerald Butts, resigned, saying he did not want accusations against the government to “take one moment away from the vital work the prime minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.”

Last week Wilson-Raybould testified that 11 members of Trudeau’s team pressured her, with some resorting to “veiled threats,” to get her to cut a deal.

On Monday, another senior, female member of Trudeau’s team, Jane Philpott, resigned from the cabinet, citing the leader’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin 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,” her resignation letter said.  

“Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”

On Tuesday, Trudeau appeared to be steering clear of the press. On Wednesday, the prime minister is scheduled to be in private meetings all day.

Trudeau expressed “disappointment” at the news of Philpott’s resignation but has said little else. 

Nik Nanos, a Canadian pollster, said it was unusual to see Trudeau’s usually savvy team struggle to reshape the narrative. “They have been on the defensive almost daily,” he said. “We have only really heard one side of the story,  plus little snippets from the prime minister.”

That may change. On Wednesday, Butts will deliver testimony, giving the government a chance to lay out what happened on its end.  

His challenge, analysts said, will be to defend Trudeau’s handling of the case without appearing to undermine two highly respected women. 

If he takes a combative rather than a conciliatory approach, Butts risks alienating the voters who helped Trudeau win office. 

Sands said Trudeau’s treatment of Wilson-Raybould, particularly the demotion, made him look like an “angry male boss.”

To survive, he will need to set a new tone, he said. “I think he grovels his way out of it, maybe.”

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