The last time you thought about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (if you're a US citizen), he was probably just that hot, woke guy who made you wish you lived in Canada and was all about raising women up. But now he's the subject of a massive scandal in his country, and his feminist cred is in tatters.
How bad are things for the 47-year-old, now in his fourth year as prime minister and up for reelection this fall? According to one recent poll, Trudeau is performing worse than US President Donald Trump: Only 40% of Canadians approve of his performance, according to polling firm Ipsos, compared to Trump's average 43% approval rating.
It's a wild swing from the peak of Trudeau-mania, when people across the world swooned over the young politician who couldn't seem to keep his shirt on. (Let us never forget the classic 2016 article "Why Don’t I Ever Run Into Shirtless Justin Trudeau While Hiking?")
And he was far and away the winner in our own extremely unscientific poll that asked "Which of These World Leaders Gives You the Most Thirst?" back in 2015. (It was a different time.)
So what kicked off this downward spiral? The biggest contributor has been an ongoing scandal involving a Canadian company called SNC-Lavalin, a huge engineering corporation that has been charged with corruption and fraud. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has accused the company of attempting to pay $40 million in bribes to officials in the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's government over the course of a decade, resulting in about $100 million in contracts for the company.
The way this got Trudeau in trouble is complicated, but here's the short version: If convicted, SNC-Lavalin, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, could be banned from taking on government contracts for a decade. Last year, it just so happens, the company won a contract to help build a new public transit system in Montreal. In response to the charges, SNC-Lavalin all but threatened to pack up and leave the country altogether, taking its jobs with it, if the company was taken to court. The company later walked back its CEO's claims that it had argued against going to court "in the public interest."
Governments love jobs, so Parliament, controlled by Trudeau's Liberal Party, pushed through a new mechanism for prosecutors to basically strike a plea deal with corporations: They pay some fines, and handle their shit, but avoid conviction. But here's the catch: Prosecutors were told they can't think about the "national economic interest," aka whether Canadians would lose their jobs and all the politics that comes along with that, when deciding whether to go through remediations with companies.
Spoiler: Prosecutors opted not to use the mechanism and moved forward with the case against SNC-Lavalin. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau's attorney general slash justice minister, stood by that decision, even though she could have overridden them and put a halt to the proceedings. As it turns out, she made that choice despite Trudeau's office leaning heavily on her to go easy on the company. Allegedly, the company was lobbying Trudeau behind the scenes to keep the affair out of court.
Trudeau promptly moved Wilson-Raybould out of her post after her decision — which was filled by a white man — and over to the department of veteran affairs. She resigned her new position in February and a few weeks later, the prime minister gave her the all clear to speak publicly about the whole affair, waiving solicitor-client privilege. And boy did she, spending hours giving testimony that made Trudeau look like a real jerk.
In her remarks, she said that people within the prime minister's office, the Privy Council Office, and the finance minister's office, sought "to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion" she had as attorney general, specifically calling out a meeting with Trudeau last September.
"The Prime Minister ask[ed] me to help out — to find a solution here for SNC — citing that if there was no [deferred prosecution agreement] there would be many jobs lost and that SNC will move from Montreal," Wilson-Raybould alleged.
The scandal has continued to bubble in Canada, dragging Trudeau's poll numbers down, but last week things exploded again when Wilson-Raybould announced that she had secretly recorded a conversation with the chief clerk, the country's top civil servant job. A bunch of Liberal MPs denounced her, but Jane Philpott, who had resigned her position in Trudeau's cabinet last month in solidarity, stuck by her.
In response, the two women were booted from the Liberal Party caucus altogether on Tuesday night.
“The trust that previously existed between these two individuals and our team has been broken,” Trudeau said by way of explanation. “It’s become clear that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Philpott can no longer be part of our Liberal team.”
A lot of people quickly concluded that for a self-declared feminist prime minister, who was lauded in 2015 for putting together a gender-balanced cabinet, kicking out two women who disagreed with him during a scandal was not a good look. That includes some participants in Daughters of the Vote, a program that brings young women from across Canada who want to take part in politics to Ottawa. As Trudeau spoke to them on Wednesday, about 30 of them turned their backs on him.
“In a way, the prime minister has created two martyrs here,” Sylvia Bashevkin, a University of Toronto professor of political science, told the Atlantic. “There may be a number of people who decide not to run again because of a sense that the wheels are falling off the bus.”
Oh, and did we mention that Wilson-Raybould is Indigenous? Because she's Indigenous. Which adds to a separate issue that Trudeau has struggled with over the years, where he's seemed out of touch as people from native communities have demanded the federal government address historic — and at times still ongoing — mistreatment and neglect. An inquiry that Trudeau promised into missing and murdered Indigenous women has been mired in resignations and lack of action. Meanwhile, many Indigenous communities in Canada lack access to water and Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada’s prisons.
In 2017, two students used a selfie request with the prime minister to ask him some tough questions about his policies toward Indigenous peoples.
Aside from his treatment of Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau was forced to apologize last week for making a snide remark to a small group of Indigenous protesters who attended a fundraiser. When one of the women demanded that he address 50 years of mercury poisoning in her community, Trudeau responded, “Thank you very much for your donation tonight. I really appreciate it.”
All this is happening just a few months ahead of federal elections in Canada, which just a year ago Trudeau was expected to dominate. Now it's looking like the Conservative Party could be poised to stage a comeback in October. The scandal meanwhile shows no sign of dying down, with some expecting that even more resignations could be coming before Canadians make their way to the ballot box.