Why the silence around the scandal threatening Justin Trudeau?

Jack Bernhardt


It must be great being Canadian. Instead of Greggs, they’ve got Tim Hortons. Instead of the cartoonist Matt, they’ve got Kate Beaton. Instead of an economy on the edge of a cliff edge and the prospect of mass chaos, they’ve got moose. And best of all, instead of a malfunctioning robot who veers between doing impressions of insurance-obsessed mongooses and Mussolini, they’ve got Justin Trudeau! Perfect, beautiful Justin Trudeau, the woke Ken doll of the G8 – who last week apologised for eating a chocolate bar in the Canadian parliament! What a little scamp! While we have to deal with warring MPs and a failing democracy, the worst scandal the Canadians have to deal with is over a Twix!

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Oh, and a huge corruption case that threatens to bring down the prime minister, the government and one of the biggest contractors in the country.

If you actually look at Canadian politics, and try to ignore the UK media’s perception of Justin Trudeau – they see him as a Calvin Klein model who’s pretty good at Sporcle quizzes – a darker picture emerges. In February the Canadian attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, quit her post after allegations that she was improperly pressured into dropping charges against SNC-Lavalin, a major Canadian engineering firm. A string of resignations followed – including former cabinet minister Jane Philpott, who said last Thursday that there was “much more to be told” on the scandal, with the implication that Trudeau himself had personally lobbied the attorney general to drop the case.

As Canadian stories go, it’s steamier and meatier than a bucket of poutine – but at the time of writing the only reference to the scandal (or indeed any Canadian politics) on the front page of the BBC US & Canada section is a video of Trudeau apologising for the incident I will henceforth refer to as Chocogate. I understand why Chocogate was a popular story, as it combines two of Canada’s greatest loves – chocolate and apologising – but really it seems like the BBC has buried the lede. It’s like reporting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with the headline “Mrs Lincoln’s enjoyment of Mars bar ruined by nearby gunshot”.

Part of this is to do with Trudeau’s own handling of the media: he uses them in a similarly cynical way to Donald Trump or Theresa May. That’s not to say he’s as bad or as dangerous – indeed, no MP in Canada has said they’ve received death threats because of the way Trudeau ate a Caramac – but he can distract the media just as effectively. What Trump does through outrage and May does through abject fascinating incompetence, Trudeau does through charm, and it’s a charm that works best on the outside world.

I’m not suggesting this is some big cover-up – a global conspiracy to make sure that Justin Trudeau is remembered as the guy with silly socks rather than a corrupt politician who bullies his cabinet on behalf of big business. It’s more that, in the UK, Canada – and, indeed, most other countries – doesn’t seem to be worth talking about, unless we’re using it to compare with ourselves. Since 2016 Trudeau has been one of the go-to “good guys”, held up as the perfect political antidote to everything that is wrong with our own politicians. While Michael Gove was doing down experts, Trudeau was explaining quantum computing in a painfully staged press conference. While Donald Trump refused to visit a cemetery because of a few showers, Trudeau was giving a speech without an umbrella. While Boris Johnson was, well, being Boris Johnson, Trudeau was declaring himself a feminist and promoting women to key positions in his cabinet.

Canada gets lazily portrayed as a utopia with perfect politics because flaws aren’t useful to the narrative. Canada exists in our imagination only through a series of superficial, shareable videos of Trudeau hugging pandas, just so we can look at them and complain that our prime minister never hugs a panda. The upshot of this means that when serious allegations emerge, we ignore them – because if we have to engage with them, it shatters our simplistic concepts of Good Politics (Obama! John Oliver! That Gillette Advert!) and Bad Politics (Brexit! Trump! That Pepsi Advert!).

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It’s a trend we tend to repeat with global stories– look at the binary attitude some remainers have towards Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, extolling their virtues while ignoring the former’s brutal austerity policies, or the latter’s startling political decline. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been rightly praised for her response to the Christchurch terrorist attack, but the instinct of the media has still been to compare her actions to our own leaders, rather than to analyse what she did right on her own terms.

There’s a danger that we don’t see other countries and other leaders as anything other than funhouse mirrors to reflect ourselves – distorting stereotypes and eradicating nuance to define our own identity, a kind of British and American exceptionalism that appears deferential to other countries but is actually oddly insulting.

At times like these, it’s tempting to cherrypick the best aspects of the politicians of the rest of the world and build a Frankenstein prime minister – the cheekbones of Justin Trudeau, the tech-savviness of Emmanuel Macron, the dancing ability of anyone but Theresa May. But the real world doesn’t work like that. Life isn’t a stage-managed photoshoot. There are always bigger scandals than chocolate.

• Jack Bernhardt is a comedy writer and occasional performer