Understanding the Scandal That’s Tarnished Justin Trudeau’s Glowing Image

March 5, 2019, 12:42 PM UTC

When he was first elected as Canada’s prime minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau promised openness, accountability and transparency in politics. In just one month, that reputation has been all but lost.

Trudeau, the son of 16-year former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has a lot going for him: Canada has the lowest levels of unemployment in 40 years, the fastest growing wages in a decade and the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio among the G7 nations.

But the current political scandal, in which Trudeau is accused of meddling in a federal criminal investigation, is tearing his cabinet apart as opposition leaders call for his resignation.

What’s going on, exactly?

Trudeau and his top aides are accused of pressuring Jody Wilson-Raybould, then Canadian attorney general and justice minister, to go easy on the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin (SNCAF), a major Canadian engineering firm.

Wilson-Raybould said senior government officials, mostly from Trudeau’s office, pressured her to order prosecutors to cut a plea deal with SNC-Lavalin, which is based in Montreal in the politically important province of Quebec.

She added that Trudeau said a solution must be found because otherwise many jobs could be lost, and SNC-Lavalin could move its headquarters from Montreal to London.

At the same time a plea deal in the fraud and corruption case would have allowed SNC-Lavalin to avoid a decade-long ban on bidding on government contracts in Canada, which make up a significant portion of the company’s revenue.

In response, Wilson-Raybould said she wasn’t going to interfere in a decision by prosecutors to not pursue a plea deal. She then resigned from her justice posts in January and became minister of veterans affairs, before resigning from the Cabinet altogether in February. Toronto’s Globe and Mail first reported on the scandal at the beginning of February.

“I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” Wilson-Raybould testified before a parliamentary committee at the end of February, the Wall Street Journal reports.

What are the charges against SNC-Lavalin?

Canadian prosecutors filed corruption and fraud charges against SNC-Lavalin, which employs 50,000 workers worldwide, in 2015 related to activity in Libya from 2001 to 2011. Its officials are accused of bribing Libyan officials under Muammar Qaddafi with C$48 million to secure contracts there. Back home in Canada, a former CEO pleaded guilty this month to charges related to a bribery scandal involving the construction of a Montreal hospital.

What does Trudeau say?

Trudeau has not denied that he and aides spoke to Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin case, the Guardian reports, but claims their discussions were within the bounds of the rules.

At a Liberal Party rally on Monday, per the New York Times, Trudeau said, “I know that Ms. Philpott has felt this way for some time. While I’m disappointed, I understand her decision.” He added that the political controversy “has generated important discussion” and said, “there are more questions to be answered and more to be said in the coming days and weeks.”

What’s happening now?

Canada’s Ethics Commissioner launched a federal investigation into the alleged interference on February 11. Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s closest adviser and a longtime friend, resigned on February 18 and is scheduled to testify before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.

In a new development, Treasury Board President Jane Philpott —once one of Trudeau’s closest allies — resigned on Monday, saying she had lost confidence in the government.

Will this affect Trudeau’s chances in the 2019 election?

Trudeau is up for re-election in October. He needs to carry Quebec to win, and SNC-Lavalin’s potential loss of jobs there would have been a blow to his chances. WSJ reports that polling since the scandal emerged indicates Trudeau and the Liberal government are bleeding support and the opposition Conservatives are holding a lead. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer repeated his call for Trudeau to step down on Monday.