OTTAWA — A weary-looking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau entered the temporary House of Commons chamber, with its literal glass ceiling, took the podium and began to deliver a speech to a sea of young women. One by one, more than 40 of them rose from their seats to turn their backs on him.
The silent protest just after noon on Wednesday came during Trudeau’s first public appearance after expelling former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould, who accused him of trying to politically interfere in the criminal prosecution of Montreal construction firm SNC-Lavalin, and Jane Philpott, who resigned in solidarity with her, from his Liberal caucus on Tuesday evening.
Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, locked out of the regular weekly caucus meeting Wednesday morning, visited the House of Commons gallery and sat to listen statements by some of the Daughters of the Vote delegates — 338 women, aged 18 to 23, chosen by the Equal Voice organization to represent all of Canada’s ridings for a day on Parliament Hill.
Dozens of young women here for Daughters of the Vote turn their backs as Trudeau speaks -in solidarity with Ms Wilson-Raybould and Ms Philpott pic.twitter.com/aAhdlDHrcS
— Peter Julian (@MPJulian) April 3, 2019
The two sat with Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who quit the Liberal caucus in the wake of reporting on SNC-Lavalin. She snapped her fingers sometimes in agreement with the young women’s pronouncements. All three gave standing ovations for statements on issues including climate change, Indigenous suicide, accessibility and religious freedom, along with the rest of the room, which brimmed with loud enthusiasm for each speaker.
Ducking out to speak with reporters, neither Wilson-Raybould nor Philpott would address the elephant in the room — that here were young women being encouraged to speak up when Wilson-Raybould’s whistle-blowing is what ultimately led to their excommunication from caucus. Caesar-Chavannes told the National Post “we needed that little boost today,” though. “We are in the gallery watching, having, we hope, made a mark on the 42nd Parliament. And here are young women in those seats saying, ‘yeah, we are going to continue this,’” she said.
When he finally arrived, Trudeau, the self-proclaimed feminist and “minister of youth,” would face more than one rebuke from the young women in front of him. And he was not alone — dozens of them walked out on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer while he spoke, because of a distaste for his policies. Upon their return, the women, including a majority of those who wore a hijab, got as much applause as Scheer had for his short speech.
During a question-and-answer session with Trudeau, Indigenous Nova Scotia delegate Hannah Martin, facing him, declared the Liberal government was perpetrating violence with its inaction on Indigenous issues. “You cannot be a feminist if you are allowing corporations to rape the land, because as Indigenous peoples, that is our mother,” she said. He thanked her for her “strong voice.”
Other delegates, talking in a buzz outside the Commons after the event, accused Trudeau of failing Indigenous people and women both by expelling Wilson-Raybould, who was the first Indigenous attorney general. “It was like a microcosm of the history of Canada, white men telling Indigenous women where they can or cannot be and exercising power,” said Riley Yesno, from Toronto.
“I don’t believe Justin Trudeau is a feminist,” said Brit Sippola, from Saskatchewan, recalling a section of his opening statement when he said nobody in the room would want to have to “pick who to believe between Jody Wilson-Raybould and Chrystia Freeland” or “know that one person has to be right and one person has to be wrong between Jane Philpott or Maryam Monsef.” The prime minister was deflecting attention away from his own mistakes by saying it was “Jane’s word versus Maryam’s,” Sippola said. “He’s the one who’s pitting women against women here.”
Other cabinet ministers were marching out in the early afternoon to say that the decision to remove Wilson-Raybould and Philpott had had nothing to do with feminism. Politicians had breached the trust of their colleagues. They hadn’t been team players. Loyalty wasn’t a gender issue, full stop.
But Trudeau’s long day of defending himself was nowhere near over.
During question period, he stood up again and again to answer all of the opposition’s questions, accusing him of fake feminism, calling him a coward and demanding his resignation over the SNC-Lavalin affair.
He was interrogated on details in the testimony and evidence that Wilson-Raybould had provided to the House justice committee’s perfunctory study of the affair. For the first time, after weeks of being grilled day in and day out, Trudeau admitted that yes, Wilson-Raybould had asked him, during a September meeting, if he was trying to politically interfere in SNC-Lavalin’s prosecution. He said he told her no.
But that wasn’t good enough for Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who would go on later Wednesday to continue a multi-day, marathon filibuster over the issue. He pointed out that in Trudeau’s earlier statements nobody had raised any concerns with him about interference.
“Now the prime minister has caught himself in a trap of his own making,” he said.
“The member opposite is twisting himself into rhetorical knots to try to make a point that is simply not there,” Trudeau responded.
New Democrats seized upon the Daughters of the Vote protest as a symbolic repudiation of Trudeau’s credentials as a feminist prime minister. “What have they seen this week? They have seen women speak truth to power and then get shown the door,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said.