How Justin Trudeau Was Ensnared by Scandal: A Corruption Case and ‘Veiled Threats’
North of the United States, the political scandal roiling the government does not involve accusations of collusion with Russia or payments to keep an alleged affair quiet.
No one has flown first-class for personal trips on the Canadian taxpayer’s dime, and no one has been accused of anything illegal.
To Americans who have grown used to news about possible obstruction of justice at the top levels of government, the scandal’s questions about corporate influence, the rule of law and a leader’s reputation might seem quaint (or at least very Canadian).
Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has seen his top adviser and two cabinet ministers resign — including a former justice minister who accused his office of “veiled threats” — raising the possibility of a caucus revolt. He faces an ethics investigation into his conduct and, possibly, an independent inquiry.
And his image as a feminist and supporter of honest government may be irreparably tarnished, just months before a federal election.
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How did he get here, and what’s going on?
At the center of Mr. Trudeau’s political woes is SNC-Lavalin, a multinational engineering and construction firm based in Quebec.
The company has been trailed for years by allegations of corruption, including in Bangladesh, India, Canada and Mexico.
The case that has ensnared Mr. Trudeau started in February 2015, when the Canadian authorities charged SNC-Lavalin with paying 47.7 million Canadian dollars in bribes to officials in Libya to win contracts there, and of defrauding the Libyan government of 129.8 million Canadian dollars.
Should SNC-Lavalin be convicted, it could be barred from federal government contracts for a decade, potentially crippling its business and eliminating many Canadian jobs. The company has successfully lobbied for changes to criminal law that would allow it to pay a large fine, as companies can do in “remediation agreements” in Britain and the United States.
Gerald Baier, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said the case had similarities to the bank bailout in the United States during the 2008 financial crisis. He said the government was asking, “Can we afford to prosecute this company when it’s so important to the economy?”
The question, he said: “Is SNC-Lavalin too big to jail?”
Mr. Trudeau’s first justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, inherited oversight of the case after his inauguration in November 2015.
Her appointment to the post was hailed by many Canadians as a sign of Mr. Trudeau’s commitment to Indigenous and women’s rights. Ms. Wilson-Raybould is a former Indigenous leader, and the appointment made her a member of Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet.
At some point, the relationship soured. In January 2019, Mr. Trudeau reassigned Ms. Wilson-Raybould from the Justice Department to Veterans Affairs, a post that she abruptly quit a few weeks later.
In testimony to a parliamentary committee last month, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that while she was justice minister, Mr. Trudeau and his aides used “political interference” and “veiled threats” to pressure her to settle the case against SNC-Lavalin.
She described 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the criminal case with senior government officials, calling the pressure “inappropriate” but saying that it was not illegal. In a conversation with Mr. Trudeau, she recalled him saying, “there would be many jobs lost and that SNC will move from Montreal,” and asking her to “find a solution here for SNC.”
Despite the pressure she described, prosecutors have continued to pursue the company in court.
Mr. Trudeau has denied any wrongdoing, and told reporters, “Canadians expect their government to look for ways to protect jobs, to grow the economy, and that’s exactly what we have done.”
But he has struggled to contain the crisis. Following Ms. Wilson-Raybould, another member of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, Jane Philpott, resigned and warned about the cost of abandoning principles.
And then Mr. Trudeau’s top political adviser, Gerald Butts, resigned in February, saying that it was “in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”
The abrupt resignations have raised speculation of a cabinet or caucus revolt, in which Mr. Trudeau could lose the confidence of his Liberal Party and his job as prime minister. “But we don’t have any big sense of that here,” said Professor Baier, if only because of the secretive nature of the caucus.
So far, remaining ministers and party leaders have voiced support for Mr. Trudeau. And although the justice committee in Canada’s House of Commons is conducting hearings, the Liberals control the panel, making it unlikely to do the prime minister much harm.
[Read more about what investigators hope to find about Mr. Trudeau’s conduct.]
Canada’s parliamentary ethics commissioner has opened an investigation, though by law he can look only for possible conflicts of interest.
The leader of the opposition Conservative Party has called for an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose policy prevents it from saying whether the force has begun an investigation. Several opposition parties have called for an independent special commission, which could create damaging hearings for the Liberals during the election season.
The political potential of all this has not been lost on Mr. Trudeau’s opponents. They have seized on the case to portray the prime minister — a self-described feminist, supporter of Indigenous people and advocate of transparent government — as a leader who sent his aides to bully an Indigenous woman in order to help a corporation dodge a criminal conviction in a corruption case.
The Conservatives’ argument, Professor Baier said, is that Mr. Trudeau “plays a New Age politician on TV, but he really isn’t one.”
Canada’s federal election is not until October, however, and analysts said the result will depend in large part on what happens next: whether Mr. Trudeau can defuse the scandal and the inquiries around it; how successfully his opponents can tar his reputation; and what happens with the SNC-Lavalin case.