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Jody Wilson-Raybould: Meet the woman who stood up to Justin Trudeau and revealed he was 'just another grubby politician'

Canadian prime minister’s image badly tarnished by saga

Andrew Buncombe
Saturday 16 March 2019 12:53 GMT
Meet the woman who stood up to Trudeau

On the drab street outside Jody Wilson-Raybould’s constituency office in Vancouver, an 80-year-old woman called Barbara reveals she is suffering from a dilemma.

She does not like Justin Trudeau or his Liberal Party, she says, but she is so impressed by the way member of parliament Wilson-Raybould – herself a Liberal – stood up to his alleged bullying, she is tempted to vote for her later this year.

“I think she did a very good job. I one hundred per cent believe her,” says the woman, asking that her full name not be used. “I’m a bit confused because I don’t want to vote Liberal. I don’t know whether to vote for her or not. She’s my MP. I’d like to vote for her.”

Across this city, people raise similar questions over the scandal that has shaken Canada to its base and made people wonder whether they got it wrong about Trudeau.

Is the man who promised to usher in a new kind of politics, who filled his cabinet with women and whom to liberals around the world was held up as a hopeful alternative to Donald Trump, just another identikit self-seeking politician? A columnist for the conservative National Post says the affair reveals the prime minister is “indistinguishable from all the grubby leaders that went before him”.

Wilson-Raybould, meanwhile, the first indigenous Canadian to hold the position of attorney general, is being praised for refusing to bend to the premier’s alleged effort to have her drop the prosecution of a company on the grounds it could impact up 9,000 jobs in his own constituency.

“I think her doing that is an important part of the democratic process,” says Ian McLellan, 26, a student. “It’s important when things are unethical, for them to be addressed. I think Trudeau is the face of neoliberalism. I think someone like Jody Wilson-Raybould addressing the facade of a lot of these policies, is important.”

The scandal that some commentators believe could cost Trudeau’s Liberals control of government in an election scheduled to be held before 21 October is twisting and complicated. At its core lies alleged corruption, an attempted political fix and one woman’s apparent refusal to play along.

Last month, the Globe and Mail revealed Wilson-Raybould had in October been pressured by the prime minister and up 11 of his aides to help a Montreal-based construction firm settle a criminal case out of court and avoid prosecution over allegations it bribed Libyan officials for contracts. A prosecution would have meant SNC-Lavalin, a major Canadian employer, would have been blocked from winning Canadian government contracts for a year. She refused to agree to a deferred prosecution deal.

Wilson-Raybould was moved from her job as attorney general earlier this year and then resigned from the cabinet. Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s top aide, also quit amid accusations he had pressured her – an accusation he denies. Meanwhile, another cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, stood down, saying she had lost trust in the prime minister.

Wilson-Raybould told a committee she had faced ‘veiled threats and sustained pressure’ (Getty)

Wilson-Raybould, 47, alleged in testimony to parliament’s justice committee that she had faced “veiled threats” and “sustained” pressure to help the company avoid a prosecution. She said the machinations invoking Trudeau and his top aides made her have “thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre” – the series of firings and resignations prompted by pressure exerted by Richard Nixon during Watergate. She said she believed as long as she remained attorney general, SNC-Lavalin would not be given the option to avoid prosecution.

“I knew, as long as I was attorney general, this would not occur. I had concerns when I was removed as AG that this might not be the case,” she said.

Asked if she had confidence in the prime minister, she added: “I did not have confidence to sit around the table, the cabinet table.”

Wilson-Raybould, whose heritage includes Kwakiutl and Wewaikai ancestry, has a well-regarded record of working on indigenous, or First Nation, issues. She worked for land rights, and was elected to leadership positions on the Wewaikai Nation and then the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. Before that, she worked as a federal prosecutor.

When she ran as member of parliament in 2015, she did so at the suggestion of Trudeau, the son of Canada’s 15th prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and who became leader of the Liberal Party in 2013.

Trudeau: I take lessons from Cabinet scandal

At the time, some in her community criticised her for joining a federal system that had long oppressed indigenous people. It was not until 2008 that the government apologised for the residential school system scandal that for more than 100 years, had forcibly sent many thousands of indigenous children to state-operated boarding schools to “assimilate” the youngsters into mainstream society. Thousands of children died in care.

Wilson-Raybould’s father, Bill Wilson, a tribal leader who lives on Vancouver Island, is remembered for fighting with Trudeau’s father during the 1980s over the government’s efforts at “reconciliation”. Wilson recently told Maclean’s​ magazine he believed his daughter had been “kicked in the teeth”.

“It’s the same old, same old. I spent some time in Ottawa, though not as an elected official, so it’s not a surprise that these things happen. There’s huge money involved,” he said.

“If you look at SNC-Lavalin, they represent the lifeblood of Montreal and the surrounding area. The outgoing [CEO] … freely admits to [millions] in bribe money. It seems to be the way things are done.”

Cameron McBeth, an indigenous activist of Métis descent, says many perceive the pressure put on Wilson-Raybould by the prime minister’s office, as an attack on the whole community. He says many saw it as indicative of the way the federal government viewed indigenous people.

Indigenous women in Canada and the US have long struggled for their voices to be heard (Andrew Buncombe)

“People feel this to their core. They feel they are attacking her,” he says. “People feel this is what they have been doing for decades and centuries, rather than [indigenous people] being treasured.”

Not everyone has been supportive of the Vancouver Granville MP. Some have accused Wilson-Raybould of not “being a team player”. Former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps said Trudeau should have been “tougher”.

In comments that were condemned by many for being racist, she accused Wilson-Raybould of pursuing a “victim narrative” and said: “I think, had there been 9,000 Aboriginal jobs involved in her decision, she would have viewed it differently.”

Trudeau, 47, denies putting pressure on Wilson-Raybould or reshuffling her over her stance on SNC-Lavalin. While he said there had been an “erosion of trust”, he has not apologised.

“There was no breakdown of our systems, of our rule of law, of the integrity of our institutions,” he told a press conference. “In regards to standing up for jobs and defending the integrity of the rule of law, I continue to say there was no inappropriate pressure.”

A court in Canada last week denied SNC-Lavalin’s latest attempt to avoid a trial over the corruption allegation. In a statement, the company says it will “vigorously defend itself against the charges in court if no remediation agreement is possible”.

It adds: “We are disappointed with the decision of the federal court; we applied for judicial review in the hopes that such a review would elicit the reasons for the decision taken by the director of public prosecutions not to offer SNC-Lavalin a negotiation of a remediation agreement.”

Wilson-Raybould failed to respond to repeated requests from The Independent for an interview. Her office also failed to respond to written enquiries. She previously said Trudeau’s office was limiting her right to speak about the case. Trudeau has said he is “pleased” Wilson-Raybould had the chance to testify.

On a recent afternoon, Martina Griffiths emerges from BC Place stadium, dressed in the colours of Canada and having just watched a Rugby Sevens match. She is a Trudeau supporter, but angry over what he is said to have done.

She supports Wilson-Raybould for speaking out, but fears the damage to the Liberals’ image is so bad, Andrew Scheer and the opposition Conservative Party could win later this year.

“I feel maybe she dropped this at a bad time for Canada,” she says. “Because we could be saddled with born-again conservatives.”

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