Ottawa, April 3rd: A leader addresses his core demographic, stirring many to their feet. Enough to put a smile on the orator’s face, you would think, but Canada’s Justin Trudeau is downcast. Those standing are not offering him an ovation, but condemnation at the handling of a scandal that’s smashed his gleaming premiership against the rocks. With a series of high profile resignations, rampant criticism from political rivals and sliding polls, the one-time poster boy of global liberalism is facing a fall from grace that could yet prove fatal.
Looking at the turned backs of those fifty upright young women, the Canadian prime minister surely wondered how things got so bad so quickly. He was addressing the biannual Daughters of the Vote event, a campaign that shares his much lauded desire to increase the political involvement of women. But rather than espouse the virtues of feminism, Trudeau found himself defending the expulsion of two senior women from his Liberal caucus – just the latest twist in the party’s disastrous SNC-Lavalin scandal.
The controversy erupted months earlier with allegations that Trudeau had pressured attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to defer the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based engineering firm accused of bribery. When she resisted, he demoted her to a lesser cabinet role.
Trudeau’s office denied any arm-twisting, saying they simply made the case to forgo corporate charges with the jobs of SNC-Lavalin’s 9,000 employees in mind – and that Wilson-Raybould was relegated to the veterans affairs department to plug a ministerial gap. The ensuing row has shaken the governing party to its roots.
The former attorney general told a parliamentary committee that Trudeau and his advisors had resorted to “veiled threats” to get their way, and that she – an Indigenous lawyer from British Columbia – felt undermined and bullied by Trudeau’s mostly white and male team. She later quit the government in protest, followed out by a sympathetic cabinet colleague.
And then, weeks later, after more resignations of those implicated, Wilson-Raybould and her vocal ally Jane Philpott found themselves booted from Liberal benches for breaching party discipline. The former had secretly recorded a SNC-Lavalin-related conversation with a top bureaucrat, believing “something very dangerous and wrong was going to happen” and that her job was in jeopardy.
For a self-proclaimed champion of feminism, racial equality and openness, the scandal has punctured Trudeau in his softest spots. His much-celebrated “sunny ways” politics has hit a stormy stonewall – and with October’s federal elections fast approaching, his political opponents smell blood.
“Let her speak!” chanted Conservative MPs as the Liberal finance minister delivered his budget, imploring the government to allow Wilson-Raybould further testimony before parliamentarians after the Liberal controlled justice committee shut down its investigation. In the words of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, “a betrayal of justice” had been committed.
But Trudeau will be more shaken by the criticism from normally friendly corners. Women’s rights have been key to his message, his cabinet being the first gender-balanced in Canadian history. The female vote has been consistently strong for him. With two impressive women removed from his caucus, that reputation is in jeopardy. While female colleagues sprung to his defence – “We have a strong prime minister that is a feminist. Our record speaks for itself,” said tourism minister Mélanie Joly – the turned backs of the young female activists made for a jarring sight.
The message from one, Deanna Allain of McMaster University, was stark: “We wholeheartedly condemn you ejecting Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott… Do better”. Such indignation is taking a toll on Trudeau’s personal brand. He once enjoyed a 10 to 20 point advantage among women – that’s shrunk to just five, analysts say. The rousing applause NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh received for his defence of “speaking truth to power” – a reference to the Wilson-Raybould affair – will have done little for the prime minister’s spirits, either.
And perhaps more worrying still, the scandal has opened old wounds on Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people. Trudeau promised to further their cause, but his dismissal of We Wai Kai Nation member Wilson-Raybound has incensed the native community. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, expressed ‘absolute disgust’ at his behaviour, accusing Trudeau of “propping up cronyism and the old boys’ network”.
But it’s the likes of Aurora Ominika-Enosse, a 19-year-old woman of Indigenous heritage, who typifies the disdain of voters Trudeau could once count on. He “fails to protect Indigenous women, every single day I fear for my life,” she said.
Is there any way back for the Canadian leader? The polls don’t offer the government much hope. The Conservatives enjoy a full 10% lead over the Liberals – 40 points to 30. Among women, that lead stretches to 12%. Six in ten say they disapprove of the government’s performance under Trudeau.
“The SNC-Lavalin scandal has made what was previously unthinkable, possible. There is a real possibility Justin Trudeau and the Liberals could lose the next election as a result of this,” Darrell Bricker, who carried out the polling for Ipsos, told Il Giornale.
He was once, in the words of the opposition, “prince charming who can do no wrong”. The last few months have obliterated this image of Justin Trudeau, reminding all that the world of politics is no fairytale. What started as a question of corporate criminality has descended into the ugliest of rows, with battlelines drawn on women’s rights and racial equality. With the expulsion of the principle agitators (as he sees them), Trudeau will hope his party’s weeping wound is now cauterized. But political rivals won’t back down so easily, and the tide of public opinion seems to have turned. Canada’s golden boy might just have lost his shine for good.