Justin Trudeau Sets Canadian Elections For October As Scandal Continues To Linger

Canada is headed for a new election at the end of October as Justin Trudeau finds his government daling with a scandal.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken the steps to trigger the next General Election, but it’s coming at a time when he is facing increased political vulnerability due to a scandal that has been developing for the better part of a year:

TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired the starting gun on Canada’s federal election Wednesday, hoping to win a ­second term in the face of an ethics scandal that has turned what was once expected to be a cakewalk for the telegenic Liberal leader into a tougher-than-expected slog.

Trudeau, 47, asked Governor General Julie Payette, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, to dissolve the country’s Parliament on Wednesday — the step that launches the formal campaign.

After sailing through much of Trudeau’s first term, the Liberals this year have fallen back into a close race with Andrew Scheer’s opposition Conservative Party and face an uphill battle to hold on to their parliamentary majority. In Canada, minority governments rarely last longer than 18 months.

Kicking off a campaign likely to be dominated by concerns over affordability, health care, climate change and ethics, Trudeau said his government has “spent the last four years making things better” and has “the record to prove it.”

“We’ve all got a choice to make: Keep moving forward and build on the progress we’ve made or go back to the politics of the Harper years,” he said. “Conservatives like to say they’re for the people, but then they cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for everybody else.”

Scheer, launching his campaign in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, said the election would come down to which party could be trusted to help Canadian households get ahead.

“The answer is certainly not Justin Trudeau, who will only raise your taxes and take more money from your pockets,” he said.

The election is scheduled for Oct. 21. Candidates have spent the summer stumping informally but now will have to follow different rules on spending and advertising.

Trudeau, whose father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers, overcame charges of inexperience four years ago to orchestrate a come-from-behind victory over Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and become an international sensation.

He promised “sunny ways,” transparency, growth for the middle class, more women in positions of authority and reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous groups. His government legalized recreational cannabis and medically assisted dying, imposed a nationwide price on carbon and expanded parental benefits.

Canada’s unemployment rate this year reached a 40-year low; gross domestic product growth in the most recent quarter was announced at a better-than-expected 3.7 percent.

But Trudeau also suffered several wounds — many of them self-inflicted. He was ridiculed for a diplomatically awkward trip to India and was rebuked by Canada’s ethics watchdog for a family vacation that broke conflict-of-interest laws. His government has weathered a turbulent relationship with President Trump and has found itself embroiled in diplomatic disputes with Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and China.

In February, allegations surfaced that Trudeau and senior government officials had inappropriately pressured Jody ­Wilson-Raybould, the country’s attorney general, to reach an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin, an engineering firm in Trudeau’s home province of Quebec charged with bribery and corruption.

In nationally televised parliamentary hearings, Wilson-Raybould accused government officials of making “veiled threats” and demoting her when she refused to succumb to the pressure.

The allegations set off a political firestorm and triggered several high-profile resignations from government. Having sold Canadians on running a government beyond reproach that would be open to diverse views, Trudeau stood accused of shady backroom dealings and judicial interference, of being a fake feminist, and of bullying Wilson-Raybould, an indigenous woman.

The election is essentially coming at roughly the last possible minute given that Canadian law requires that elections be held at least every four years, but it is coming at an especially inauspicious time for Trudeau and his Liberal Party. As I noted back in August, polling at that time was showing that Trudeau’s majority was in jeopardy, and this was consistent with other national polling that has taken place over the past several months showing a tight race nationally between Trudeau’s Liberal Party and the Conservative Party which is led by Andrew Scheer, a Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan. Based on these numbers, neither of Canada’s two major parties would walk away with enough seats to form a majority. This would mean that there would either be a minority government, a hung Parliament, or that one of the parties would be required to enter into a coalition agreement with one of the minor parties. This last alternative would seem to benefit Trudeau since the major lesser party, the New Democrats, tend to be to the left in the Canadian political spectrum and are more likely to agree to a governing agreement with the Liberals than the Conservatives. However, there are other reasons for Trudeau to worry about his own long-term survival.

As I described it back in August, the scandal involves Trudeau’s apparent use of his office to intervene in the investigation of a major Canadian-based corporation:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article summarizing what has happened. Unfortunately, that article is behind a paywall. Basically, though involves the connections between Trudeau and those around him and an engineering firm called SNC-Lavalin. The scandal itself dates back to before Trudeau became Prime Minister to a lawsuit filed by law enforcement charging the company with corruption and fraud regarding its dealings with the Libyan government over a ten-year period from 2001 to 2011. This, of course, was a period when the country was still ruled by Muammar Gadhafi and his cohorts. After these charges were filed, the company threatened to move its headquarters from Montreal to London, England.

Trudeau apparently personally intervened in the matter, citing the fact that the move could cost as many as 9,000 jobs as well as economic dislocation for businesses that relied on SNC-Lavalin. Due to the fact that there is a record of a long lobbying record between the company and Trudeau and other top Liberal Party officials has led some to allege that Trudeau’s personal involvement and the allegation that he pressured Canada’s Attorney General to settle the above-referenced lawsuit without going to trial. As a result, the allegation has been that Trudeau and other party officials were trying to get a favorable resolution of the lawsuit to advance the party’s interests in placating a corporation that had been a supporter in the past.

For this reason, University of Toronto Professor Drew Fagan calls Trudeau’s re-election prospects “gloomy” in a recent New York Times Op-Ed:

Mr. Trudeau’s problem is not, ultimately, the relative strength of his opponent. It’s that after four years of low-key success, he may not have given enough Canadians, across enough provinces, enough of a reason to give him another term.

Canada, with a land mass slightly bigger than the United States but a population of only 37 million, is a hard country to govern. Quebec, Mr. Trudeau’s home province, is a distinct society in all but name. Ontario was once an industrial powerhouse but is struggling to emerge from rust-belt status.

The Maritime Provinces, along the Atlantic, are in long-term decline, while rising Western Canada chafes against the centripetal force of Ontario and Quebec. Mr. Trudeau’s government is weighted toward those traditionally dominant central Canadian provinces, even if it doesn’t think of itself in those terms.

The result is the kind of brokerage politics that manages some people’s resentments while dissatisfying many others. Take climate change or, specifically, the balance between energy production — the West’s mainstay — and environmental protection.

Amid weak global energy prices and weak private-sector investment, the government bought a pipeline and pipeline expansion project to ship Alberta oil to the Pacific coast and on to Asia, where markets are better for producers than in the United States. But this has won few plaudits in the oil patch, which contends that the government’s environmental sensitivity caused the uncertainty that made nationalization necessary.

Mr. Trudeau has tried to assuage his more liberal base of his environmental bona fides by committing Canada to the Paris climate accords, but they complain that his ensuing carbon tax is set too low to make a difference, even as conservative provincial governments are challenging the very idea of the tax in court on the ground that it treads on provincial jurisdiction. This imbroglio may well cost Mr. Trudeau some of the few seats he holds in Western Canada, to the benefit of his Conservative opponents.

Canadian elections still turn on Quebec, where Mr. Trudeau appears dominant, and especially Ontario, where Mr. Trudeau is at the very least competitive with the Conservatives. But even there, Mr. Trudeau may be weakened by the left. The Green Party has made inroads with the sort of liberal urban voters who should be part of his base.

Mr. Trudeau’s inability to translate his global glamour into electoral excitement at home, combined with his failure to solve the riddle of Canadian politics, means that for all his success in office, he is unlikely to win outright on Election Day. Instead, he will probably end up bargaining with opponents to keep power.

As Fagan notes, an election that results in Trudeau having to enter into a coalition with the New Democratic Party would mirror what his father, the legendary former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was required to do after the 1972 General Election when his party failed to win a majority even though it ended up out-polling the conservative opposition. One result of that coalition, though, was the fact that the coalition ended up pulling the elder Trudeau and his party further to the left, a process that eventually led to the rise of a stronger conservative opposition that finally took control of the government in the 1984 General Election. Before this, the senior Trudeau managed to hold on to power but did so by margins that continued to shrink, and which required serial elections from 1974 going forward due to the instability of his majority. This, combined with the ongoing scandal that will obviously not be resolved before the election could mean that any government that Trudeau is able to form.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    God, how great would it be if Trump were only as corrupt as Trudeau?

  2. Pylon says:

    But Trudeau also suffered several wounds — many of them self-inflicted. He was ridiculed for a diplomatically awkward trip to India and was rebuked by Canada’s ethics watchdog for a family vacation that broke conflict-of-interest laws. His government has weathered a turbulent relationship with President Trump and has found itself embroiled in diplomatic disputes with Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and China.

    In February, allegations surfaced that Trudeau and senior government officials had inappropriately pressured Jody ­Wilson-Raybould, the country’s attorney general, to reach an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin, an engineering firm in Trudeau’s home province of Quebec charged with bribery and corruption.

    His India trip won’t come up during this election. And “awkward” means well-intentioned but maybe ill-advised wearing of Indian garb (frankly, I don’t think anyone there took it badly). The vacation thing is the kind of extra cost catching that happens all the time when actual checking occurs (as it does in Canada). The SNC-Lavalin thing is still a bit up in the air. There was a legit alternative measure available to Wilson-Raybould (who IMO is a glory seeker) and they did indeed pressure her to take that measure instead of charges. Was it innapropriate pressure? maybe, maybe not. I would have thought a PM could discuss such matters with a cabinet minister.
    But in support of jobs, not personal enrichment.

    I must say, Trudeau’s choices of what countries to have disputes with is just fine with me.

    But, like you say, if only Trump’s misdeeds were this picayune. Also notable – these minor items (or at least SNC-Lavalin) are actually election issues.

    The timing of the election is actually not too bad for Trudeau. The Conservatives have slipped, because Scheer is a bland, but socially far right politician, Ontario under Doug Ford is seeing how Conservative government doesn’t work, and the main liberal alternative, the NDP, has faltered badly. Trudeau’s polling is way better than it was a few months ago.

  3. Pylon says:

    I should add that, because Canada’s government is determined by seats in the House of Commons, not national popularity, despite the fact that the Conservatives and Liberals are within .3% of each other, the Liberals hold an advantage in seat projections:


  4. ltmcdies says:

    Prof Drew Fagan… this professor Drew Fagan (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.). Munk School and their beyond tiresome Munk Debates are presently having a hissy fit because the PM won’t headline their tiresome attempts to have Leaders Debates on top the two scheduled by the Debates Commission.
    With only 40 days writ drop to election there really isn’t the need for endless Q & A that usually turn into the usual everybody talk over everyone’s else talking points. So while Mr Fagan has a many good of points … the Munk crew are more than a wee bit pissy right now. They charge 200 per seat for these debates
    As for SNC what hasn’t been noted is that onnthe release of Ethics Commissioner negative report… it barely moved the needle in the polls

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: Cute, but repeat after me:

    Americans are better at everything including corruption.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    U-S-A! U-S-A!