The women who held Trudeau to account

By resigning from the cabinet, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott showed there is still honour in Canadian politics.

Reuters Trudeau
PM Trudeau has been accused of pressuring former attorney general Wilson-Raybould to reach an out-of-court settlement with an engineering firm facing bribery and corruption charges [Reuters]

Like most epicentres of power, prestige and position, Ottawa is a haven of hypocrisy.

This truism has been on blatant, near nauseating display over the past several weeks, as a still brewing scandal has engulfed Canadian politics like a hard-to-extinguish bush fire. 

At issue: whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his senior staff, and other prominent officials in the Liberal government, “pressured” then justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to abide by their not-so-vague wishes and forgo a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a major Quebec-based engineering firm facing bribery and corruption charges, and strike a plea deal on the eve of a federal election.

Of course, Trudeau and his crew recoil at the word “pressure”, preferring instead to describe their repeated overtures to Wilson-Raybould as the “routine business” of government when, regrettably, the politics of saving jobs sometimes collides with malleable concepts like the rule of law.

So, any suggestion that Trudeau or anyone in his inner orbit would, heaven forbid, “pressure” Wilson-Raybould to pollute a legal process with parochial political considerations is inconceivable given the integrity of Trudeau and company – powerful men and women who just happened to keep urging Wilson-Raybould again and again and again to think hard about the implications of her impending decision on the SNC-Lavalin “file”. 

Nope. That doesn’t constitute “pressure”, Trudeau and his crew insist; that’s a vigorous “debate”, where, alas, at some ill-defined point, there was an “erosion of trust” between the former justice minister and all those political apparatchiks who were frequently trying – ever so benignly, apparently – to get her to make up her mind since she, alone, was the “decider”.  


Anyway, Trudeau and his crew say that if Wilson-Raybould felt that she was being “pressured” by Trudeau and his crew to abdicate her independence and do their bidding, then she ought to have gone to Trudeau and his principal secretary, Gerry Butts, to tell them she was being pressured by Trudeau and his crew and they should stop. But, she didn’t, Trudeau and his crew say.

Despite charging that Wilson-Raybould was derelict in her duty to inform, Trudeau and his crew reject casting any uncharitable “aspersions” against Canada’s first indigenous justice minister. No. No. No. They would never, for example, call her a liar or a jilted fabulist who went public with her complaints about political interference over a sensitive and sacrosanct judicial matter only after she lost her “dream job” in a cabinet shuffle earlier this year. 

Rather, they would imply it in sombre tones at a justice committee hearing and a press conference where they graciously pointed out that two people can have two different interpretations of the same event.

Oh, and Trudeau’s faithful female surrogates in the cabinet would appear on radio and television to testify that their former cabinet colleague was certainly entitled to tell “her” truth, which may not, however, reflect the objective truth.  

Yes, but how to arrive at the “objective” truth? The Liberal Party enjoys a healthy plurality in the House of Commons. As such, it holds a majority of seats on the justice committee, which is seized ultimately with answering the seminal question: Who is telling the truth? 

In a five-to-four vote, the Liberal Party dominated committee rebuffed recalling Wilson-Raybould to respond to the principal secretary’s version of events. And the prospect of Trudeau agreeing to opposition demands for a public inquiry into the querulous saga is about as remote as Donald Trump agreeing to testify in person before Special Counsel Robert Mueller. 

Not to worry, Trudeau and his crew say, the usually moribund Ethics Commissioner will probe this whole, unfortunate misunderstanding with the tenacity of a chihuahua and likely report his findings to Parliament after the October 2019 election.

Still, through all the murky thicket of accusations, allegations and yes, thinly veiled aspersions, Jody Wilson-Raybould has declared: Here I stand.

It’s rare that a Canadian politician would sacrifice the honour as well as the comfortable perks and weighty prerogatives that come with being a member of the Queen’s Privy Council on a matter of principle.

It’s rarer still that a politician chooses, on that matter of principle, not to bow to the throne in order to please the occupant of the throne.

Yet, that is how Wilson-Raybould has responded. She said no when so many above and around her clearly wanted her to say yes. And, in doing so, she reaffirmed that the rule of law must mean something, no matter the political consequences for a government and prime minister she once served.

Indeed, in a belated televised statement designed to “address” the SNC-Lavalin issue “directly”, Prime Minister Trudeau largely confirmed the central thrust of Wilson-Raybould’s “truth”.

He acknowledged that he met Wilson-Raybould in September 2018 and reminded the lone “decider” that he was a Quebec MP and that many jobs were at stake. “[I] reiterated that this issue was one of significant national importance,” Trudeau said, “…at a time when the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General was open to considering other aspects of the public interest. However, I now understand that she saw it differently.”

In Trudeau’s cockeyed calculus, his meeting with Wilson-Raybould was not about “partisanship” or pressure, but a humble member of parliament doing his job. My goodness.

Imagine the breadth and strength of Wilson-Raybould’s will and conviction to defy such an overt entreaty from the prime minister of Canada. It is not only remarkable but a testament to her steadfast character.

Then, earlier this week, another senior Liberal cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, quit her post in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould because she had “lost confidence” in her government’s handling of the affair and, perhaps more importantly, to underscore her friend’s version of the truth. 

Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me,” Philpott wrote in a blunt, unequivocal letter of resignation addressed to the prime minister. “The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system. It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our Attorney General should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases. Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”

Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have done what most cynics consider politically fatal and improbable: publicly break ranks with their boss in defence of a solemn principle, whatever the repercussions. Their defiant actions are profound and, I dare say, poignant.

Canadian history will no doubt afford the resolute pair the credit they are due and judge them favourably.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.