The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With ouster of senior women leaders, Trudeau’s image as ‘feminist’ hero takes a hit

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a Liberal Party caucus meeting Tuesday on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He has faced criticism for expelling two female members from the party.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a Liberal Party caucus meeting Tuesday on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He has faced criticism for expelling two female members from the party. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
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Spare a thought for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s scheduler — and maybe another for Trudeau himself.

On Tuesday night, Trudeau announced his party was ousting two prominent female leaders — Jody Wilson-Raybould, the once-rising star who until January served as Canada’s first indigenous attorney general, and Jane Philpott, the respected former president of the Treasury Board — after they challenged his handling of an ongoing political scandal.

On Wednesday, Trudeau attended a previously scheduled event for young female leaders who aspire to leadership positions such as the cabinet roles that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott held. Later, he kept an appointment with Inuit leaders working to improve relations with the government.

As he addressed the women in Canada’s House of Commons, about 30 tuned their backs on him.

“He’s not acting as a true feminist,” said Deanna Allain, a first-year student at McMaster University who attended. “He is not lifting up women in politics.”

The protest says much about the challenge facing the 47-year-old prime minister.

The telegenic son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau swept to power in 2015 promising a new era for Canada in which government would be transparent, women would be equal to men, and Canada would take painful but important steps toward reconciliation with indigenous communities — and became a global icon along the way.

But as he heads into the federal election in October, the political controversy that led his Liberal Party to expel Wilson-Raybould and Philpott is threatening his standing among the very people he boldly promised to include, promote and represent. 

Trudeau’s party expels former allies who challenged him in political scandal

Though his government is taking pains to cast the ouster of the women as a matter of party discipline and the scandal as a misunderstanding, his handling of the crisis is raising questions about his commitment to inclusion — questions that probably will hurt him at the polls.

“The prime minister has taken a massive personal hit on his brand,” said Nik Nanos, a Canadian pollster.

Among female voters, a key Liberal constituency, Trudeau once enjoyed a 10- to 20-point advantage, Nanos said. That margin has shrunk to perhaps five points.

“The primary driver is disappointment,” Nanos said.

The controversy rocking Ottawa didn’t start as a matter of gender or indigenous equality. But that’s how it’s now playing out. And that’s a dangerous development for the Liberals.

At the heart of the scandal are allegations that Trudeau and his office pressured Wilson-Raybould as attorney general to defer the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, an engineering firm from Trudeau’s home province that was accused of bribery — and demoted her to a lesser cabinet role when she resisted. 

Canadian authorities charged the Quebec firm in 2015 with paying bribes to secure business in Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Under deferred prosecution, a legal tool used by authorities in several countries, firms that are charged with crimes may avoid convictions if they admit wrongdoing, pay fines and commit to stricter compliance rules.

Justin Trudeau loves apologies. Not with this particular scandal.

Wilson-Raybould told a parliamentary committee in February that Trudeau, top aides and government officials pressured her inappropriately, resorting to “veiled threats” to get her to offer the company such a deal.

Trudeau moved Wilson-Raybould in January from attorney general and minister of justice to minister of veterans affairs. It was widely viewed as a demotion. She resigned from the veterans affairs department in February.

Trudeau and his aides have denied any improper pressure. They say it is normal for the prime minister’s team to discuss legal matters with the attorney general.

If SNC-Lavalin were convicted, the firm would be prohibited from federal contracts in Canada for 10 years. Avoiding a trial, Trudeau’s team says, was about saving Canadian jobs.

No one is alleging that money changed hands or that laws were broken in the cabinet scandal.

But in the months since emerged in February, the conversation has shifted from a debate about the relationship between the executive and the judiciary, to a conversation about who in Canadian society really holds power.

Trudeau, a self-proclaimed feminist, put together Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet, stocking his team with talent from outside the Ottawa establishment — including Wilson-Raybould, an indigenous lawyer from British Columbia. 

Now, her account has cast doubt on Trudeau’s commitment to his stated principles. 

In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould described being undermined and bullied by a predominantly white and male team. She reminded her peers that Canada had a long history of using the law against indigenous communities and said — forcefully — that she would not be cowed.

“These are the teachings of my parents, grandparents and my community,” she told the House of Commons justice committee.I come from a long line of matriarchs, and I am a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House.”

Soon, Philpott resigned in solidarity.

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

Some saw sexism or racism in the way the crisis was handled and the story was covered. After Wilson-Raybould resigned from the cabinet, a Canadian Press piece sourced to unnamed Liberal insiders cast her as uncooperative and selfish.

“Trudeau’s team has tried to explain it as ‘She’s not a team player,’ ” said Priscilla Settee, a professor of indigenous studies and women and gender studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “It’s an argument that men always use against women, that they are not team players, they don’t understand how it works.”

She added: “As a First Nations woman, it seems like things can only go so far, and then it falls back to the large structures, to political domination, to co­lo­ni­al­ism.”

University of Toronto political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin said it’s too late for the Liberals to change leaders before the October election and too early to say whether women who supported Trudeau in the last election will vote for a different party this time around. 

But she said there’s no question that expelling Wilson-Raybould and Philpott could hurt Trudeau’s prospects. Now that they’ve been ejected from the Liberal caucus, the pair may feel more inclined to speak freely about their experiences in Trudeau’s cabinet, uninhibited by the demands of party loyalty.

“They’ve been martyred,” Bashevkin said.

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