Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a first-hand glimpse of the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair when he addressed young women staging a mock Parliament in the House of Commons Wednesday: about four dozen of them turned their backs on him while he tried to explain why he had booted Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott out of the Liberal caucus the day before.
It was a rough start for Trudeau’s efforts to re-establish himself as a feminist and supporter of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
“There’s always going to be a range of opinions we need to listen to,” Trudeau told the women. “But ultimately, diversity … only works if there is trust and within a team when that trust gets broken, we have to figure out how to move forward.”
“It’s actually easy to stand in a place and cross your arms and stand in a place and say, ‘I’m not budging from my position because I’m right,”’ he added later. “What is actually more difficult is to look for thoughtful compromise.”
Some of the women, delegates chosen to represent each of the country’s 338 ridings through a program called Daughters of the Vote, were unconvinced. They called him a “fake feminist” and doubted the authenticity of his commitment to reconciling with Indigenous Peoples _ sentiments echoed by opposition parties.
“It was like a microcosm of the history of Canada, with a white man telling Indigenous women where they can and cannot be and exercising their power and their privilege over them,” said Riley Yesno, one of the young women brought to Parliament by Equal Voice, a group dedicated to increasing the presence of women in politics.
Yesno, an Anishnaabe University of Toronto student who grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont., called Trudeau’s treatment of Wilson-Raybould “colonial violence” and further dubbed him a “fake feminist.” While she doesn’t necessarily believe he has “malicious intent” towards women, she said the expulsions of the former ministers “extremely negatively affect women” and “impact matters more than intention.”
Many of the same women walked out of the Commons altogether when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addressed them. Yesno said that was done deliberately, so their protest against Trudeau couldn’t be used as ammunition by the official Opposition.
However, Trudeau got some unexpected support from Philpott, who spoke a short time later, alongside Wilson-Raybould, outside the Commons.
Asked about the prime minister’s feminist credentials, Philpott said: “I wish him the best. I wish him the opportunity to continue his good work.”
Trudeau informed the two former ministers Tuesday that he won’t allow them to seek re-election as Liberal candidates this fall. Both said Wednesday it’s too soon to say whether their careers in politics are finished or whether they might run as independents or for another party.
“I would like to think that there may be steps, that I could continue in a political role somehow but I don’t know what that will be,” said Philpott, speaking alongside Wilson-Raybould. “It’s too early to say.”
“I need to take some time to reflect,” said Wilson-Raybould.
Wilson-Raybould believes she was moved out of the prestigious justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs in a mid-January cabinet shuffle as punishment for refusing to intervene to stop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on bribery charges related to contracts in Libya. She has testified that she faced relentless pressure last fall from Trudeau, his office, the top public servant and others to override the director of public prosecutions, who had decided not to invite the Montreal engineering giant to negotiate a remediation agreement, a kind of plea bargain.
Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet in mid-February and Philpott followed a few weeks later, saying she had lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file.
The revelation last week that Wilson-Raybould had surreptitiously recorded a phone conversation with Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, to bolster her contention of undue pressure was the last straw for Liberal MPs, who openly called on Trudeau to expel the former ministers. On Tuesday, Trudeau called the secret recording “unconscionable,” proof that the ex-minister could no longer be trusted.
“Trust is a two-way street,” Wilson-Raybould shot back Wednesday. “It is unconscionable not to uphold the rule of law.”
Neither Philpott nor Wilson-Raybould expressed regret for standing up for what they believed was right.
“You have to be able to hold your head high and look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say that the choices you made were the best ones under the circumstances,” said Philpott.
In the Commons during question period, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the whole episode demonstrates that “speaking truth to power” disqualifies strong women from inclusion in the Liberal party.
Trudeau said he’ll take no lessons from the Conservatives on feminism, noting that he still has “18 strong women members of cabinet who lead every day on the big issues that matter to Canadians.”
Trudeau ended the day at a meeting with Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and several other Inuit leaders and federal cabinet ministers, for a meeting of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee, formed two years ago to improve the relationship. He promised to continue a path towards reconciliation on issues such as education, suicide prevention, and climate change.