The fired attorney general remains in Trudeau’s caucus as a far-more-fit successor
The impressive figure who has burst so spectacularly into the cold, murky world of Ottawa over the last few weeks suffers from an unusual disadvantage. Nobody active in current politics can safely mention this person as a formidable candidate for party leadership. So let me do it for them. She is Madam Jody Wilson-Raybould, fired by the Trudeau government for actually doing what she had sworn to do when they made her Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general. When offered a lesser cabinet post, she quit on a point of principle. How staggeringly unique in today’s Ottawa.
But she did not join the opposition. Nor did she elect to sit as an independent. She leveled very serious charges against the Liberal prime minister that border on the criminal. People who do this are expected to leave the government benches immediately. She casts, as it were, a lethal vote of non-confidence in the prime minister. But then, horror of horrors, she stays put in the party and the caucus.
Thus she now sits there — brazen, rebellious, defiant — and nobody dares to move her expulsion. That would be Prime Minister Trudeau’s job, of course, but it severely violates the image he has set for himself. Above all else, he must be nice, and people who throw their critics off the bus aren’t being at all nice. So he’s baffled.
He baffles easily, of course, but Ms. Wilson-Raybould is a particularly difficult case — not just for him, but also for the opposition as well. Consider the circumstances. First, she is female and all up-to-date politicians must present themselves as deeply feminist, Trudeau in particular. She is also a native, in fact the daughter of a widely-admired native leader in British Columbia. Moreover, she is an accomplished lawyer, a former crown prosecutor, and also a wife and mother.
Finally, she is highly principled, a much respected quality in today’s Ottawa, until one really acts on one’s principles. This is regarded as “extremist.” And she, miserable woman, was principled enough to refuse to back down when some Very Important People in the federal government, one of them the prime minister himself, firmly and repeatedly pressured her as attorney general to drop the charges against Quebec’s SNC Lavalin Corporation for offering bribes to the executives of overseas corporations.
That would be criminal, and if convicted Lavalin would become ineligible for the hefty contracts it has been accustomed to getting from the Canadian government. In fact. such a conviction would close down the company in Canada and cost — the given numbers vary — something like seven thousand jobs in Quebec. Or so the government contends. Why not simply negotiate a defensibly large fine against the company and drop the charges? Such is the government’s suggestion, in fact the virtual order from the Prime Minister’s Office. The response of Attorney General Wilson-Raybould came down to this: The law is the law, and any interference with its valid enforcement is “unacceptable” (the current waffle term for immoral) if not actively criminal.
So Attorney General Wilson-Raybould simply refused to do it, and by February the conflict became so intense that it got into the media. The Globe and Mail newspaper in a series of articles eventually revealed the essentials of the story, portraying it as an alliance of Lavalin and the Prime Minister’s Office to force the acquiescence of the Attorney General in dropping a criminal charge. She steadfastly refused and was fired as attorney general. A much lesser cabinet post was offered her and she rejected it.
This made great reading for the government’s opponents. Here was a prime minister, outspoken in his championship of women’s and native rights, ruthlessly firing a woman native politician who refused to bend the law to safeguard his party’s profound dependence on the Quebec vote in an oncoming federal election. True, she was a model minister, but not model enough to override the Liberal dependence on Quebec.
But why, then, aren’t the Tories championing her? Why aren’t the NDP? Because, obviously, they fear a day approaching when she will wind up leading the Liberal party, and the woman they had once lionized had become chief among their foes..
But that was not the end of the story. There was worse to come. The treatment of Ms. Wilson-Raybould drew such public scorn that it forced the government to let her tell her story before a televised hearing of the Commons “ethics committee.” Quite suddenly everything was on stage. Her performance was masterful. She read her carefully filed records — meeting by meeting, phone call by phone call, letter by letter, and email by email. It unfolded a massive campaign by Trudeau’s staff to get the charges withdrawn against Lavalin. She spoke evenly, articulately, and with an appalling calm, all videotaped and no doubt watched by most of a nation. That she had captivated and convinced the video audience seemed indisputable.
But far beyond the Lavalin issue, something else was gradually arising out of its implications. Single appearances cannot be conclusive, of course, but she was nevertheless plainly superior to any of the present leaders of Canada’s three major political parties, particularly to the pathetically nice leader of her own party, the Liberals, Prime Minister Trudeau. It was a fair bet that she left numberless people wondering: “Why isn’t she running the country? We could hardly do worse.” One might reply: “If such a question is rising in the minds of that many people, why aren’t any of them speaking out about it? You see no such speculation in the media.”
Not yet maybe. But then there’s certainly an explanation. Who in public life is at liberty to raise this question? Any Liberal who did so, even hypothetically, would risk ouster from the party. One does not talk publicly about the succession to the leadership until the leadership is vacant. The Liberal leadership is still filled, however inadequately.
Things, of course, could change. To be re-elected, Trudeau must retain a heavy hold on Quebec, considerable strength in Ontario, and some support in the West and in the Atlantic provinces. But holding Quebec means that they must — repeat must — prevent the exodus of Lavalin from Canada, even at the cost of the major scandal that the Globe and Mail has discovered. And the more noise and fury the opposition raises over the Lavalin case in the rest of Canada, the more secure the Liberals become in Quebec. “So Madam the Attorney General was upset about political intervention on a criminal case. Now isn’t that just too bad? But the jobs were saved, thanks to our boy Justin.” Whether spoken in French or English, such will be the attitude in Quebec.
So where does all this leave Madam Wilson-Raybould? Will she quit politics altogether? Not likely. She obviously enjoys the life and she’s good at it. Then why did she not cross the floor to the Tories, or more compatibly, to the NDP? Because, frankly, she doesn’t think either of them is likely to win the next election. Why join losers?
And the Liberals? This is where it becomes interesting. Perhaps she has learned enough as an insider in the Trudeau circle to know first-hand that more calamities like Lavalin are bound to occur and gravely erode the party everywhere but in Quebec. If Trudeau loses the next election or achieves only a bare victory, the Big Money in Montreal will want him out, especially if a very different new leader is waiting in the wings. That’s why she didn’t leave the caucus. And what can Trudeau do with her? If he kicks her out, that wouldn’t be nice at all. And if he leaves her in, she sits as his ready-made successor, awaiting his inevitable resignation and quietly hastening it. Let us see what he does about this.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has aslo authored three little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters, The Revolution Nobody Covered and most recently The Time is Now. You can order copies here.