While on tour to celebrate Canada Day this past Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denied groping a female reporter who tried to interview him almost two decades ago at the 2000 Kokanee Summit festival. Trudeau’s comments about the allegation of sexual misconduct came nearly a month after the incident was first brought to national attention by Canadian media in early June.
"I remember that day in Creston [the site of the festival] well… I had a good day that day,” Trudeau told reporters in Regina, Saskatchewan. “I don't remember any negative interactions that day at all."
Trudeau’s denial marked the first time that he has publicly responded to the accusation, which was originally levied in an editorial in the Creston Valley Advance, a small local paper in the western province of British Columbia. The unsigned article (almost certainly written by the reporter who claimed to have been sexually assaulted) was published shortly after the conclusion of the festival in August. In the piece, the writer provided scant details of the encounter, only obliquely referring to Trudeau “inappropriately ‘handling’ the reporter” and “groping a strange young woman.”
But in a seemingly damning bit of evidence, the article also suggested that Trudeau acknowledged the grope and apologized to the reporter for assaulting her because she reported for a national newspaper (she was also working for the National Post and the Vancouver Sun at the time), allegedly telling her: “I’m sorry. If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward.” Moreover, according to a recent investigation by the same National Post, the reporter had (and still has) the full faith and credit of her former superiors at the Creston Valley Advance:
One day in August 2000, Valerie Bourne — at the time the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance… received a visit in her office from one of the newsroom’s two reporters.
The reporter, a woman in her early 20s whom Bourne later described as having an “awesome work ethic” and a “heart of gold,” told her publisher about an unsettling encounter she said she’d had with Justin Trudeau. Not yet involved in politics, the then-28-year-old Trudeau had come to Creston to attend a music festival raising funds to build a backcountry lodge in honour of his late brother.
“She came to me just because she was distressed,” Bourne told the National Post.
[B]oth Bourne and the Advance’s then-editor, Brian Bell, told the Post the reporter spoke with them about the alleged incident in its immediate aftermath. What’s more, the reporter appears to have taken steps at the time to make the complaint public; the Post understands she wrote the editorial herself.
Bell, who was on vacation at the time of Trudeau’s visit and of the editorial’s publication, said the reporter spoke with him about the encounter when he returned to the newsroom.
“I believe that it happened,” Bell told the Post. “I know that she told me about it when I got back and I don’t doubt she spoke to the publisher about it.”
However, even though Justin was the son of prominent former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the editorial did not make larger headlines at the time. It was only when the piece was re-discovered and brought to the attention of media last month by Warren Kinsella that its claims created a tidal wave of backlash against the current PM. Kinsella publicized the article by posting a full picture of it on Twitter and using it to promote the #MeToo movement:
As the allegation of sexual assault against Trudeau finally percolated through the media, it did immense damage to the prime minister’s carefully crafted public persona as a crusader for women’s rights and a vanquisher of predatory men. Indeed, Trudeau has been one of the world’s most vocal supporters of the #MeToo movement and has staunchly supported its message that women’s allegations of sexual misconduct should always be believed [emphasis mine]:
In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the #MeToo and Time's Up movements for bringing to light the serious issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
"These movements show us we must have a critical discussion on women’s rights, equality, and the power dynamics of gender. Sexual harassment, for example, in business and government is a systemic problem and it is unacceptable," he said to applause from the audience. "As leaders, we must recognize and act to truly show that time is up."
Companies need to have a better process for filing workplace harassment claims, he said, and when someone does file a claim, they have to take them seriously.
"As women speak up, it is our responsibility to listen, and more importantly, to believe," Trudeau said.
"Sexual harassment in business and in government is a systemic problem and it is unacceptable.”— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) January 23, 2018
Canadian PM @JustinTrudeau says the Me Too and Time's Up movements "tell us that we need to have a critical discussion on women's rights, equality and the power dynamic of gender". pic.twitter.com/3bnkuz3p3n
Given Trudeau’s repeated pronouncement of these principles, his ongoing denial of the former Advance reporter’s claims has not gone over well with many Canadians who believed in the merits of the prime minister’s feminist credentials. While one opinion piece for CBC suggested that Trudeau might need to step down from power if he truly wants to follow his own policy of “zero-tolerance” for sexual harassment, another similar article in Maclean’s somberly intoned that “Trudeau’s woefully inadequate… response [to the allegation] detonates his credibility as an authority on sexual assault sensitivity and awareness.”
Regardless of what ultimately happens to Trudeau’s political career as a result of this kerfuffle, it seems that his hardcore base on the political left has substantially diminished in enthusiasm. Given such circumstances, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for this to lead to some major political re-shuffling in the near future, especially if Trudeau or his party perform poorly in next year’s federal elections.