A political scandal is threatening to spoil Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s date with a second term.
Trudeau, cast as a progressive golden boy and viewed internationally as a natural counterweight to President Donald Trump, now finds himself embroiled in a fast-spiraling series of events related to an alleged push to drop corruption charges against a major engineering company.
Trudeau’s inner circle is accused of pressing Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s former justice minister and attorney general, to offer a Quebec company a settlement deal over charges that it bribed Libya’s former Gaddafi regime. She was then demoted to Veterans Affairs’ minister, criticized in the press and this week resigned.
How ugly has it gotten? Wilson-Raybould announced in her resignation letter that she’s hired a lawyer — a retired Supreme Court justice, no less — who she will consult before she comments on the affair publicly.
Ahead of this week, Trudeau had a small lead in the polls — one prominent pollster had his party up four points. Liberals’ main fear until now had been losing a few seats in Parliament and seeing Trudeau’s second-term agenda stymied by a hostile legislature.
Now it’s fretting about starker setbacks.
There’s already an ethics inquiry underway. A parliamentary probe is next. Trudeau’s allies agreed to the probe Tuesday, but fought feverishly to limit its scope.
There’s no indication these events will turn into a full-blown legal threat: Analysts who have weighed in have mixed opinions on whether the events described could be called criminal obstruction.
And Trudeau said he never pressed anyone into offering a plea deal to SNC-Lavalin, a generations-old employer in the prime minister’s hometown of Montreal, which faces a serious threat over charges of corruption in Gaddafi’s Libya.
“[I am] both surprised and disappointed by her decision,” the prime minister said of Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from the Cabinet, which followed a demotion.
The political scandal threatens to affect basic tenets of his agenda for governing Canada.
Trudeau has a mixed record on keeping his promises: Some he’s achieved, such as a tax credit designed to reduce poverty. Others he has completely abandoned, including a promise to reform the election system. But two of Trudeau’s most important promises remain a work in progress and could be washed out by the scandal’s ripples. One is better relations with Canada’s Indigenous people, a high enough priority that Trudeau devoted a U.N. General Assembly speech to it. The other is building a new pipeline through British Columbia to get Canada’s land-locked oil to international markets.
The mess has Trudeau fighting with the Indigenous leadership in the very province where he wants to build a pipeline, British Columbia, and he needs formal consent from aboriginal people to do it.
B.C. chiefs excoriated Trudeau over the affair in aggressive language in a public letter.
The reason it’s so personal: The minister at the center of the storm, Wilson-Raybould, is an Indigenous trailblazer. She was the first aboriginal woman to hold this prestigious cabinet post in Canada — and she underscored that personal point by signing her resignation letter in her Kwak’wala name: Puglaas.
That translates to daughter of noble people.
Her father, Bill Wilson, indeed has clout. He’s a well-known hereditary chief who used to spar with Trudeau’s father, a former prime minister. In one such session, Wilson told Pierre Trudeau about his daughter Jody’s big dreams.
Now the younger Trudeau is feeling the ire of the elder Wilson, who blasted the Liberal government, saying it has no business taking credit for recent improvements for Indigenous Canadians.
“It’s make-believe, cosmetic baloney that Trudeau’s engaged in. It’s proven itself now to be a farce,” Wilson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation this week. “The Liberals are slightly better [than the opposition Conservatives]… [But] I have no faith whatsoever — not that I ever did — in the white man’s government.”
What Indigenous people want, he said, is real control over resources, land and pipelines.
That’s where Trudeau’s pipeline problem comes in.
The prime minister is so desperate to build one he shelled out C $4.5 billion for the public takeover of a project that has no guarantee of success. It’s central to the grand bargain Trudeau offered Canadian voters in 2015: Trudeau promised that if Canadians accepted a tax on carbon emissions, that would buy the environmental goodwill to get some pipelines built.
The carbon tax happened. The pipelines haven’t.
Wilson has made his fierce opposition clear in a series of Facebook posts.
So now Liberals are starting to sweat about the election.
Expect an awkward meeting next week when the prime minister hosts the next gathering of his Liberal caucus. Wilson-Raybould remains part of that caucus.
One parliamentary staffer in Trudeau’s party said he expects lots of venting against the perceived shortcomings of the prime minister’s entourage, though he expects any internal rebellion to fall well short of the toxic wars that nearly destroyed the Liberal party in the early 2000s.
The “caucus will stay together for now,” the staffer said. “Sometimes these types of crises can bring caucus members together.”
One sign the damage to Trudeau could be contained: The woman most often touted by Liberals as a possible leadership successor to him, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, said she’s still squarely supportive of the boss.