How a core member of Team Trudeau became the PM's greatest threat - Macleans.ca

How a core member of Team Trudeau became the PM’s greatest threat

Jody Wilson-Raybould was once one of Justin Trudeau’s star political prospects. Now, a thorn in his side.

by
Jody Wilson-Raybould appears at the House of Commons Justice Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Jody Wilson-Raybould has a way of making an impression. Oddly enough, for a politician, she often makes it in private. There was the day in 2011, back when Wilson-Raybould was heading the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, that she ran into former prime minister Paul Martin. He later said she treated him to a “brilliant exposition” on First Nations issues, which led to Martin talking her up in his Liberal circles. By 2013, newly minted Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had heard enough to fly to Whitehorse to meet her. Their one-on-one so impressed Trudeau that only a few months later he was showcasing her to Liberals as a star political prospect at a Montreal party convention.

After the Liberals won the 2015 election, Trudeau named Wilson-Raybould his justice minister—among the plum cabinet posts. Yet she would rarely be the centre of attention. She pushed through bills on cannabis legalization, assisted suicide and criminal law reform. She pleaded behind the scenes for a sweeping overhaul of Ottawa’s relationship with Indigenous people. Still, her reticent manner didn’t fully draw the spotlight—not until, that is, she appeared before the House justice committee on Feb. 27 to deliver testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair. Suddenly, her restraint was riveting. Her spare rhetoric made every damning word sting.

Wilson-Raybould opened with a devastatingly precise sentence. “For a period of approximately four months, between September and December 2018,” she said, “I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”

Over the nearly four hours of her meticulous testimony that followed, Trudeau’s government sank steadily into a seemingly bottomless crisis.

READ: Jody Wilson-Raybould’s opening statement at justice committee: Full transcript

She detailed 10 meetings and 10 phone calls that happened last fall, implicating a panoply of the powerful, from Trudeau and his closest aides to Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, who heads the public service, to Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his chief of staff. She said they together implacably leaned on her to give SNC-Lavalin that special deal—pressure they kept up long after she told them, in no uncertain terms, that she would not use her power as attorney general to overrule a decision from the independent director of public prosecutions to deny the Montreal engineering company the chance to avoid a damaging bribery trial.

The drama unfolded in a windowless committee room in Parliament’s newly renovated West Block, where MPs began sitting early this year in an old courtyard fitted with a handsome new roof. It’s the start of a planned residence of a decade or longer as Centre Block, which contains the more familiar permanent House chamber, is extensively refurbished. And so Wilson-Raybould wrote the West Block a dynamite first chapter in a new book of political lore. The packed room fell still as she spoke. Conservative MP Lisa Raitt put both hands over her mouth in a pantomime of amazement. The NDP’s Murray Rankin slowly shook his head in equally theatrical sorrow.

Liberal MPs looked appropriately stricken or studiously nonchalant. In Wilson-Raybould, they face a figure unlike anyone who has occupied centre stage before through a prolonged Canadian political scandal. She posed the gravest threat to the Liberal party in the second Trudeau era—yet her fellow Liberals were taking pains not to cut her adrift. She remained in their caucus—even though Tories and New Democrats praised her as truthful and, of course, fastened on her as their most valuable, visible asset in an election year. She had quit Trudeau’s cabinet to serve as a mere backbench Vancouver MP—but now they watched her stature soar.

Several layered factors make Wilson-Raybould unique. In a shady sequence of events involving a tainted company lobbying for a big favour from the government, she seems to have stood up to the powers that be. She did so as one of the top-ranking women in a cabinet famously engineered around gender equity. And she did it having risen higher in the federal government than any Indigenous politician before her. At the core of her persona are her Vancouver Island roots in the villages of her father’s Kwakwaka’wakw people. “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House,” she told the committee.

READ: How many times did Jody Wilson-Raybould need to say ‘No’?

How would Trudeau fight that? There’s no political opposition research playbook for counterpunching against Wilson-Raybould’s singular challenge. The Prime Minister stuck to the usually reliable jobs, jobs, jobs tack—that he was only worrying about the fate of SNC-Lavalin employees, almost 9,000 of them across Canada. The problem was, Wilson-Raybould freely allowed that pointing out to her the potential job losses if the company suffered was fine. What wasn’t legitimate was trying to inject raw politics into decision-making surrounding a criminal prosecution.

For instance, Wilson-Raybould recounted how, at a meeting she had last Sept. 17 with the Prime Minister, the possibility of SNC-Lavalin pulling its headquarters out of Montreal was raised. Trudeau blurted out that he was an “MP in Quebec, the member for Papineau,” referring to his Montreal riding. Meetings and calls to Wilson-Raybould and her staff continued through the fall.

Finally, on Dec. 19, Wernick, Trudeau’s deputy minister and the most powerful federal bureaucrat, called her at home. Wilson-Raybould said he told her Trudeau was determined to get SNC-Lavalin its deal. “He said, ‘I think he is going to find a way to get it done one way or another,’ ” she recalled, adding later, “In my mind, those were veiled threats, and I took them as such.”

Events that followed suggest she wasn’t wrong to feel threatened. On Jan. 14, in what was expected to be a minor cabinet shuffle, Trudeau demoted Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs. On Feb. 7, the Globe and Mail reported that she had resisted pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) over SNC-Lavalin. Was this why she was dumped from the top tier? With Ottawa consumed by that question, she resigned from cabinet on Feb. 12. On Feb. 18, Gerald Butts resigned as Trudeau’s principal secretary. Butts denied he had pressured Wilson-Raybould, but said he had to leave because the allegation “cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the Prime Minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.”

It would be hard to overstate the destabilizing impact of his exit on the Liberal machine. He was Trudeau’s university pal, alter ego, grand vizier and co-author of his political narrative. Even with Trudeau’s innermost circle reeling, though, Liberals remained solicitous toward Wilson-Raybould. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told CBC Radio that while she didn’t believe Trudeau would “apply improper pressure,” she also accepted that Wilson-Raybould had spoken “her truth.” More than two weeks after the affair erupted, a reporter asked Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, arguably Trudeau’s most widely admired minister, if she knew how Wilson-Raybould was holding up under the pressure. “She’s doing very well,” Philpott replied. “I’ve been in regular communication and our colleague is doing fine.”

Regular communication? Our colleague? When war breaks out on Parliament Hill, collegiality is usually the first casualty. Clearly, Wilson-Raybould’s political relationships are uncommonly durable. Her singular set of political traits make her hard to cast as a plausible villain. But there’s another factor. Liberals are reluctant to bid adieu to something she, as much as anyone, embodies. Wilson-Raybould was a charter member of the group of new-style politicians recruited by Trudeau and his closest confidants—back when the Liberals were the scrappy third-place federal party—then installed in top cabinet jobs after he won the 2015 election.

READ: The moral catastrophe of Justin Trudeau

In a sense, these two groups—Trudeau’s tight-knit retinue and the rookie stars they brought to Ottawa—have been this government’s twin defining structural elements. The first group is dominated by attendees of a now-legendary meeting held back in the summer of 2012 in the Quebec resort town of Mont-Tremblant, where they hatched Trudeau’s assault on the Liberal leadership. Most prominent among them were Butts and Katie Telford, now his chief of staff, whom Wilson-Raybould also cast in an unflatteringly meddlesome light in her testimony.

Butts and Telford at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on July 18, 2018. (Justin Tang/CP)

The second group—those political neophytes who would emerge as cabinet heavyweights—were drafted after that pivotal Mont-Tremblant confab. They include Philpott, who was a family doctor and hospital executive before politics; Freeland, a prominent economic journalist; Morneau, a Bay Street executive; and, of course, Wilson-Raybould, the former top B.C. First Nations leader. Both of these intersecting circles now look far less charmed.

The memory of what was lingers, though. Even Butts took pains, in a written statement announcing his resignation, to defend his relationship with Wilson-Raybould—looking back to those halcyon days when Team Trudeau was creating and elevating its lineup. “I encouraged her to run for the Liberal Party of Canada and worked hard to support her as a candidate and then cabinet minister,” he said. At the time this story went to print, Butts had asked to appear before the justice committee, promising to bring “relevant documents”—and flinging open the possibility that a serious bid to refute Wilson-Raybould’s version of events might be in the works.

Still, there was something plaintive about Butts’s wounded description of his former working rapport with her, almost the beginnings of nostalgia. “From my perspective,” he wrote, “our relationship has always been defined by mutual respect, candour and an honest desire to work together.” What happened to those good old days? Ontario MP Jennifer O’Connell, who was given the unenviable task of leading off Liberal questions to Wilson-Raybould at the committee, voiced a similar sense of loss. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but we do feel like a family,” O’Connell told Maclean’s in an interview. “We came into this all together, and we wanted to make the country a better place. We had all this optimism.”

By contrast, among Liberals who never cracked Trudeau’s inner circle, a perhaps inevitable they-had-it-coming critique quickly began circulating. Even Butts’s not-for-attribution critics, however, don’t deny his talent. “I have the greatest respect for his intellect, his strategic instincts when it comes to politics and even policy,” said one veteran Liberal strategist who asked not to be named. “But the way he centralized things around himself is exactly why this Jody Wilson-Raybould thing has happened.”

MORE: Justin Trudeau, my how you’ve changed

This interpretation of what went so badly wrong stresses the way Butts and Telford might have assumed too much power over too many files, and thus simply weren’t paying sufficient attention to SNC-Lavalin at the key turning point. The company learned early last fall that the public prosecutor had rejected its plea to negotiate that deferred prosecution agreement over charges it had paid bribes in Libya between 2001 and 2011. But, as Wernick told the House justice committee, Trudeau’s top guns were immersed then in trade talks with the U.S. and Mexico. “Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford were completely consumed in NAFTA negotiations, which completed successfully on Sept. 30, and were not available for normal business,” he said.

Wernick’s reference to how personal attentiveness from Butts and Telford to big issues was a matter of “normal business” is telling. Were they stretched too thin? Nobody denies their centrality. Even so, many Liberal MPs remained more prone to defend them than express frustration. “If I had an idea or a concern, I always had such access to Katie or Gerry,” said O’Connell. “I appreciated it. I think they have incredible insights.”

Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick before the Justice Committee meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 21, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

In fact, a defining feature of the Trudeau government was the way Butts and Telford were packaged inside the party as stars. Last spring, for example, the marquee event at a national Liberal convention in Halifax was Butts’s onstage conversation with David Axelrod, a top confidant of former U.S. president Barack Obama.

And that direct link to Washington political glamour isn’t incidental. Trudeau has cited The West Wing, the NBC TV drama about thrillingly skilled and principled White House insiders, which aired from 1999 to 2006, as having fired the imaginations of his team. “We were all in a certain sense coloured by having watched The West Wing while we were thinking about how we wanted to have an impact on the world in our lives,” he said in 2017 during an interview on a podcast dedicated to the show’s enduring cult following.

READ: Michael Wernick should’ve thought twice before serving up his ‘Cicero moment’

Any remaining aura of West Wing-like idealism, acumen and esprit de corps around Trudeau’s PMO was obliterated by Wilson-Raybould’s testimony. If there was a Washington reference point for this fiasco now, it wasn’t a touchstone TV fantasy from the Trudeau gang’s formative years; it was the scandal that dominated their parents’ view of U.S. politics. Wilson-Raybould provided the allusion. During that ominous talk with Wernick late last year—the phone call in which she detected “veiled threats”—she recalled, “I said that I was having thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre, but that I was confident that I had given the Prime Minister my best advice to protect him and to protect the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.”

Those steeped in the classic modern American political scandal know that “Saturday Night Massacre” is the term for an episode when Richard Nixon stooped to one of many low points. On Oct. 20, 1973, the then U.S. president ordered Elliot Richardson, his attorney general, to fire Archibald Cox, the investigator who was probing the Watergate burglary and cover-up. Richardson resigned rather than do Nixon’s bidding, and so did his deputy, before the desperate president finally found an official willing to dismiss Cox. Wilson-Raybould’s allusion to the episode was a rare moment of humour—however dark—in the committee’s marathon session with her.

After all, any Watergate analogy was over the top. Wasn’t it? Apparently, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer didn’t think so. His response to Wilson-Raybould’s revelations: Trudeau had lost the moral authority to govern and must resign. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh—fresh from winning a by-election in the B.C. riding of Burnaby South to finally put him in the House—only demanded an independent inquiry. As for Trudeau, he was visiting his old school in Montreal, Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, where his father, the late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, also studied as a teenager, as Wilson-Raybould wrapped up telling what she called “her truth.”

About an hour after the committee adjourned in Ottawa, Trudeau stood at the school, in front of the usual portable Liberal-logo screens and the requisite smiling phalanx of the party faithful, to answer reporters’ questions. Trudeau said he “completely disagreed” with Wilson-Raybould. He stressed his concern throughout for lost jobs if SNC-Lavalin suffered.

Just behind him stood Rachel Bendayan, the Liberal who had just won a by-election in Outremont, the seat left open when former NDP leader Tom Mulcair stepped down. Not so long ago, Bendayan would have been there to soak up some of Trudeau’s reflected glory. On this evening, it was he who needed her there to show that renewal for his Liberals had not yet slipped completely beyond reach.

—with Shannon Proudfoot