A Battered but Unbowed Justin Trudeau Vows to Stay the Course in Canada

A Battered but Unbowed Justin Trudeau Vows to Stay the Course in Canada


OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has a simple strategy for winning re-election: Ignore the plummeting polls, defend his record and push back against detractors.

Despite months of criticism over his handling of a corporate criminal case and treatment of a female cabinet minister — and continuing pressure over his environmental and energy policies — he is not paring back or changing course.

“I feel I’ve been true to the values that I hold to, the way I try to look at things,” he said in a recent interview in his newly renovated parliamentary office. “I’m under no illusions that if you actually want to do things, there are going to be people in agreement and disagreement with you on everything.”

But a lot of Canadians are disagreeing with him these days, as he has tried to navigate between his ambitious social priorities and economic pragmatism.

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Mr. Trudeau took office four years ago with promises to take strong action on climate change, reconcile with the country’s Indigenous population for past wrongs and promote equality for women and minorities. He tried to balance these efforts with economic measures — for example, imposing a nationwide carbon tax but also buying a pipeline in western Canada to give the region’s energy industry a boost.

Often, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged in the interview, compromises like this have disappointed some supporters.

He also tried to balance priorities in the corruption case involving SNC-Lavalin, a major Montreal engineering company that was accused of bribery in Libya during the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. While Canada had met international commitments to penalize companies involved in corruption overseas, Mr. Trudeau pressed his former justice minister — improperly, she said — to seek a civil penalty in the SNC-Lavalin case.

He said he was worried that a criminal conviction, which would bar the company from government contracts, would jeopardize thousands of Canadian jobs.

Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader who called for Mr. Trudeau’s resignation soon after the controversy erupted, has repeatedly described it as “corruption on top of corruption on top of corruption.”

Even people who flatly reject that view acknowledge that Mr. Trudeau must overcome questions about his political leadership and skills.

“The prime minister has frankly looked like he’s lost his mojo,” said Peter Donolo, who was director of communications for Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and is now vice chairman of the Canada division of the public relations and lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton Canada.

“He’s looked tentative and off-key,” Mr. Donolo added.

Mr. Trudeau’s friends say the onslaught of recriminations has inspired him to fight harder.

Marc Miller, a Liberal member of Parliament from Montreal and a friend of Mr. Trudeau’s since they were classmates at an elite private high school in that city, said the prime minister was not a pushover even if part of his political style was to emphasize consensus building.

Pointing out that Mr. Trudeau was introduced to boxing as a child by his father, Mr. Miller said: “He likes the one-on-one confrontation. He likes being tested.”

“He also likes winning,” Mr. Miller said.

That attitude was on full display in the interview.

Buying the pipeline when its American owner was balking at expansion plans was “what I felt was the best thing for Canadians,” the prime minister said.

His dispute with Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister, over SNC-Lavalin was “a disagreement in perspective” and overblown, Mr. Trudeau said, adding that he was confident “that Canadians, as we approach this election, are going to stay focused on the big things that matter.”

[The Trump administration has reached agreements with Canada and Mexico to lift import tariffs on metals, resolving a yearlong standoff.]

Yet Mr. Trudeau has not been completely immune to pressure. In March, in response to a public backlash against growing numbers of asylum seekers walking across the border from the United States, he announced plans to cut off the flow.

And the opposition has seized on his weaknesses, already running attack ads. One Conservative ad suggests that Mr. Trudeau is as mired in “scandal” and “cover-ups” as President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Canada.

Andrew MacDougall, who was communications director for Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the SNC-Lavalin episode severely undermined Mr. Trudeau’s claim to be someone who does politics differently.

“People do care that leaders are open, transparent and honest,” Mr. MacDougall said from London, where he is now a consultant.

As the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau was a celebrity from the time he was born on Christmas Day in 1971.

And soon after coming into office, he, like his father before him, became that rarest of things: a Canadian prime minister whose name doesn’t provoke blank stares in other countries.

At the beginning of this year, Mr. Trudeau’s record, combined with flagging ratings for the leaders of the two major opposition parties, made it appear that he was on a glide path to win October’s vote.

Then came SNC-Lavalin. And Canadians begin to question not only his leadership, but also his feminist credentials and commitment to self-proclaimed open, “sunny ways” in politics.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was also the attorney general, portrayed her interactions with the prime minister and his office as an assault on prosecutorial independence. But many came to believe that Mr. Trudeau and mostly male aides had ganged up on her in another example of men ignoring women who speak their minds.

Mr. Trudeau expressed regret over the controversy, which led to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation as well as that of another female minister in solidarity. When asked why he did not apologize, Mr. Trudeau said the answer was simple: He hadn’t done anything wrong.

“There was a disagreement in perspective that was real and genuine,” he said. “I regret that it all happened. But there can’t be an apology, there can’t be a genuine apology, when I genuinely do not think that in that disagreement she was right and I was wrong.”

He said the decision to seek a settlement had been left with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who ultimately rejected the idea.

Still, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that the episode had prompted him to change how he deals with his cabinet ministers and other members of his Liberal caucus.

His objective now, he said, is to allow anyone with a concern “to actually articulate that to me, and quicker, so we can respond to it rather than let it sort of fester the way apparently it did here.”

Mr. Miller, his friend, said the prime minister had learned that it was important to be open “to a number of voices that you don’t necessarily want to hear but you have to for your own development.”

“In that sense he’s grown as a leader, and that’s a pretty recent development,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Trudeau is also fighting back against his critics, for example, threatening to sue Mr. Scheer, for suggesting that he acted criminally.

“The fact that he has been doing that and thinks he can get away with that is one of those things that we have to push back against,” Mr. Trudeau said.

As he looked back on a winter that turned him from front-runner to underdog, Mr. Trudeau predicted that by October the nation’s political focus will have returned to what he called “the big things, whether it’s environment or climate or growth for the middle class.”

Rejecting any suggestion that with several provinces having swung from left-of-center governments to ones led by conservatives, liberalism is on the wane in Canada or the rest of the world, Mr. Trudeau pointed out that he was followed to power by ideologically sympathetic leaders in France, Spain and New Zealand.

“There were good moments and tough moments,” he said of the election year’s rocky start. “But ultimately the opportunity to make a meaningful, positive difference in Canadians’ lives with what we do every day here is just unbelievably gratifying and worth it for all the guff you have to go through.”

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