The crisis engulfing Justin Trudeau’s government is deepening, with the self-avowed feminist prime minister of Canada reeling as high-profile female lawmakers jump ship amid an ethics uproar.
Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, seen as one of his team’s star performers, quit the cabinet Monday amid questions about Trudeau’s efforts to snuff out corruption charges against Montreal construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. She said the scandal meant she could no longer back the government.
Philpott follows Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general who says she was pressured by Trudeau and key aides into ending prosecution of the company. Another lawmaker, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, has declined to seek re-election. While she said her decision wasn’t related to SNC-Lavalin, she publicly cheered on Philpott and Wilson-Raybould.
It all leaves Trudeau without two of the highest-profile women in his famously gender-balanced cabinet. “Because it’s 2015″ is how he explained the 50-50 lineup after a convincing election win four years ago. Amid the current scandal, however, he faces weakening party solidarity and sagging poll numbers.
As head of the Treasury Board, Philpott — a doctor from a Toronto-area district — would have carried out many of the nuts-and-bolts efforts of the government’s agenda in the lead-up to the October election. Instead, she said she couldn’t back the government because of the SNC controversy.
“The evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me,” Philpott said in her resignation letter. “Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”
There’s a gendered thread to the defections. Wilson-Raybould lauded Philpott’s decision Monday, calling her a “Mother of Country.” The former treasury board chief, who previously served as health minister, was among a handful of Liberal lawmakers who voiced support for Wilson-Raybould after her exit. The former attorney-general then returned the favor. “You are a leader of vision & strength & I look forward to continuing to work alongside you,” Wilson-Raybould tweeted.
Caesar-Chavannes — a one-time parliamentary secretary to Trudeau — also celebrated the move. “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,” she said on Twitter.
Trudeau was elected under a pledge of “real change,” while leading a party with a long history of backroom deals. Part of his wave included many new faces — Wilson-Raybould, Philpott and Caesar-Chavannes were all elected for the first time in 2015. Trudeau bet on the new blood when he froze out much of his party’s old guard, including senators appointed by his predecessors. He also trumpeted the need to bring diversity to the decision-making table. Wilson-Raybould was the country’s first indigenous justice minister, while Caesar-Chavannes is one of only a handful of black lawmakers in Trudeau’s caucus.
The departures leave Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland as one of the few women holding a major cabinet post, along with Carla Qualtrough, the former procurement minister who was named acting head of the Treasury Board to replace Philpott. Freeland, who led negotiations over the revamped North American free-trade deal, has so far stood by the prime minister.
The rest of Trudeau’s cabinet continues to back him, and lawmaker Steven MacKinnon on Monday acknowledged the Liberals “absolutely have a disagreement here” on the issue of stepping in to help SNC-Lavalin with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement.
“Our belief is that this company is one that is, like its competitors around the world, entitled to a deferred prosecution arrangement like they would be able to have access to,” in other countries with similar systems, MacKinnon told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “The vast majority of my colleagues believe the government has acted entirely appropriately.”
The path forward now for Trudeau is unclear. While Caesar-Chavannes isn’t running again, Wilson-Raybould has said she intends to stay in the Liberal Party caucus and seek reelection under the party’s banner. Trudeau indicated Monday he was still weighing whether to force Wilson-Raybould out. Philpott hasn’t indicated if she will seek re-election.
The former Treasury Board president was among Trudeau’s most trusted cabinet ministers. Wilson-Raybould was moved to a different cabinet post in January, and resigned last month. Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts has also quit, and is due to testify before the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday. Butts didn’t resign in protest, saying it was in the “best interest” of the prime minister’s office that he step aside.
Trudeau’s Liberals sit at about 34 percent in national polls — still competitive in Canada’s multiparty system, but trailing the Conservative Party at 36 percent, according to a poll aggregator run by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. It projects the parties would win essentially the same number of seats were an election held today.
Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, called Philpott’s resignation “a deluge, a massive splash, and one sure to keep this problem for the prime minister’s credibility and brand front and center for Canadians at a time when Liberals are wishing it all away, in increasing vain.”
The prime minister said Monday his government both respected judicial independence and pushed to defend jobs, reiterating that he contemplated helping the firm avoid a trial on economic grounds. He later signaled that Philpott’s departure had been simmering for a while.
“I know Ms. Philpott has felt this way for some time. And while I am disappointed, I understand her decision to step down and I want to thank her for her service,” he told a rally in Toronto on Monday night. “We’re allowed to have disagreements and debate. We even encourage it.”