Canada’s prime minister paying a high price for placing identity politics over competence
May 8, 2019

Updated Aug. 17 to incorporate the conclusions of the ethics commissioner's report.

As far as the mass media is concerned, the implosion of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reputation, and possibly his government in the upcoming Oct. 21 federal election, will to a large degree be the result of his struggle with former attorney-general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould over how to prosecute the Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin for allegedly bribing members of the Libyan government of Muammar Ghaddafi.

Citing unnamed sources, veteran Globe and Mail reporter Robert Fife broke the story on Feb. 7, after which time it mutated into a self-inflicted tragicomedy in which Trudeau and his advisors were cast as strong-arming, politically motivated villains, whereas Wilson-Raybould was beatified as a paragon of political and legal integrity for her refusal to intercede in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. Regardless of which side one took, it made for highly satisfying infotainment since many Canadians need little encouragement to revile their feckless prime minister for such behavior as:

  • Refusing to reform the electoral system as promised,
  • Refusing to repeal Stephen Harper’s neo-fascist “anti-terrorism” Bill C-51,
  • Placing pipeline politics over a promise to protect B.C.’s environment,
  • Justifying arms sales to the genocidal despotism of Saudi Arabia,
  • Abetting Isramerican subversion in Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria and elsewhere, and
  • Behaving with pugnacious immaturity toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the end, on Aug. 14, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Comissioner Mario Dion determined that the continuing influence that Trudeau and his staff put on Wilson-Raybould to grant SNC-Lavalin a Deferred Prosecution Agreement violated Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act on three separate occasions. The relevant paragraphs are 264-286, and the report also incudes much information that had not been made public.

However, notwithstanding Dion’s findings, with which it is hard to argue, his focus is too narrow to explain the entire story of the public bust-up between Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau or the formers expulsion from the Liberal Party. Dion stated in paragraphs 250 and 251 of his report that he deliberately did not consider Wilson-Raybould’s, conduct, political motivation, relationship with colleagues or temperament in his investigation of the SNC-Lavalin matter. This exclusion is proper given the parameters of his mandate, but it has the unfortuntate effect of painting an unjustifiably virtuous picture of Wilson-Raybould and of obscuring the real cause and fallout of this farcical episode.

Trudeau’s original blunder

In the 2015 election, voters had had enough of Stephen Harper’s neo-fascism, and so gave Justin Trudeau’s Liberals a majority government. Trudeau traded on his youth and surname––that’s all he had––to present the image of a new, tolerant government. The electorate ate it up because Canada had not had anything resembling a national Canadian government since Jean Chrétien left office in December 2003. However, it would soon be clear that competent government was not uppermost on Trudeau’s agenda. Symbolism was.

First, he boasted that his was the first cabinet to be made up of 50% men and 50% women, implying that the need to balance reproductive plumbing around the cabinet table was a defensible criterion in itself. Partly as a result of this bias, eight first-time MPs were given cabinet positions, making Trudeau’s cabinet one of the most, if not the most, inexperienced in Canadian history.

Second, the November 2015 ceremony had a conspicuous Native theme, which included singers and dancers as well as a child Cree drummer leading Trudeau and his MPs into Rideau Hall. One could have taken this cultural display at face value and in fact supported it as a welcome change from Harper’s decade-long contempt for all things Canadian, but there was a deeper significance. The ceremony reflected his government’s commitment to “Reconciliation,” a politicized noun that embodies Native demands for political sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency and return of lands.

(Canada’s original inhabitants go by various generalized names: Indian, Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations and Native. In this essay, “Native” will be used, except in titles and direct quotations, because it is economical, neutral and serves as both a noun and adjective.)

Whether Trudeau’s commitment to the Native cause was sincere or cynical is beside the point. What did matter was that his conspicuous embrace of feminist and Native identity politics led to his disastrous choice of neophyte MP Jody Wilson-Raybould for attorney-general and justice minister. Natives and women represent two of Canada’s most politically powerful and sympathetic victim categories, which means that criticizing a Native, especially a female Native, no matter how necessary, is dangerous.

Wilson-Raybould traces her ancestry to the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) nation, which is found on the northern end of Vancouver Island and along the central mainland coast. On Twitter she goes by her Kwak’wala name Puglaas, “woman born to noble people.” After receiving her law degree and spending a mere three years as a prosecutor, her career from 2003 until her victory in the 2015 federal election was almost entirely concerned with Native governance and activism. For example, she spent seven years as a commissioner on the B.C. Treaty Commission (2004-2011) and in 2009 was elected Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. She was instrumental in helping negotiate treaties and was co-author with her husband Tim Raybould of the BCAFN [B.C. Assembly of First Nations] Governance Toolkit: A Guide to Nation Building, which has received mixed reviews from Native communities

A cabinet minister is supposed to serve the prime minister and maintain cabinet collegiality, and Trudeau deluded himself into thinking that Wilson-Raybould could do that while being a zealous advocate for Native rights. As events showed, Wilson-Raybould was in an adversarial position to the government and a direct threat to the prime minister’s authority from the moment she was sworn in, but it would take the SNC-Lavalin affair to make Trudeau realize his blunder.

SNC-Lavalin: from stupidity to tragedy

On the surface it was hardly the stuff of front-page news: A Quebec company was going to be charged with bribery and fraud, and the local MP wanted to ensure that, whatever happened, the company would remain viable, and that the workforce and other non-involved parties would not suffer for the misdeeds of management. If found guilty in a criminal trial, the company could be prohibited from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years, which would be crippling. It just so happens that the company, SNC-Lavalin, is in a Montreal riding near Papineau, the local MP of which is also the prime minister.

To that end late last summer, Trudeau wanted the company to be given the opportunity to avail itself of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement to avoid criminal prosecution. The U.S. and U.K. have had such legislation for years, but Canada only passed its own DPA law in June 2018, admittedly at the urging of SNC-Lavalin. This is one of the conflicts of interest that Dion found.

A DPA may only be used for economic offences, such as bribery or fraud, but not when a prosecution is concerned with physical harm, loss of life or a violation of the Competition Act. Lawyers Lawrence Ritchie and Malcolm Aboud write that a prosecutor may invite a company to avail itself of a DPA if certain conditions are met:

  • There is a reasonable prospect of conviction;
  • The impugned conduct did not cause serious bodily harm or death or injury to national defence or national security, and was not committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with, a criminal organization or terrorist group;
  • Negotiating the agreement must be in the public interest and appropriate in the circumstances; and
  • The attorney general must consent to the negotiation of the agreement.

On Sept. 4, 2018, Kathleen Roussel, the Director of Public Prosecutions, wrote that she would not invite SNC-Lavalin to avail itself of a DPA and was going ahead with a criminal prosecution. On Sept. 16, Wilson-Raybould, who had returned from overseas just four days earlier, resolved not exercise her authority to direct Roussel to seek a DPA. The next day, Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau and Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, had a meeting at which the DPA was discussed. During that Sept. 17 meeting, she told Trudeau that she had done “due diligence” and was not about to second-guess Roussel.

When Trudeau mentioned that he was the MP for Papineau, Wilson-Raybould took that as an attempt at political interference and said she would not compromise the independence of the prosecutor. For his part, Trudeau denied any attempt at interference and said the decision on the DPA was always hers to make. His mention of Papineau was merely to express his concern for the economic issues at stake in his riding, and it was in that spirit that he asked Wilson-Raybould simply to revisit the issue and seek outside advice before making a final decision.

At the end of this discussion, Trudeau did not direct Wilson-Raybould to reverse Roussel’s decision, but asked her to go over the matter again with her department, which she promied to do. At this point the matter could have ended had Wilson-Raybould done as she promised, notwithstanding her initial refusal. For his part, Dion found that Wilson-Raybould's original decision should have been allowed to stand without attempts to change it.

Jump forward to the Dec. 19 conversation she had with Wernick, which she surreptitiously recorded, and her role in the subsequent fiasco becomes obvious. On the recording, Wernick told Wilson-Raybould that he wanted to ensure that she had used “all tools lawfully at [her] disposal,” such as consulting with a retired Supreme Court justice, yet she persisted to Wernick that she felt it her duty to oppose a DPA to save Trudeau from himself, as if to say that she saw herself in a position superior to that of the prime minister. This defiant posturing was absurd because Wilson-Raybould stated that she knew she would come off second best in a conflict with the prime minister.

The key part of the conversation came when Wernick told Wilson-Raybould that Trudeau was going to find a way to get a DPA: “He’s in that kind of mood, and I wanted you to be aware of it.” Wilson-Raybould was “unaware” because she had not spoken directly to Trudeau about the DPA in the three months since the Sept. 17 meeting despite having promised to revisit her decision.

Clearly, this passage supports Dion’s findings of conflict of interest, but Wilson-Raybould could have prevented all this. It was her responsibility to communicate a final decision to the prime minister, not for the prime minister to go to her. As far as Trudeau was concerned at the time, the matter was still unsettled.

Even if Wilson-Raybould had consulted with a former justice, like Beverley McLachlin, she received reassurances that the decision to intervene still lay with her, so she had nothing to lose by doing as the prime minister asked. As Trudeau’s former senior advisor Gerald Buttswould later tell the House of Commons judiciary committee: “We…made clear that, if the attorney-general accepted our proposal and took external advice, she was equally free to reject or accept that advice.”

On this score, Butts may have told the truth as Trudeau saw it, but his answer does not give the complete picture. We learn from the report that meetings between McLachlin and Trudeau’s staff had taken place without Wilson-Raybould’s knowledge. This is also cited as an instance of political interference even though Trudeau or his staff did not instruct Wilson-Raybould to ask for a DPA, but it is minor compared to the instance in 1992.

At that time, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney directly instructed Attorney-General Kim Campbell to refer the 1969 rape and murder conviction of David Milgaard to the Supreme Court. As recounted in The Globe and Mail, Campbell had refused to do so, which led to Mulroney's saying the following:

“Kim...the law provides for a reference to the Supreme Court and it is my intention to ensure that this case is in fact referred to the Supreme Court.’ My tone was firm and my words unequivocal. She understood and changed her tack quickly. ‘Prime Minister,’ she answered, ‘If this is the case, may I make the announcement myself?’”

Milgaard would end up being released on April 16, 1992. What Trudeau did may have violated ethical guidleines, but it was not unique and certainly not worth the obssessive attention being paid to it. None of this would have happeend if Trudeau had the courage to remove Wilson-Raybould as attorney general earlier or if Wilson-Raybould had the integrity to resign.

Overplaying her hand

From the beginning, Wilson-Raybould was not happy playing second fiddle to Carolyn Bennett, the Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations. Both women had been tasked with developing and implementing the new Native rights framework, and Trudeau had put Bennett in charge since the file fell under her ministry. Wilson-Raybould felt her years of experience with Native issues and her time as a chief made her the better candidate to oversee the file and wanted it brought under her purview at the ministry of justice.

Her claim was also driven by a difference in tactics: Bennett wanted broad consultations with various Native peoples; Wilson-Raybould wanted an immediate declaration of native rights based on her work and expertise. Relative merits aside, it was Bennett who spoke for the government on this matter, not Wilson-Raybould, who saw herself, not as one among equals in the cabinet, but as the self-styled “Prime Minister for Reconciliation.” She betrayed her arrogance when she staged a power play against Bennett in the summer of 2018. As reported in the Globe and Mail:

Ms. Wilson-Raybould wrote to her fellow ministers [the day] before the [Aug. 21] cabinet meeting [in Nanaimo] to say Ms. Bennett was taking the wrong approach and was not moving fast enough, according to two sources who have knowledge of the issue and have been granted anonymity because they do not have authority to speak on the record. She asked to be allowed to take over the framework file, they said. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s request was not granted, and Ms. Bennett’s department released its first substantial report on the initiative on Sept. 7.

The interval between the release of the report and the Sept. 17 meeting with Trudeau and Wernick is a mere 10 days. Given Wilson-Raybould’s overdeveloped sense of her own importance, it was inevitable that she would resent cabinet’s decision and in particular interpret Trudeau’s refusal to acquiesce to her request as a betrayal. Because of this defeat, Wilson-Raybould’s respect for Trudeau was now in question.

If, on the other hand, Wilson-Raybould had been given the file as requested, the Sept. 17 meeting would undoubtedly have gone quite differently because she would still have been politically and morally invested in the government. In this scenario, she might have gone to her department for anohter opinion, or at least gone through the motions, because she might have risked Trudeau’s changing his mind about who should manage the file.

In January, Wilson-Raybould was moved to the more junior position of Minister for Veterans Affairs in a cabinet shuffle, which she took to be a politically motivated demotion because of her stance on the DPA. Whether this was true or not does not matter; what matters is Wilson-Raybould’s perception and her wounded sense of Native entitlement. Had Trudeau selected an attorney-general and justice minister based on experience and merit instead of feminist and Native optics, the DPA and other fiascos might well have been prevented.

Philosophical incompatibility

In his mandate letter to Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau outlined several objectives for her to achieve, many of which she did not. For instance, she was supposed to restrict the use of solitary confinement, yet her ministry fought all charter challenges to the practice and even appealed a B.C. court ruling against federal solitary confinement laws despite the fact they were applied disproportionately to Natives and the mentally ill.

Besides not doing as she was instructed, Wilson-Raybould went off-script to introduce legislation that was blatantly undemocratic. In the spring of 2018, she introduced Bill 46, which, among other things, would have exempted a police officer from having a reasonable suspicion of impairment before asking a driver to submit to a breathalyzer test. Such arbitrariness would have tacitly permitted racial and other forms of profiling. Fortunately, this provision did not get past the Senate.

As criminal lawyer Kyla Lee wrote in the Huffington Post: “In testimony before the Senate Committee, numerous legal experts opined that this would have a disproportionate effect on people of colour, including Black and Indigenous Canadians, who are already more frequently targeted for random traffic stops and carding.”

Wilson-Raybould also appeared to care more about the speed of justice than its ethical application. In April 2018, she introduced Bill C-75, which included a direct attack on the rights of the accused in criminal trials. According to a Maclean’s report:

Tucked away in Bill C-75, the new Liberal crime legislation, lies one provision, unmentioned by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould … that alters a key part of police accountability in Canada. Section 657 of the Criminal Code would change, under the bill, to give courts the discretion to accept police evidence in writing instead of requiring officers to testify in person. It could mean defence lawyers in some cases can’t question police on the stand. Critics of the bill … focused attention on the two highest profile provisions of C-75, which abolish peremptory challenges for jurors, weeks after the Colten Boushie case, and abolish preliminary inquiries for most types of crimes.

Bill C-75 passed, but not without difficulty. In the Colten Boushie case, a Caucasian male was found not guilty in the shooting death of a Native youth. What beggars the imagination is how Trudeau did not appear to notice or care that Wilson-Raybould, whom he recruited to run as a Liberal, was a moral conservative who undermined his liberal judicial reforms.

Meng Wanzhou

Wilson-Raybould’s questionable judgment was also on display concerning Meng Wanzhou. On Aug. 22, a New York court issued a warrant for Meng’s arrest over allegations that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei had violated trade sanctions against Iran. On Dec. 1, Meng, the CFO of Huawei, was en route to Mexico from Hong Kong, and in response to an emergency request from the U.S. government Wilson-Raybould allowed agents of the RCMP, Canadian border security and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to arrest her at Vancouver International Airport. The U.S. had not made a formal extradition request; rather, it had issued a request for Meng’s “provisional arrest.”

Wilson-Raybould acquiesced to the U.S. government claiming that “urgency [had] been established”: “It is internationally understood and accepted that people who are alleged to have committed crimes in another country should be surrendered to that country to address the charges.” She also stated that her decision was made “without any political interference or direction.”

Given the delicacy of the matter and her limited legal experience, Wilson-Raybould had a moral and professional duty to consult the prime minister’s office, which, judging from her statement, she did not. As events transpired, her decision was incompetent on many levels.

  • First, Huawei is not obliged to respect U.S. sanctions on Iran, so she had no defensible reason to seek her arrest, especially under exigent circumstances.
  • Second, the U.S. sanctions are illegal since Iran has maintained scrupulous adherence to the terms of the multiparty nuclear agreement, so Wilson-Raybould had a political reason to doubt the veracity of the request.

  • Third, the sanctions are driven by Israel’s coercive control over the U.S. government, so the charge that Huawei committed a crime against the U.S. is at best spurious.

  • Fourth, the lack of a proper extradition request meant that the request to seize Meng amounted to a request to kidnap her under the cover of law, which makes a mockery of her excuse for doing the U.S.’s bidding.

  • Fifth, she did not consult experts on international law or consider how China’s inevitable reaction would affect Canada.

Again, Trudeau left the decision up to Wilson-Raybould, and the combination of her ineptitude and Trudeau’s diffidence led to the retaliatory kidnapping of at least three Canadians in China, placing Canada in the middle of a political war between the U.S. and China and Trudeau in an embarrassing, no-win predicament. This scenario, which occurred 16 days before the infamous taped conversation, gave Trudeau a legitimate reason to remove Wilson-Raybould as attorney-general and justice minister for reasons unrelated to the DPA. That he did not do so is hard to explain except in the context of identity politics and his fear of a public-relations disaster.

Supreme disagreement

Trudeau’s passivity is also peculiar because he became aware of Wilson-Raybould’s philosophical incompatibility in 2017 when she recommended conservative Manitoba chief justice Glenn Joyal to replace retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. Joyal supports a “rebalancing” of the relationship between the courts and Parliament, implying that the former had become too influential at the expense of the latter. In other words, he believes in a more restrictive use of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge legislation. In a January 2017 speech he said:

It may be one of the bitter ironies of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Nation Building strategy of the 1980s, that despite the celebration and promotion of the Charter, it has led to an institutional imbalance that dilutes a source of Canadian distinctiveness.

Without debating what Joyal meant by “Canadian distinctiveness,” or whether his charter restrictions would have affected the rights of homosexuals or transsexuals, Wilson-Raybould clearly endorsed his reactionary conservatism. In a 60-page document, she not only recommended his appointment but asked Trudeau to make Joyal, a non-sitting justice, the new chief justice! Trudeau dismissed both ideas, after which Joyal withdrew his nomination for personal reasons.

This matter only came to light amid the SNC-Lavalin debacle on March 27, but politicians and reporters were too busy lamenting the fact that a judicial matter had been leaked to investigate Wilson-Raybould’s motives for recommending such an illiberal judge to her liberal prime minister. To its credit, CTV News did suggest that this issuer, not disagreement over the DPA, might have been a cause, or the cause of Trudeau’s decision to reassign her.

The end of pretense

On Feb. 12, five days after the Globe and Mail broke the story, Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet, much to Trudeau’s disappointment and surprise since he had been so deferential toward her. In the weeks leading up to the resignation, other Liberal MPs intervened to help Wilson-Raybould resolve her impasse with the prime minister. However, she refused all entreaties, choosing instead to dictate surrender terms to Trudeau: He had to fire Gerald Butts, Michael Wernick and senior adviser Mathieu Bouchard; the new attorney-general had to agree not to seek a DPA for SNC-Lavalin; and Trudeau had to admit that he acted inappropriately. The arrogance was breathtaking.

On March 2, while still a member of the Liberal caucus, Wilson-Raybould abandoned all pretense of government loyalty or discipline to grandstand as a Native before the House of Commons justice committee. She claimed the moral high ground and all but accused Trudeau of being a liar:

Always hold true to your core values, principles and to act with integrity. These are the teachings of my parents, grandparents and my community. I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House. This is who I am and who I will always be.

This sanctimony was pure wind and confirmed that the “Prime Minister for Reconciliation” had never believed that the normal rules of cabinet government and ministerial accountability applied to her. This conclusion is supported by a Canadian Press story that came out on the day she resigned. Citing party insiders, the story depicted Wilson-Raybould as an alienating figure who was self-absorbed, controlling, untrustworthy and openly hostile to other cabinet ministers. This is consistent with the account of her power play against Bennett.

Wilson-Raybould’s contempt for the government and general good manners peaked on March 29 when she made public her taped conversation with Wernick, an action that although legal was seen by other Liberal MPs as grossly unethical. As a result of this action, just four days after the Joyal conflict was leaked, Wilson-Raybould was expelled from caucus along with Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, who had earlier resigned from cabinet in sympathy. However, Wilson-Raybould wraps herself so tighltly the cloak of Native self-righteousness, she cannot or will not appreciate the self-defeating consequences of her behaviour:

I do not believe that I should be removed from caucus for doing my job and doing what I believe is right. With respect to the recording, I’ve heard some caucus members make comments. It was a reasonable, rational thing to do in an unreasonable and irrational situation.

This delusion of unalloyed virtue is also reflected in Canada’s Native leadership. A press release by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, cited in the CP story, is remarkable for its cognitive dissonance and victim-culture boilerplate, for example:

[Those comments] perpetuate colonial-era, sexist stereotypes that Indigenous women cannot be powerful, forthright and steadfast in positions of power, but rather confrontational, meddling and egotistic. These comments from your staff must be recognized for what they are—blatant sexism.

Wilson-Raybould was “confrontational, meddling and egotistic,” but that could not be addressed much less admitted. Anything that challenged the black-and-white moral universe of Native and feminist victim culture had to be denied or else it could have weakened the righteousness of their cause. Therefore, the charge of “sexism” had to be fabricated to put Wilson-Raybould’s expulsion beyond the reach of rational discourse. Claims of “veiled threats” and “inappropriate pressure,” were accepted as truth despite Gerald Butts’ deft refutation:

According to the former Minister’s testimony, eleven people made 20 points of contact with her or her office over a period of close to four months. Four of these people never met with the Attorney-General in person. In my case, the Attorney-General solicited the meeting. That’s two meetings and two phone calls per month for the Minister and her office on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 jobs. The Minister confirmed last week that nobody ever asked her to make or not make the decision.

The second function of the press release was to shift blame for her expulsion onto a demonized image of Trudeau so that the claim of “racism” and “sexism” could be justified:

If you do not condemn these harmful statements and apologize ... you not only reaffirm a colonial belief system that Indigenous women are inferior and disposable, but the hypocrisy of your professed feminism and “most important relationship” with Indigenous people will be laid bare for all Canadians to see.

Even though the press release is preposterous, it should not be dismissed. It provides the best evidence that Trudeau is being pilloried, not for anything to do with the DPA, but for taking appropriate action against an unsuitable cabinet minister. Ironically, if the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs really cared about Reconciliation they would have castigated Wilson-Raybould for her hubris, ineptitude and decision to resign, which removed a strong voice at the cabinet table. In addition, they would not be libeling the most pliable and sympathetic prime minister they are ever likely to have.

Admittedly, the sight of Trudeau being undone by the identity politics group he bent over backwards to serve is deliciously ironic, but it will likely have dire consequences for Canada. If enough disaffected Liberal voters buy into the false Native narrative, the “conservatives” could end up re-elected, thereby making a mockery of the previous election. Already, anti-Trudeau TV attack ads based partly on this narrative are airing.

The thought of Andrew Scheer becoming a new Stephen Harper is too horrible to contemplate, but it is a scenario that has been made more likely because of the subversive influence of identity politics.