Politics

'Trudeau? Scandal? I don't believe it': As controversy rocks Canada's PM, the world winces — then shrugs

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's political crisis has shaken Ottawa. Now, the tremors are starting to register abroad.

'We've got bigger fish to fry,' says one Washington, D.C., resident

Manuel Macias, left, and Sam Bleisch scan the daily display of U.S. and international newspaper front pages outside the Newseum in Washington on Thursday morning. Asked about the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Macias expressed shock. 'It's Canada. They're the shining light when it comes to doing right,' he said. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's political crisis has shaken Ottawa — and now, the tremors are starting to register abroad.

Outside the white-marble Newseum building in Washington on Thursday, the morning's copy of the Globe and Mail sat behind glass, displayed alongside the front pages of newspapers from all 50 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia. 

Janet McCarty, a retired civil servant living in Washington, perused the headlines. Only one publication — the Globe — led with the latest on the SNC-Lavalin scandal, in which the Prime Minister's Office stands accused of meddling in a criminal prosecution case against the Quebec engineering giant.

McCarty grimaced. Like many others on the political left, she's always considered Trudeau an unimpeachable moral authority and darling of the international left. 

"If this is true, then Justin is not the person that we thought he was," she said. 

The front page of the Globe and Mail leads with a story about the SNC-Lavalin affair, displayed outside the Newseum. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The deepening controversy hasn't just rattled the Canadian political landscape; it has thrown off balance liberals who consider Trudeau a beacon of democratic liberal values in the West.

'Golden boy'

The New York Times this week carried two op-eds about the controversy. CNN reported on the troubles of Canada's "golden boy" on Thursday. Last week, hosts of the popular liberal podcast Pod Save the World sighed over the fate of "our friend Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada" during a bonus episode that unpacked the scandal.

Fox News pounced on "holier-than-thou" Trudeau for "doing what he accuses Trump of doing." And in the U.K., the Guardian newspaper devoted a three-minute video explainer to the SNC-Lavalin affair.

McCarty had seen the reports for days, but they bring her no joy, as U.S. President Donald Trump continues to be mired in his own political crises.

"I just find it hard to believe, especially considering I live up to my ears in schemes in Washington, D.C.," she said.

McCarty lamented that another world leader with a global outlook, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has decided not to seek re-election. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative, has faced at least eight cabinet resignations in less than two years over her controversial Brexit deal.

Rick Pascual, 30, a pediatric resident at a children's hospital in Washington, scans the daily newspaper headlines from all 50 U.S. states displayed outside the Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Only one of the publications on display, Canada's Globe and Mail, led with the story on Thursday. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Justin. I mean, they're all — Angela Merkel, Theresa May — everybody's going down the toilet," McCarty said.

Trudeau's brand as a global liberal icon is strong in some parts of the U.S., which might explain why Manuel Macias, 36, was so shocked to hear about the SNC-Lavalin affair when he stopped to scan the Newseum headlines this week.

"Trudeau? A scandal? I don't believe it.

"In this day and age, we don't really have a lot of shining light all across the world," said Macias, who identifies as a liberal. "Unless something really comes out that's proven facts, why throw dirt on him when we've got such a good positive role model?"

If the SNC-Lavalin debacle has been slow to gain traction outside of Canada, it may also have to do with domestic-scandal fatigue, at least in Britain and the U.S.

In London, John Prideaux, the U.S. editor for The Economist, cited Washington's woes, as well as Britain's mismanagement of a plan to withdraw from the European Union, as reasons why some Britons and Americans might not be tuning in.

"What's happening in Canada looks to me like a more conventional political scandal that you get in a healthy political culture, where people are really held accountable for what they've done," Prideaux said.

That said, the SNC-Lavalin affair has "broken through" the British press — no easy feat.

John Prideaux, the U.S. editor of The Economist in London, says the SNC-Lavalin affair has 'broken through' in the British press, despite domestic woes at home with Brexit and competing news about political tumult in the U.S. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"It takes a lot for a Canadian prime minister to make the news when there's so much going on in the world," Prideaux said, adding that the SNC-Lavalin case "looks very bad" for Trudeau's international reputation.

Prideaux's point resonated in the U.S. capital, too. Surprised as some were to hear of Trudeau's troubles, they also reacted to the controversy with a shrug.

"We're kind of desensitized to it," said Rick Pascual, 30, a pediatric resident at a Washington children's hospital.

Standing outside the Newseum's display of front pages, Wynne Tysdal looked closer at the Washington Post's. The bottom-page index described a story on A9 about "a former top aide" to Trudeau testifying "amid a political firestorm."

"It's there," she said, "but you have to dig."

"I've always thought of Canadians in general as being fair and following the rules, so it's hard to read that about our neighbour," Tysdal said.

'I've heard that he has gotten in trouble because of a bad scheme,' Janet McCarty says of Trudeau. 'I just find it hard to believe, especially considering I live up to my ears in schemes in Washington, D.C.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Christopher Sands, the Washington-based director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has become accustomed to answering questions about the political firestorm surrounding Canada's celebrity prime minister.

"If they're not Canadian, they're mostly like, 'How bad is it?'" he said. "There's plenty of political scandals here. It's a scandal a minute. So it's more like: Is it serious? Or is it serious-serious?"

'Tell me when it's more interesting'

Americans don't consume much Canadian news, Sands said, and they tend to perk up only when something big is on the line. Unless Trudeau's leadership is doomed, Sands doesn't think Americans will pay much attention to the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to journalists about the SNC-Lavalin affair in Ottawa on Thursday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"Is anything going to change? Or is it going to be same-old? And if it's going to be same-old, it's like, 'Tell me when it's more interesting,'" Sands said.

Maybe so. Walking past the Canadian Embassy in Washington on Thursday, a group of American bandmates about to play a show in Toronto admitted to knowing nothing about Trudeau beyond his reputation as "a liberal golden boy."

"I thought Canada was just like, I dunno, just nice," said Joshua Davenport.

Asked if Americans were too consumed by their own domestic political drama to devote more attention to their northern neighbours, he agreed that they were.

"It's just all, 'Let's bash Trump' here," Davenport said. "We've got bigger fish to fry." 

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

With files from CBC's Kayla Hounsell

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