Developments around the federal government’s SNC-Lavalin scandal are unfolding rapidly. But no matter the outcome, it seems clear that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reputation as a feminist has taken a hit.
The prime minister has denied that he and other high-ranking government officials tried to pressure former Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould into being lenient with Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which is facing bribery and fraud charges for work it did in Libya. Rather than respecting her decision not to interfere with the criminal prosecution, Wilson-Raybould alleges the Prime Minister’s Office pressured her to offer the company a deferred prosecution agreement.
In light of the controversy, Wilson-Raybould resigned, followed by Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary Gerald Butts, and former President of the Treasury Board Jane Philpott. But rhetoric surrounding the exits by the two female former cabinet ministers has been rife with sexism.
When Wilson-Raybould resigned, Liberal MP Jati Sidhu told The Abbotsford News he believed she “couldn’t handle the stress” of the job and suggested her father was “pulling the strings.” He chalked up her testimony before the parliamentary justice committee to “sour grapes.” Sidhu later apologized, but he wasn’t the only offender.
Other Liberals, speaking anonymously to the press, characterized Wilson-Raybould as “difficult” and inexperienced. Editorial cartoons featured Wilson-Raybould gagged and tied up in a boxing ring, facing off with the prime minister. Eventually, Trudeau himself condemned the commentary about his former minister as racist and sexist.
But just a few weeks later, gendered remarks cropped up around Philpott’s resignation.
In Philpott’s resignation letter to Trudeau this week, she said it was “untenable” for her to remain in cabinet given “evidence” that officials attempted to pressure the former attorney general.
“There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them,” she wrote.
Following Philpott’s departure, Finance Minister Bill Morneau implied her close friendship with Wilson-Raybould was the real reason she left.
“Jane Philpott is a close personal friend of Jody Wilson-Raybould. She took a decision, I respect her decision. She was a good colleague, and she’ll take the decision that makes the most sense to her,” he told reporters. Trudeau responded by saying he knew Philpott had “felt this way for some time.”
But neither of those responses address the content of Philpott’s letter. She mentioned many things, but her friendship with Wilson-Raybould wasn’t one of them. Nor did she indicate she had long considered leaving;she tied her decision very specifically to the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
Edmonton-based women’s advocacy worker Kristin Raworth told VICE Trudeau’s comment that Philpott had wanted to leave for some time was a deflection from the content of her letter, “which was quite damning.”
“He can’t use the line that she misunderstood or saw things differently again because he kept using that in reference to Jody Wilson-Raybould,” Raworth said. “This was his attempt pivot away from using that line again for the 40th time… [He’s] not addressing the content of the letter and not addressing Canadians’ rightful concerns.”
As for Morneau’s friendship comment, she said it was the “wrong move.”
“I’ve never heard that line of commentary as it relates to male politicians,” Raworth said, noting the same narrative didn’t emerge when Butts, a long time close friend of Trudeau’s, quit.
“[It’s] seen as a strategic relationship that’s built on all of this knowledge, but it’s never seen as ‘they’re buddies, they must be really sad and made a friendship pact.’”
Raworth said the implication that Philpott quit because of her friendship with Wilson-Raybould is disrespectful to both women and their respective successes.
“It minimizes all of that.”
However, Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based anti-sexual violence educator, told VICE there is a way to call out Morneau’s intentions without slamming the idea of resigning in solidarity with another woman.
“It absolutely wouldn’t surprise me if Morneau’s comments are coming from a place of ‘women go to the bathroom in pairs,’” but that’s not a reason to dismiss quitting out of solidarity as valid, she said.
“Jane [Philpott] took a hit to stand in solidarity with an Indigenous woman who was being attacked and discredited,” she said. “We’re seeing an example of allyship that I think we can’t dismiss.”
Lalonde said she believes Philpott may have avoided explicitly mentioning solidarity publicly because she knew that kind of statement could be used to further discredit Wilson-Raybould’s testimony.
“She intentionally left that out to focus on the issues.”
In spite of the issues, Lalonde characterized Trudeau’s government as the most feminist Canada has had in a long time—one she feels has followed through on trying to make the lives of women better, including his call for a gender-based analysis on how pipeline projects impact communities.
She noted that part of his feminist agenda—bringing strong women into his cabinet—is now “biting him in the ass” because those women are doing things differently.
“Women are not just going to be grateful for crumbs.”
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.
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