Seven years ago this weekend, Justin Trudeau walked into a boxing ring and changed a lot of people’s minds about him.
With his knockout victory over Sen. Patrick Brazeau on March 31, 2012, Trudeau defied all the critics who said that this then shaggy-haired, backbench MP wasn’t tough enough to be a political contender.
That’s hardly Trudeau’s image problem today, to say the least. The latest barrage of evidence from Jody Wilson-Raybould, backing up her claims to have suffered “undue pressure” from Trudeau and his advisers, reveals a PM who seemed all too willing to go a few rounds with a strong-willed justice minister — and win.
This comes in the same week, let’s remember, when Trudeau also sarcastically dismissed Grassy Narrows protesters at one of his fundraisers with a flippant “thank you for your donation.”
The fact that Wilson-Raybould and some of the protesters are Indigenous — like Brazeau — puts a nearly literary circle around this seventh anniversary of the famous boxing match.
Seven years ago, he needed that edge. Today, a little more than six months away from an election, Trudeau does not.
The Prime Minister does not actually appear in the ring with Wilson-Raybould in all the documents and phone records she released as further evidence to the Commons justice committee on Friday afternoon.
Trudeau flexes his muscle instead mainly through the clerk of the privy council, Michael Wernick, whose voice on the phone recording speaks volumes about the tone of conversations around SNC-Lavalin.
“Alright…um… well I am going to have to report back to him before he leaves,” Wernick tells Wilson-Raybould in the Dec. 19 phone conversation. “He is in a pretty firm frame of mind about this so…I am a bit worried.”
Actually, the recording reveals that if anyone was feeling pressure in this whole affair, it might well have been Wernick himself, caught between two very strong personalities, each determined that they were in the right about whether to give SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement.
Wernick recently announced his early retirement, another knockout casualty of SNC-Lavalin.
Wilson-Raybould’s new evidence serves to underline her contention, made in explosive testimony last month, that the Prime Minister was far from casually interested in the future of SNC-Lavalin. As it’s described in some detail, Trudeau and his team just kept punching home the point, from September, all the way to February.
Without saying explicitly the contents of the conversations they held before she quit cabinet in mid-February, Wilson-Raybould hints that Trudeau remained set on the path to grant that DPA, with or without her, and having already shuffled her out of the way to veterans affairs.
The former justice minister says she had decided to resign at the time of that shuffle “if the new Attorney General decided to issue a direction in the SNC-Lavalin matter as that would confirm my suspicions as to the reason for the shuffle of me in particular.” When the story broke out into the open in early February, Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould talked multiple times, she says, “and I trust my resignation speaks for itself.”
This story isn’t over yet and no one is entirely sure how it ends, for Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould or the Liberal party to which they both still belong. It is not even clear at the moment who is administering the knockout blows. Wilson-Raybould is out of cabinet, but Trudeau is back on his heels too, apparently unable to end this match.
It’s worth remembering the coda to the Brazeau boxing match, which came the day after the event. As part of this boxing match for charity, Trudeau and Brazeau had agreed beforehand that the victor would get to cut the loser’s hair.
When it came time for Trudeau to publicly shear the ponytailed Brazeau in the Commons foyer, he opted to make a minor clip with the scissors, barely visible. Trudeau would confide later that there was no way this son of Pierre Trudeau was going to be photographed cutting the hair of one of Canada’s Indigenous people.
Again, that anniversary brings us full circle to today, with Trudeau’s toughness on display, but also his hesitancy to land a blow after the knockout. He has yet to reply to Wilson-Raybould’s allegations or evidence with anything except careful, minimal words and gestures.
Trudeau may need to do more and say more in the coming days. Seven years ago, he was fighting to prove he was a contender. Now he has to settle this fight to prove he’s still in contention.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt