Late last year, Jody Wilson-Raybould, then the attorney general of Canada—the first indigenous person to hold the position—quietly pushed over a domino that has caused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political machine to sputter, gasp, and stall.
At the time, the prime minister, who is up for reelection on Monday, was seeking a special prosecutorial arrangement for SNC-Lavalin, a large engineering and construction firm headquartered in Montreal. The deal would allow the company to avoid criminal charges for corrupt dealings it had with the government of Muammar Qaddafi before the brutal Libyan dictator was deposed in 2011. Trudeau’s government had recently passed a law, which SNC-Lavalin had long lobbied for, enabling this sort of plea bargain for companies in its predicament. Rather than be barred from federal contracts for 10 years—the expected result of criminal proceedings—the company could pay a fine and move on.
On Sept. 4, 2018, federal prosecutors rejected SNC-Lavalin’s request under the new law for leniency. Two weeks later, Wilson-Raybould, still AG, had a meeting with the prime minister. She says Trudeau told her the company would likely move out of Canada if convicted, taking 9,000 jobs with it. He then, she says, reminded her that there was a provincial election coming up in Quebec, Trudeau’s seat of power, and asked her to “help out” by reconsidering her decision. Wilson-Raybould looked the prime minister in the eye and asked if he was attempting to interfere for his own political gain. “No, no, no, we just need to find a solution,” he replied, according to Wilson-Raybould. Trudeau later acknowledged asking her “if she could revisit that decision,” but that it was only because he was “preoccupied by the number of jobs involved.”
Wilson-Raybould would later describe the meeting in parliamentary testimony, in which she also detailed a monthslong pressure campaign from the prime minister and his staff to, as he’d euphemistically put it, “help out” with the situation. On Dec. 5, she had dinner at the Chateau Laurier with Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s closest adviser, and told him “the barrage of people hounding me“ about SNC-Lavalin needed to stop. But Butts kept insisting that she reconsider. “I said, ‘No,’ ” recalled Wilson-Raybould in the televised hearing.
Butts says this conversation, too, was misinterpreted by Wilson-Raybould—“There was nothing remotely negative about the exchange,” he said, while adding, “I do believe that it is possible for people to draw different conclusions from the same experiences.” Which might be why when Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council (Canada’s top civil servant), called her at home in Vancouver on the night of Dec. 19, she had a tape recorder running—so as to avoid any future confusion. Trudeau was going to “find a way to get it done one way or another,” said Wernick of the SNC-Lavalin deal. “He is in that kind [of] mood and I wanted you to be aware of that.” Unaware he was being recorded, Wernick warned: “It is not a good idea for the prime minister and his attorney general to be at loggerheads.”
“I’m having thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre here, Michael,” replied Wilson-Raybould.
On Jan. 14, Trudeau stripped Wilson-Raybould of her roles as attorney general and minister of justice (in Canada, these are the same person) and appointed her minster of veterans affairs, a position she promptly resigned from.
At the time, the backstory of her demotion was not publicly known. But in February, the Globe and Mail broke the story that became “Lavgate,” the biggest political scandal in recent Canadian history. Trudeau nosedived in the polls, and by March his approval ratings were below President Donald Trump’s. In April, Trudeau expelled Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, another uncooperative Cabinet minister, from the Liberal Party. In September, Montreal MP Eva Nassif claimed that she had also been bullied out of the Liberal Party, in part for declining to make favorable public statements about Trudeau as the SNC-Lavalin scandal unfolded.
Since April, things have only gotten better for Wilson-Raybould and worse for Trudeau. Now running for MP in her Vancouver district as an independent, Wilson-Raybould has leveraged her newfound fame to advocate for a political realignment based around the needs of the less-privileged, rather than cronyism. For Trudeau, October brought news that he had regularly dressed in brownface and blackface as a younger man. He’d refused to apologize about SNC-Lavalin (even after a government investigation determined that he’d violated Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act). He’s currently neck and neck in the polls with his conservative opponent, MP Andrew Scheer.
Trudeau’s defense in the case of SNC-Lavalin was about saving jobs. It’s impossible to know at this point whether those jobs will disappear as the case is still tied up in court, and the company has yet to announce a move overseas. But Wilson-Raybould scarcely needs to point out that giving a pass to a notoriously shady corporation—in addition to the nearly $50 million in alleged bribes handed out in Libya and $2 million spent on booze, prostitutes, and other enticements for Qaddafi’s son during a trip to Canada, the company has been embroiled in a series of other corruption scandals and is currently banned from World Bank projects—is not a necessary trade-off for maintaining economic prosperity. A Global News Ipsos poll earlier this year found that 67 percent of Canadians believe Wilson-Raybould’s version of events over Trudeau’s, and 55 percent said it would influence who they vote for in the federal election. Nearly two-thirds said he’d “lost the moral authority to govern.”
Wilson-Raybould has now gained a reputation for speaking truth to power, driven largely by a media feeding frenzy, albeit one that’s focused more on who Trudeau isn’t than on who she is. But her star has only continued to rise, and it’s difficult to name a more respected or higher-profile woman in Canadian politics today. The initials JWR have become iconic in certain circles—a Canadian AOC. Unlike Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Wilson-Raybould does not espouse a socialist ideology, and she lacks the New York congresswoman’s pop culture sensibility and propensity for inflammatory tweets. At 48, she is considerably older and has almost the opposite persona of the former Bronx bartender: Wilson-Raybould has retained the polite, modest manner of her upbringing in the We Wai Kai Nation, a tiny, isolated indigenous community on the British Columbia coast.
But like Ocasio-Cortez, Wilson-Raybould has a preternatural knack for disrupting the established order and an instinct for political theater. A bookish crown prosecutor in British Columbia with strong ties to First Nations leaders throughout the country—her father, Bill Wilson, is a prominent chief—she was a jewel in Trudeau’s diverse Cabinet that had, with much hype, reached gender parity. She was also a symbol of his campaign promise to move forward on reconciliation and establish a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada’s indigenous groups. A photo from the swearing-in ceremony went viral.
The policy reforms she is most passionately committed to are those that will advance the plight of indigenous people. This is what drew her into politics, and it was Trudeau’s earnest commitment to move forward with reconciliation measures that cemented her willingness to work with him. Hiding in plain sight, beneath the reams of headlines about SNC-Lavalin, is the original reason for the breach of trust in their relationship: the yawning gap between the prime minister’s words and deeds on indigenous issues.
The meeting with Trudeau on Sept. 17, 2018, in which discord over SNC-Lavalin first broke open, was requested by Wilson-Raybould to discuss the government’s proposed indigenous rights framework, a major new policy initiative that promised deep structural improvements in the relationship between indigenous communities and the federal government. Instead, the initiative has become a festering source of friction between the government and indigenous communities that oppose the way it was taking shape.
“The history of crown-indigenous relations in this country includes a history of the rule of law not being respected,” said Wilson-Raybould during her opening statement at the SNC-Lavalin hearing in February. “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I’m a truth teller, in accordance with the laws and traditions of our big house. This is who I am and this is who I always will be.” She signed her resignation letter with Puglaas, her name in the Kwak’wala language, which means “a woman born to noble people.” With this context, Wilson-Raybould’s role in the SNC-Lavalin affair reads as a subtextual manifesto on the integrity of the federal government in its past and present treatment of indigenous citizens.
Prime ministers aren’t elected directly like U.S. presidents—they’re the party leaders with the most parliamentary seats. In some post-Trudeau world, Wilson-Raybould could conceivably rejoin the Liberal Party and seek to lead it. In the meantime, her status as an independent candidate could make or break the election for Trudeau. She’s running in a reliably Liberal district, so if she wins it’s one less seat for his party—a seat he cannot afford to lose.