By Catherine Porter and Ian Austen
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada promised a fresh approach to politics, one that was based on openness, decency and liberalism.
Now he is embroiled in a scandal involving accusations of back-room deal-making and bullying tactics, all to support a Canadian company accused of bribing the Libyan government when it was run by the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Canadian newspapers are filled with outrage and opposition parties are calling for a resignation. Elections are still seven months away, but some members of Mr. Trudeau’s own governing party fear the scandal has armed opposition parties with rich campaign fodder against its leader, who promised “sunny ways” in politics.
“This is a huge, huge blow to Justin Trudeau’s personal brand and Justin Trudeau’s promise of doing politics differently,” said Shachi Kurl, the executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit polling firm based in Vancouver.
She added: “That shine is not dented or scratched. It’s been completely scuffed.”
The case revolves around accusations that SNC-Lavalin, a multinational engineering company based in Quebec, paid 47.7 million Canadian dollars in bribes to officials in Libya to win contracts there, and defrauded the Libyan government and its agencies of 129.8 million Canadian dollars.
The prime minister and his aides have been accused of pressuring his justice minister at the time, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to drop the criminal inquiry against the company because a conviction could potentially cost thousands of jobs in Canada, and diminish his Liberal Party’s political fortunes.
She did not drop the inquiry, and in January was demoted to a lesser position in the cabinet, a reassignment that many of Mr. Trudeau’s critics believe was punishment for letting the case continue. Ms. Wilson-Raybould later quit that post.
The scandal has been building slowly over weeks and already led to the resignation of Mr. Trudeau’s top political aide, and to Parliament’s ethics commissioner opening an investigation into potential conflicts of interest.
And on Wednesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould appeared before the House of Commons justice committee, breaking weeks of silence.
On live television, she calmly described the demands and “veiled threats” she received over four months from Mr. Trudeau’s office to accept a settlement in the criminal case.
“There was a concerted and sustained effort to politically influence my role as attorney general,” said Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who, as the first Indigenous person to hold the prestigious post of justice minister and the only Indigenous person in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, was a powerful symbol of his government’s commitment to both women and Indigenous rights.
Mr. Trudeau has denied that he or anyone else acted inappropriately in their dealings with Ms. Wilson-Raybould. He has stressed that he has been trying to protect Canadian jobs, as “Canadians expect their government” to do, while respecting the country’s laws and independence of the judiciary.
But so much of politics is appearances, and the optics are terrible — of a self-described feminist, who had promised a new, open and transparent way of governing, sending aides described as his henchmen to gang up on an Indigenous woman in efforts to bend her will.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s appointment to justice minister had seemed proof to many that Mr. Trudeau was serious about correcting the country’s wrongs against its Indigenous population and treating Indigenous people as respected partners in the country, as he had promised during the election.
Now, that legacy is in question because of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s demotion to the post of veterans affairs minister, which she quit last month.
“Reconciliation also means respecting the voices of Indigenous people,” said Sheila North, a former Indigenous leader in northern Manitoba. “This whole display has shown, in the end, money and power is more important than building reconciliation.”
In her testimony, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who is a former high-ranking leader of Indigenous groups on Canada’s west coast, reminded the country that its government had a history of ignoring the law when it came to Indigenous people, and said she had witnessed the “negative impacts” of that firsthand.
“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 said, referring to her Kwakwaka’wakw nation’s center of governance and cultural activities. “This is who I am and who I will always be.”
Many of Mr. Trudeau’s opponents are saying that the entire controversy proves that Mr. Trudeau, who appointed the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet, is a “fake feminist” who uses women instead of supporting them.
“Why are not all women in that caucus, and their so-called feminist allies, calling for the prime minister’s resignation?” said Michelle Rempel, a Conservative member of Parliament in the House of Commons.
The leader of the Conservative opposition, Andrew Scheer, has asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to open an obstruction of justice investigation.
In her testimony, Ms. Wilson-Raybould described the pressure she received as “inappropriate,” but said — twice — that it was not illegal.
The pressure, she said, came in the form of 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the criminal case with senior government officials.
Perhaps the most troubling of the meetings she described was one with Mr. Trudeau himself, who asked her to “find a solution here for SNC,” stating that “there would be many jobs lost and that SNC will move from Montreal,” she said.
There was a provincial election coming up, the prime minister reminded her during that meeting, she said, and he personally had been elected from that area.
But what many legal experts found most problematic about her testimony was the suggestion that the prime minister and his top aides brought up political concerns.
Errol Mendes, a law professor at University of Ottawa who studies the role of the attorney general, said that while it was legitimate for the prime minister and others to raise the job losses, when they raised political issues, “that’s straying into absolutely inappropriate pressure.”
Though the country seems stunned by the sudden darkening of its prime minister’s image, the story is not finished.
Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, who quit over this scandal, has asked to publicly speak before the judicial committee. And the country is waiting to see if Mr. Trudeau himself, as well as others called out by Ms. Wilson-Raybould, will give a full accounting.
“People who are predicting the demise of Justin Trudeau or the Liberals are not making safe bets,” said Emmett Macfarlane, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. Much depends on what happens over the next few months and whether the prime minister’s office is able to ward off a full-blown public inquiry into the scandal.
“If the election was next month, it would probably be devastating and it would directly shape the campaign,” Professor Macfarlane said. “It’s hard to say if this will be on Canadians’ minds in August or September.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Trudeau has seven months to regain what he can of his reputation and hope the scandal fades from voters’ minds by the time they return to the polls.
“He has to stop any pretense and veneer that he’s the ‘sunny ways’ guy or Mr. Clean,” said Ms. Kurl, the executive director of the nonprofit polling firm.
She added, “Now he’ll have to compete in the old-style politics.”