When Jane Philpott suddenly announced her resignation as a member of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet on March 4, it set off a media frenzy unlike anything seen in Ottawa since a former prime minister, Jean Chrétien, fired Paul Martin as finance minister in 2003. It was the first time in recent memory that a member of the federal cabinet resigned in solidarity with another member who had stepped down.
“It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our Attorney General should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases,” Philpott wrote in a public letter to the prime minister. “Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”
It was yet another sign that Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Granville, remains a powerful force more than three weeks after resigning from cabinet.
As International Women’s Day (March 8) approaches, the self-described feminist prime minister, Trudeau, finds himself in the unexpected and uncomfortable position of being under siege from two highly regarded women who served in cabinet.
A third Liberal MP, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, has announced that she will not be seeking reelection this October in her Whitby, Ontario, riding. In a tart tweet, she declared: “When you add women, please do not expect the status quo. Expect us to make correct decisions, stand for what is right and exit when values are compromised.”
The issue has been framed in the media as Wilson-Raybould “speaking truth to power”. That’s because that phrase appeared in an open letter she released on January 14 after losing her position as justice minister and attorney general.
She repeated it in her opening statement to the Commons justice committee late last month when she spoke of the importance of the rule of law and prosecutorial independence.
“The history of Crown-Indigenous relations in this country includes a history of the rule of law not being respected,” Wilson-Raybould told MPs on the committee. “Indeed, one of the main reasons for the urgent need for justice and reconciliation today is that in the history of our country we have not always upheld foundational values such as the rule of law in our relations with Indigenous peoples. And I have seen the negative impacts for freedom, equality, and a just society this can have firsthand.”
Trudeau’s political problems are compounded by a decision to send out a bunch of men—such as former principal secretary Gerald Butts, clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson—to try to put Canadians’ minds at ease.
But to date, these Trudeau defenders have not been nearly as compelling as Wilson-Raybould was when she presented her meticulously documented 30-minute opening statement to the justice committee. And it didn’t help Trudeau when the Liberal MP for Mission-Matsqui–Fraser Canyon, Jati Sidhu, suggested that Wilson-Raybould was put up to this by her father. Sidhu later apologized.
UBC law professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond knows what it’s like to be out on her own speaking truth to power. As B.C.’s former advocate for children and youth, she often issued public reports about the mistreatment of young people in the care of the provincial government. At times, the backlash was very intense.
Turpel-Lafond told the Straight by phone that when she watched Wilson-Raybould testifying, she felt that this was a historic moment, paralleling the time when an Indigenous Manitoba MLA, Elijah Harper, held up the approval of the Meech Lake constitutional accord almost 30 years ago.
“I was extremely impressed by her courage and her ability to handle a very intense, pressured situation with…a thoroughness and a very logical, rational, focused approach despite a lot of the political distractions,” Turpel-Lafond said.
Others in the Indigenous community have also rallied around her, including Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew. He has said it’s really about two-tiered justice and people with money trying to receive a better deal from the politicians.
Part of Wilson-Raybould’s public appeal, according to Turpel-Lafond, is that she can demonstrate power without having an influential position in government. Moreover, Turpel-Lafond said, the MP didn’t portray herself as a victim. Instead, the former justice minister focused on how the principle of prosecutorial independence was being undermined when 10 people approached her or her chief of staff over four months to lobby for a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin.
Turpel-Lafond also saw Wilson-Raybould living up to the example set by matriarchs in traditional Indigenous societies.
In fact, Wilson-Raybould referred to herself as coming from a long line of matriarchs, saying she’s a “truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House”.
Turpel-Lafond revealed that in her own Cree culture, the importance of matriarchs is reflected when people say things like “Grandma makes the law; Grandpa enforces it.”
“Nobody crosses Grandma,” she added. “It’s not a harsh justice but it’s a care and concern and orderliness that comes from the important roles that are not really so much gender-defined as they are leadership-based.”
Turpel-Lafond point out that there’s an element of fearlessness in matriarchs, something she credited Wilson-Raybould with demonstrating before the justice committee.
“You have to stand up to people that are bigger than you physically,” Turpel-Lafond noted. “They may have a bigger title than you. You have to find a way to be effective in that role. She has an amazing reputation on that front.”
Someone else who has watched this story unfold with great interest is Mark Wexler, a professor of business ethics and management at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. Wexler told the Straight by phone that Wilson-Raybould’s “j’accuse position” enables her to be seen as the one to be trusted. But he also said that framing the issue as speaking truth to power is clearly grounded in a “regulatory or legal argument” concerning the separation of powers in government.
“Where I think she gets a lot of points is from the image of herself as a small underdog fighting the great commercial barons and their lackeys, the Liberals,” Wexler said.
He added that her “virtue signalling is clearly that of somebody who says the law is sacrosanct”. And he described that as a “good position”.
But it also contradicts the fact that the law sometimes requires modifications and it might even contradict the position the government takes in the potential extradition of Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou.
“Part of the problem is because we place the attorney general and the [justice] minister in the same office,” Wexler said. “And, of course, the minister, like all ministers, is exposed to friendship ties and other ministers—and the attorney general, with the prosecutorial function, is supposed to be quite aloof from that.”
In Wexler’s view, if the situation is viewed through a “structural” lens, this gives more weight to Trudeau’s argument that nonlegal variables, including employment impacts of a criminal conviction, should be part of the discussion around SNC-Lavalin. But if it is viewed purely from a regulatory point of view, he said, there’s not much to say.
“Notice that the regulatory position works on rules,” he stated. “The structural position works on when you mix things.”
The “big business signal” coming from the “pragmatists”, according to Wexler, is over the future existence of SNC-Lavalin, its 9,000 Canadian employees, and its ability to bid on future contracts if it’s saddled with criminal convictions. He contrasted that with the idealistic position of Wilson-Raybould.
Further complicating the issue are deferred prosecution agreements, which have never been implemented in Canada for corporate wrongdoing. Wexler said that anytime a new law is introduced, it can get messy until thorny legal issues are clarified.
“Yet the legalists [are] introducing the notion that it’s all very clear and it’s a done deal,” he said.
According to Wexler, Trudeau’s troubles are linked to appointing Wilson-Raybould as justice minister and attorney general with an idealistic perspective when he took office in 2015. But as he continued to govern the country—like his father, Pierre—he has found himself making more and more pragmatic decisions that don’t sit well with those who preferred his former approach.
“I’m not against idealists,” Wexler emphasized. “But I do recognize that idealism is a great, great position in jockeying when you’re in opposition.”
Where things go from here is anyone’s guess.
If Turpel-Lafond had a magic wand, she said, she would appoint Wilson-Raybould to the first seat occupied by a First Nations person on the Supreme Court of Canada.
That’s because she believes that Wilson-Raybould has a solid understanding of the three pillars of Canada’s legal system: the English common law, the French civil code, and Indigenous-justice approaches.
Turpel-Lafond also said that Wilson-Raybould will be considered in the future to be one of the best attorneys general in Canadian history.
“I think Canadians are going to be angry for some time about the fact that because she was so good at it she got fired,” Turpel-Lafond stated. “Because everyone has been in a workplace or a relationship where you’re punished for being good.”