Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing controversy over whether his public image as a champion of political correctness matches his private actions, in the wake of a string of resignations, including two high-profile women ministers in Trudeau’s Cabinet, among them Canada’s first indigenous justice minister.
The former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, said Trudeau and senior members of his government pressured her in a case involving a major Canadian engineering company accused of corruption related to its business dealings in Libya. Trudeau reportedly leaned on the attorney general to instruct prosecutors to reach the equivalent of a plea deal, which would avoid a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, because he felt that jobs were at stake.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust, and as prime minister and head of cabinet, I should have been,” Trudeau, who stopped short of an apology, said of the resignations during a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday. “Ultimately, I believe our government will be stronger for having wrestled with these issues.”
A federal election in Canada is scheduled for later this year.
Trudeau had promised transparency while describing himself as a feminist determined to right the wrongs against Canada’s indigenous people. Women make up half of his cabinet.
“He depicted himself as a feminist, as someone who believes in indigenous reconciliation, and then you have two of his top female Cabinet ministers resign, and they are depicting him in a very different light,” Daniel Beland, a politics professor at McGill University in Montreal, said.
Eddie Goldenberg, a former adviser to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, said: “There is a political correctness here. Nobody wants to go after an indigenous woman minister. It’s become politically incorrect to question the former minister.”
Trudeau has said he asked Wilson-Raybould to revisit her decision not to instruct prosecutors and said she agreed to consider that. He denied applying any inappropriate pressure, saying he and his officials only were pointing out that prosecution could endanger thousands of jobs.
SNC-Lavalin has pleaded not guilty to fraud and corruption charges related to allegations it paid about $35 million in bribes to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011.
“It’s a pseudo-scandal... What the hell? You are doing business in Libya and you are not bribing?” said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto. “It does suggest to me that the director of public prosecutions... is also nuts. And so is Wilson-Raybould. These people are delusional.”
Wilson-Raybould was demoted from her role as attorney general and justice minister in January as part of a Cabinet shuffle by Trudeau. She has testified that she believed she lost the justice job because she did not give in to “sustained” pressure to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
That solution would have avoided a potential criminal conviction that would bar the company from receiving any federal government business for a decade. The company is a major employer in Quebec, Trudeau’s home province. It has about 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.
The company publicly led the lobbying charge for a law that allows for deferred prosecution agreements as a way to resolve the criminal charges it faces. The new attorney general has not ruled out approving a settlement.
Wilson-Raybould has said herself that the pressure from Trudeau and others was not illegal and that she was not explicitly instructed to do a remediation agreement.
Some Liberal lawmakers have expressed confidence in Trudeau.
Trudeau said he tried to foster an environment where his lawmakers can come to him with concerns, but one of his party colleagues, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, took issue with that, tweeting, “I did come to you recently. Twice. Remember your reactions?”
“When you add women, please do not expect the status quo. Expect us to make correct decisions, stand for what is right and exit when values are compromised,” she also tweeted.
Caesar-Chavannes, who is not running for re-election, has issued messages of support for Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, a respected Cabinet minister who said she lost confidence in how the government has handled the affair.
“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,” Philpott wrote in the resignation letter to Trudeau.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.