“Because it’s 2015 …” Most Canadians will recognize that statement as Justin Trudeau’s simple explanation for the diversity and historic gender balance of his cabinet, sworn in November 2015 after the Liberal Party’s landslide victory in the federal election.
Trudeau’s gender parity move in the cabinet firmly placed the former high school teacher as the country’s feminist prime minister, and on the global stage, Trudeau was a breath of fresh air, fit-for-purpose in the age of selfies, #MeToo, and squeaky clean politics. Many were entranced by his physical appearance, compassionate demeanor and seemingly insatiable appetite for photos with fans: Vanity Fair called him “the shining beacon of liberalism in North America,” and images of world leaders and celebrities appearing to swoon in his presence became the internet meme “Prime Minister Steal-Your-Girl.”
Gone would be the days of political sleaze and backroom deals — traits associated with former Liberal governments. Minority groups would have a strong voice, front and center at the cabinet table and Trudeau made sure to appoint women from First Nations, South Asian and Ukrainian communities. As if that were not enough, Trudeau would declare an Indigenous agenda — an aggressive policy to rebuild the relationship with Canada’s founding peoples, an achievement no other Canadian prime minister managed — to be his legacy.
In power, Trudeau rarely passed up a chance to tout his feminist credentials. He suggested in 2017 at a Washington speech that Canadian politics had been an old boys club and that strident efforts were needed to achieve gender equality. “Now that we have a Cabinet, and a government, and quite frankly, a party with all these great, strong, young women, the challenge we have is, despite all their presence, we’re still very much in an old-fashioned man’s game of politics. And we’re having to look at how we change things in the workplace.”
What a difference four years makes.
In the past few weeks, Trudeau has lost two of his star female cabinet ministers, both resigning with claims that his government has lost its moral compass. He is also defending himself against accusations of political interference with the top prosecutor in the land over a criminal case involving one of Canada’s largest companies. Once regarded as the golden boy of Canadian politics, Trudeau is now fighting for political survival.
Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin ‘Lav-Scam’
Gone from Trudeau’s cabinet is former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, the country’s first Indigenous politician to hold the portfolio. She alleges that she was unduly pressured by Trudeau and other senior bureaucrats to offer an unheard-of remediation agreement to SNC-Lavalin, the crown jewel of corporate Quebec. Also gone is Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, who said it was “untenable” for her to continue in the Cabinet because she had lost confidence in the government in its handling of the scandal.
SNC Lavalin is a Quebec-based engineering and construction company. It is currently fighting accusations of bribing Libya’s Gaddafi family to the tune of US$36 million in return for contracts. If convicted, the firm faces a 10-year ban on federal contracts. Offering remediation would have required Wilson-Raybould to overrule the decision of the head of public prosecutions to pursue fraud and corruption charges against the scandal-plagued firm, something she steadfastly refused to do.
Trudeau and his circle spent the several months leading up to her resignation arguing against prosecution. But the prime minister dismisses allegations he was interfering with judicial independence by excessively pressuring Wilson-Raybould. On Thursday he pointed to a simple “breakdown in communications” between his office and that of Wilson-Raybould, and said, “in regards to standing up for jobs and defending the integrity of the rule of law…there was no inappropriate pressure.”
Trudeau has said that he requested the mediation in order to save some Canadians’ jobs at SNC-Lavalin, though the government hasn’t backed that claim with firm data. There is also another potential motivation for the government’s interest itself in the case: Canada’s elections are in October. SNC-Lavalin, along with Power Corporation and Bombardier, represent Quebec Inc. and hold a special place in the hearts of Quebec voters. And winning big in Quebec is key to winning enough seats to form a government, which is why the French-speaking province has often been favored and the target of pork barrel projects.
Whatever happened, Trudeau’s strategy appears to have backfired, bringing scrutiny on him and failing to protect the company. On Friday the Federal Court of Canada struck down the company’s request for a deferred prosecution agreement, opening the way for a lengthy court trial.
“The past few weeks have been an abysmal, slow-motion train wreck in issues management for the Trudeau Government,” Ottawa-based political analyst Yaroslav Baran told me.
Many Canadian scandals, in the global context, may not seem like that big of a deal — especially compared to US President Donald Trump’s long list of alleged misdeeds. But the so-called LavScam suggested new character flaws in Trudeau, including a seeming inability to express contrition during a rambling press conference on Thursday, a failure to stand up for the highly-respected Wilson-Raybould, and a seeming favoritism for Quebec over other parts of the country, after he did little to save tens of thousands of jobs in Alberta’s ailing oil patch.
Perhaps worst of all, the allegations raise questions about his commitment to the core values which got him elected in the first place: maintaining an open and transparent government and a commitment to the Obama-esque approach of clean politics.
Canada’s elections loom
The scandal marks a major turning point in Trudeau’s politics career, many analysts say: “We are at a defining moment in Canadian politics and, even if he survives, nothing will be the same again for Trudeau. The spell has been broken and the idea that he could be a one-term wonder is no longer implausible,” wrote John Ivison in the conservative-leaning National Post.
As public opinion sours on Trudeau, his past gaffes and failures have resurfaced as talking points. In 2018, Trudeau traveled to India with his family on a trip billed as official and to boost bilateral ties. Instead of acclaim, Trudeau was pummeled by the media for his multiple costume changes featuring a variety of traditional Indian outfits, and for an embarrassing security lapse in which a convicted Sikh extremist made the guest list to a dinner to honor Trudeau in Delhi.
On the foreign policy front, despite having an accomplished and well-connected foreign affairs minister, Trudeau has few accomplishments to show. The government has all but shelved a signature foreign policy initiative: a non-permanent seat in 2021 on the UN Security Council
Adding to the current pressure are two major diplomatic disputes with Saudi Arabia and China, which suggest the government is out of its depth when dealing with foreign policy files. Sino-Canadian ties are at their lowest level since Tiananmen Square after Ottawa decided to honor a US extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, detaining the Huawei CFO as she transited through Vancouver in early December. China hit back by arresting two Canadians and putting another on death row. Meng, backed by Huawei, has also initiated legal action against Ottawa.
Since then, Trudeau has fired his Canadian ambassador to China for appearing to side with the China. The two Canadians have been accused with the very serious charge of stealing state secrets, and with no senior envoy in Beijing, mending ties will be extremely difficult.
For Trudeau, the polls are not computing in his favor—and in an election where young voters will have a disproportionate share of the votes, it is hard to see how Trudeau & Co. can shed the impression of backroom sleaze, business-as-usual politics by election day on October 21. If he doesn’t, he will be sailing into that election with gale-force headwinds.