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Canada’s Golden Boy Loses His Shine
Damning testimony on a corporate scandal leaves Trudeau's future shaky.
It was Feb. 28, 1984, and Canada’s capital was being pummeled by a blizzard. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau stepped out of his official Ottawa residence and took a long walk in the snow to contemplate his political future. His government had survived an independence referendum in Quebec but came out bloodier for it. His poll numbers were abysmal. After 15 years at the top, it was time to go.
And so, the next day, he announced he would be retiring from political life.
Thirty-five years later, almost to the day, Trudeau’s son faced the most tumultuous moment of his political career.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a relatively smooth four years in office. Most of his scandals and controversies were insignificant, forgettable, or easily spun—like when he accepted a helicopter ride from the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, which violated parliamentary ethics rules. But this affair won’t be so easily smoothed over.
Where once his re-election seemed a safe bet, Trudeau is now playing defense. He’s taking friendly fire from his former justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, whom he once lauded as a key part of his team.
The scandal is complex and turns on a technical legal mechanism and a 60-year-old principle of Westminster democracy. But it is also one that threatens Trudeau’s core brand as a feminist and champion for indigenous peoples, one he has meticulously built and maintained for himself.
The roots of the scandal begin in early 2015, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police laid charges against SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian engineering giant with offices worldwide. The federal police detailed a kickback scheme worth nearly 50 million Canadian dollars, about $40 million, which they allege was used to secure contracts from the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya in the 2000s. The bribes, police allege, resulted in some CA$130 million, about $100 million, in Libyan contracts for the Montreal-based company.
Many of those bribes allegedly went to Saadi Qaddafi, a son of the eccentric dictator, and helped finance luxury yachts. The collusion campaign continued for a decade, investigators say, until Qaddafi’s government fell in 2011.
The charges carried substantial fines and possible jail time for company executives. But as the company was charged under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, it also carried a potentially more damaging penalty: a ban on bidding for government contracts.
SNC-Lavalin is a huge company. It boasts a CA$6 billion market cap and 50,000 employees around the globe. Nearly 9,000 of its employees, however, are in Canada, and its work domestically largely depends on government jobs. In 2018, the company, along with other firms, won a huge contract to help build a new public transport system in Montreal.
The firm made no secret of the fact that, should it lose at trial, it wouldn’t be sticking around. Either it would relocate its corporate headquarters to London, or the company itself would be toast. The company dispatched its lobbyists—as well as its executives, well connected in Trudeau’s Liberal Party—to Parliament Hill to convey that message.
And the government took heed. In its 2018 budget, it crafted a new legal mechanism—the Deferred Prosecution Agreement. The tool allows prosecutors to strike, in essence, a plea deal with corporations charged with corruption. The company would have to pay a fine, accept responsibility, and address issues of corporate governance, but such a deal would avoid a conviction and allow them to continue bidding on contracts into the future. It’s a common tool in Europe and the United States, designed to punish and deter companies that behave badly while also preventing collateral economic damage.
But there’s a catch. The law prescribes that the Public Prosecution Service, an independent body that runs federal prosecutions, cannot consider the “national economic interest” in deciding whether to offer such a deal to companies accused of bribing foreign officials.
And that seems to be why, in September of last year, the director of public prosecutions opted to proceed with the prosecution, job losses be damned.
That’s where the current scandal begins.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, who served (as is usual in Canada) both as attorney general and its justice minister, had the option of overruling the decision. She could issue a public notice indicating she would be asking the director to begin negotiations with SNC-Lavalin about this legal offramp. She opted not to, determining that the independent body had concluded correctly that SNC-Lavalin was not eligible for such a deal.
As she deliberated, and even after she made up her mind, her own government began to apply the pressure. Over the course of 10 in-person meetings, 10 phone calls, and a flurry of emails and text messages, staff within the Prime Minister’s Office, the office of the finance minister, and the Privy Council Office all pressured her to order the director of public prosecutions to invite SNC-Lavalin to negotiate a deal. They suggested she reach out to the director of public prosecutions in an informal way. They suggested hiring outside counsel for advice on how to get the deal done.
And she kept meticulous notes of it all.
There was a meeting with the prime minister himself, where Trudeau underscored the political ramifications at play, should his government sit idly by while one of Quebec’s larger employers packed up and left town. The prime minister reminded Wilson-Raybould that his own seat was in Quebec—a province that has become the Liberals’ electoral fortress and its best chance at re-election in the fall.
“Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the [attorney general]?” Wilson-Raybould retorted, according to her own notes. “I would strongly advise against it,” she warned him.
“No, no, no—we just need to find a solution,” Trudeau replied, according to her notes.
Wilson-Raybould wasn’t swayed. She concluded that the director had decided correctly and that there would be no deal for SNC-Lavalin. The law was clear: Economic ramifications and job losses could not be part of the equation, never mind the political fortunes of her party. And yet that is exactly what her boss wanted her to consider.
In early January, the prime minister called Wilson-Raybould to inform her that she was out of her job. She would be transferred to being minister of veterans affairs—a job with significantly less clout and weight, overseeing a significantly smaller department with a fraction of the budget.
Even before her desk was cleared out, the government began planning to have the new justice minister issue the directive to begin negotiations with SNC-Lavalin. It all left the impression with Wilson-Raybould that she had been fired over her unwillingness to offer a deal to SNC-Lavalin that, she believed, was not legally kosher.
This issue remained out of the public eye until early February, when the Globe and Mail published some details of the internal struggle. The media and opposition parties began to fixate on the issue. Wilson-Raybould, abruptly, quit as veterans minister. Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s right-hand man, resigned—insisting, in a statement, he did nothing wrong.
Wilson-Raybould, initially, stayed quiet, insisting that solicitor-client privilege barred her from discussing the issue. Last week, the prime minister officially waived that privilege, opening the door for the former minister to testify. And, over a three-hour marathon hearing before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Feb. 27, she told the whole saga in meticulous detail.
But the significance of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony goes beyond just this one scandal. It rests on her own political and cultural intelligence, and on the role she served in an administration that prided itself on the strength of its diverse team. Prior to entering federal politics in 2015, Wilson-Raybould had been, herself, a prosecutor and a regional chief for the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. It was Trudeau and Butts—a senior advisor to the prime minister who arguably carried as much power in the country as Trudeau himself—who recruited her to run. As they swept into government, she was appointed justice minister and attorney general, the first indigenous person to hold those posts.
The consensus in Ottawa is that Wilson-Raybould is a serious woman, principled to the point of stubborn, and willing to put her beliefs above partisanship. In Kwak’wala, her Indigenous language, she was given the name Puglaas—“woman born of noble people.”
Wilson-Raybould’s father had been a first nations chief as well, and he had once remarked, as shown in a clip that circulated widely on social media in the last few weeks, to Pierre Trudeau that his daughter wanted, one day, to be prime minister.
Even from within cabinet, Wilson-Raybould publicly delivered barbed criticism of her government’s record on addressing systemic inequalities facing indigenous peoples—a file the prime minister consistently touted as his top priority.
Her time in government hasn’t been without controversy. She found herself frequently at odds with Canada’s legal community, and some of her planned legal reforms were admonished as ham-fisted and unconstitutional.
But Wilson-Raybould’s presence in cabinet was still powerfully symbolic. Trudeau made sure of it.
When the prime minister put together his cabinet upon winning government in 2015, he promised it was one which “looked like Canada”—it was gender-balanced and had representation from indigenous peoples, immigrants, the LGBT community, and people living with disabilities. Trudeau pledged it was not an exercise in box-checking but that he would lean on his team for their varied perspectives and experiences.
Wilson-Raybould and her impressive resume underscored as much.
Yet, here she is, alleging she had been steamrolled by her boss. When she held the line, she was demoted out of the way. Her replacement as justice minister? David Lametti, a white man from Montreal who has already signaled his openness to play ball and offer a deal to SNC-Lavalin.
The whole affair has seen Canadians—voters and members of parliament alike—furiously Googling an arcane element of British-style democracy: the Shawcross Doctrine.
Named for Sir Hartley Shawcross, a former attorney general of England and Wales, the doctrine maintains that there must be a divide between political considerations and the decision to prosecute, or not prosecute, a crime. An attorney general’s decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution can be informed by their cabinet colleagues, Shawcross said, but those conversations “must not consist in telling him what that decision ought to be.” The decision, in effect, is the attorney general’s and the attorney general’s alone.
It seems Trudeau rode roughshod over that principle. That’s prompted a wider conversation about splitting the role of justice minister and attorney general.
The Shawcross Doctrine may be on few voters’ minds when they trudge to the ballot box in October. But the scandal has inflamed political tensions in an array of other ways.
Trudeau has already been struggling to mitigate growing resentment for his government in oil-rich Alberta, which has felt the pinch of slumping oil prices, exacerbated by a price discount against American crude. It doesn’t help that Alberta, and much of Western Canada, has distrusted the Liberal Party since Trudeau’s father was at its helm, angry at an energy policy believed to benefit Central Canada at the West’s expense. Add in the fact that Wilson-Raybould hails from British Columbia, and the potential political impact from this East-West divide only grows.
Trudeau’s efforts to parry the accusations from his former justice minister have been limp. He maintained that any pressure applied to Wilson-Raybould was not inappropriate, she was not ejected from her job over the file, and that he—above all else—was only looking out for Canadians’ jobs.
But that will do little to quell the storm. The committee investigating the matter will hear from Butts, Trudeau’s senior advisor and confidant, in the coming week. The conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, an independent officer of Parliament, is also investigating. Trudeau’s main competitor, the Conservative Andrew Scheer, is calling for his resignation and is raising the possibility of a criminal investigation—though that prospect seems relatively remote, as even Wilson-Raybould maintained there was likely no illegality, just impropriety. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the third-place New Democratic Party, wants a public inquiry.
Indeed, the Prime Minister’s defensive tactics weren’t enough to satisfy one of his most capable ministers, Jane Philpott, a close friend of Wilson-Raybould. The erstwhile President of the Treasury Board quit cabinet on Monday afternoon, writing on a statement: “Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”
Philpott has been touted as one of the best performers in Trudeau’s government — if not the outright best. As Minister of Health, she heralded in legislation on physician-assisted dying and marijuana legalization with relatively little controversy, and as Minister of Indigenous Services she began the painstaking work of upgrading drinking water infrastructure on First Nations reserves across the country. She had only just been appointed to her new role, as the minister responsible for the civil service and government modernization, when she quit.
Philpott’s exit is about as dramatic a twist as can be expected. Which leaves Trudeau to manage an increasingly radioactive fallout, even as he tests the waters on still offering a way out for SNC-Lavalin. Alienating Western Canada over his aggressive efforts to get a deal for the Quebec company will all be for naught if SNC-Lavalin loses its cases and cuts its 9,000 Canadian staff anyway.
The prime minister is already down a justice minister, his treasury board minister, and a right-hand man. If the bleeding continues, Trudeau may find himself retracing his father’s footsteps in the snow.