The scandal that could bring down Justin Trudeau

Canada’s prime minister has become entangled in an ethics investigation that threatens his majority in the looming federal elections.

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They are a set of initials that loom large over the Canadian political scene right now: JWR – Jody Wilson-Raybould. They could signal the downfall of Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways” government in the federal elections in October.

When Wilson-Raybould was appointed as minister of justice in Trudeau’s first cabinet in 2015, she made history as the first indigenous woman to serve in the position. Since Trudeau’s Liberal Party had won the election with the overwhelming support women and native voters, Wilson-Raybould’s ascension seemed a deserving tribute.

But all that came crashing down this year. In January, Wilson-Raybould was shifted to minister of veterans affairs – a position that many saw as a demotion. In February, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that the prime minister’s office pressured her into negotiating a remediation agreement with Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

SNC-Lavalin had been charged with one count of fraud and one of corruption back in February 2015 under the previous Conservative government. Police allege the firm bribed Libyan officials with close to C$50m and had defrauded various organisations in Libya of nearly C$130m. The company pleaded not guilty.

SNC-Lavalin, which employs 9000 people across Canada, began lobbying the Trudeau government for a relief package. Records with the federal lobbyist registry show the firm dealt with the prime ministers’ office at least 18 times over the course of 2016-2019. The topics discussed were listed as “justice and law enforcement”.

Trudeau’s Liberal Party enacted a law last year introducing deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), the corporate version of a plea bargain, which suspend prosecution if the corporation pays a fine and co-operates with authorities.

The Globe story alleged that various people had requested Wilson-Raybould issue a DPA in the SNC-Lavalin case, but she had refused. When it was published, Trudeau denied any political interference and Wilson-Raybould remained silent, citing lawyer-client privilege.

Four days after the story appeared, the prime minister said he had full confidence in his minister and the fact that she was still in cabinet “should speak for itself.” Hours later, Wilson-Raybould resigned from her post. Trudeau said he was “surprised and disappointed” by her decision.

Investigations proliferated. The same day the minister resigned, the federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion announced he would be conducting an inquiry. The matter was referred to the House of Commons Justice Committee – where the fireworks would develop.

The committee heard from Wilson-Raybould, from Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts, and from Canada’s top civil servant, clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick. According to Wilson-Raybould, these men are the chief architects of the improper lobbying.

In her testimony, the former justice minister, who had some of the lawyer-client privilege lifted by Trudeau, was calm and detailed, backing up her answers with texts and documents. Butts denied any pressure, saying his discussions with Wilson-Raybould were part of his normal duties as the prime minister’s senior aide.

He did say that at the time of the cabinet shuffle, Wilson-Raybould turned down an offer to become indigenous services minister, a post that eventually went to her close friend Jane Philpott. Wernick was combative and belligerent, at one point lamenting that political discussion had fallen to such a level in Canada he worried about assassinations occurring.

The plot thickened in March: Philpott quit the cabinet, citing a lack of confidence in Trudeau’s leadership. Her friendship with Wilson-Raybould was deep. When a reporter from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telephoned Wilson-Raybould at home the night she resigned, Philpott answered, screening the calls.

Wilson-Raybould produced more information on the lobbying when she released a surreptitiously recorded tape of a phone conversation between her and Wernick. In it, the clerk repeats that the prime minister wants the deal done.

From there, things escalated. Some claimed Wilson-Raybould’s actions were illegal (they aren’t) and lawyers twisted themselves in knots over whether her actions were unethical. Recording someone without their knowledge in Canada is not illegal – what is known as “one-party consent” – but lawyers are not allowed to record their clients. The question remains: was Wilson-Raybould dealing with Wernick as a legal counsel?

That was when the narrative began to turn for the former justice minister. Where she had once been seen as a brave warrior battling undue political influence, she was now seen as a sneak. Although still blessed with good approval ratings, Wilson-Raybould’s reputation suffered.

Trudeau’s Liberal caucus had enough of the drama and urged the prime minister to do something with his two rebellious ex-ministers. On 2 April, he announced both had been expelled from the caucus and prohibited from running in the next election under the Liberal banner – a move that could affect the party’s standing with First Nations Canadians, and with women.

The right-wing Conservative Party and the leftist New Democratic Party have been making political hay out of the scandal and have accrued voters in the polls. The Conservatives, so widely reviled in the last election that the Liberals were able to jump from third place to government, lead current opinion surveys by about four points. That may continue to rise as the story keeps playing out in Canadian media by the day.

Justin Trudeau’s father was elected in 1968 in a wave of popularity; four years later he clung on to power with a precarious minority government, with two more seats than the Conservative opposition. His son may not even be that lucky.

Paul Park is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. His work has appeared in including People magazine, the Village Voice, Macleans and others.