Earlier this month – in a long-awaited decision – Canada’s federal ethics commissioner concluded Trudeau had violated an ethics law in his handling of a corporate criminal case. Commissioner Mario Dion said that the prime minister had used his office “to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” Canada’s former justice minister and attorney general, Judy Wilson-Raybould, by improperly pressuring her to seek a civil penalty against SNC-Lavalin, a major engineering company, rather than a criminal conviction.
Commissioner Dion also added that Trudeau broke a long-standing tradition of isolating the justice system from political influence.
Answering reporter’s questions about the findings, at an event in southern Ontario, Trudeau said: “the way this happened shouldn’t have happened and I take responsibility for the mistakes that I made. The buck stops with the prime minister”.
The prime minister said that in arguing for a civil penalty, he was not trying to strong-arm Ms. Wilson-Raybould, but was acting out of concern for thousands of jobs in Canada. If SNC-Lavalin were to face a criminal conviction, it would bar the company from bidding on government contracts – a significant part of its business.
The timing of the ethics commissioner’s report – in the middle of summer, when many Canadians are on vacation and not thinking about politics – might work in Trudeau’s favour.
There are many side issues to this particular story. When Trudeau took office in 2015, he created a gender-balanced cabinet. He also said Canada should reconcile with its Indigenous population, correcting historical wrongs.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould is an Indigenous member of Parliament. Using her Facebook page she said the ethics report “represents vindication”, adding: “I also have feelings of sadness in a country as great as Canada, essential values and principles that are the foundation of our freedoms and system of government should be actively upheld by all”.
When news of “pressure” on Ms. Wilson-Raybould broke earlier in the year, another prominent woman in the Trudeau cabinet, Jane Philpott left both the cabinet and later Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Both women now sit as Independents.
The story also brought about the resignation of a long-time personal friend of Trudeau and a senior political advisor, Gerald Butts, in an attempt to deflect criticism of the prime minister.
In 2012 – before Trudeau became prime minister – SNC-Lavalin was being investigated by Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, for unexplained payments to connections to Muammer Gaddafi in Libya, among other charges nationally and internationally, of fraud, bribery and corrupting public officials. SNC-Lavalin spent more than a decade in Libya constructing water projects, a prison and an airport in deals worth billions of dollars. The prison design was done by the sister of an SNC-Lavalin executive. The prison was designed to hold 4,000 inmates and occupy a huge swathe of desert. The company has acknowledged it has had close business dealings with Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former dictator, and paid many of the son’s bills for hotels, security and transportation when he came to Canada in 2009.
In the years that followed, the Swiss government charged an SNC-Lavalin executive with fraud and money-laundering stemming from dealings in North Africa. Two company executives appeared in court in Toronto to face charges under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act in relation to a bridge project in Bangladesh. The World Bank cancelled a $1.2-billion loan to SNC-Lavalin for the building of that bridge.
How the opposition parties make use of the stories about SNC-Lavalin’s less than honest business practices in the coming election campaign remains to be seen. It should be noted that much of SNC-Lavalin’s early business came with the support of the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper, including knock-down prices for SNC’s purchase of some of Canada’s nuclear power stations.
There’s a feeling that Prime Minister Trudeau, who has tried hard to make women in politics a regular and essential part of Canadian lives, stumbled over SNC-Lavalin. The question should be: who tripped Trudeau?
Voters most likely won’t want to know the assorted ins and outs of how SNC-Lavalin operates, but voters will be saddened and concerned that women – including Indigenous women – are being sidelined yet again. And it is that rift in the national belief of equality for all that Trudeau needs to mend and quickly. But voters are a fickle group and if they see Trudeau as yet another member of the business establishment, he will lose votes.
How many votes is a guessing game. But it could be enough to turn the governing Liberals into a minority in Canada’s parliament in October.
Louis Cooper is a retired journalist and network television news producer, having lived and worked in four countries and worked for Australian newspapers and networks in Canada, the US and the UK.