Opinion

Trudeau has boxed himself in with his own zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct: Robyn Urback

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear, over and over again, that there is no time limit on defending women's rights or for standing up for what is right. So how can his office just dismiss a sexual misconduct allegation against him, even if it is 18 years old?

An 18-year-old allegation against Trudeau, originally printed in a community paper, resurfaced this month

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear, over and over again, that there is no time limit on defending women's rights or for standing up for what is right. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

If the climate in Canada were different, an 18-year-old allegation of sexual misconduct against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be swiftly addressed, then probably dismissed.

The allegation originally appeared in an August 2000 edition of the Creston Valley Advance, a small community newspaper in B.C. The editorial, which resurfaced earlier this month, claimed that the then-28-year-old Trudeau "groped" a young reporter at a music festival, noting that he only apologized when he learned that she worked for a newspaper.

If there was no merit to the allegation, in this hypothetical alternative climate, the Prime Minister's Office could simply say so.

If there was merit to the allegation — again, theoretically speaking — Trudeau could concede that he had indeed behaved unacceptably, and remind us that he has since devoted his life to defending the integrity of all Canadians, but especially women.

Again, only if the climate in Canada were different.

In reality, neither of these options is available to Trudeau.

Cannot recall 'negative interactions'

If the allegation is false (CBC News continues to investigate the claim) Trudeau doesn't really have the option, from a political perspective, to say so.

In the current climate, denying the claim is akin to saying, "She's lying," which is a taboo phrase for the leader of a government that has made believing women central to its approach to sexual misconduct allegations.

If the allegation is true, on the other hand, Trudeau can't simply explain, apologize and attempt to move on. It would look like he afforded himself leniency that he'd denied to members of his caucus who were accused of misconduct.

So the prime minister is stuck: he can't confirm or deny. As a result, his office opted for the most unsatisfactory of all possible responses, telling the National Post that Trudeau does not recall any "negative interactions" in Creston during that time. In other words, Canada's highest-profile women's rights advocate has been stricken by a convenient bout of amnesia. 

There is room to distinguish this allegation from some of the others that have plagued Ottawa over the past couple of years. The claim is from nearly two decades ago, long before Trudeau entered politics, and without the power imbalance we sometimes see in cases where prominent men abuse their authority. For those reasons, some will surely argue that Trudeau is being unfairly railroaded by a movement that lacks necessary nuance.

And indeed, there would be ample sympathy for this notion, had Trudeau not helped to create the very climate to which he is now vulnerable. 

In 2014, he suspended two MPs from the Liberal caucus after allegations surfaced about sexual misconduct. Trudeau publicly named the two — Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti — before actually informing them of the allegations against them. A subsequent independent investigation concluded there was merit to the complaints, though they were of two decidedly different natures: Andrews was accused of harassing behaviour, unwelcome groping and grinding, while Pacetti was accused of sex without "explicit" consent. 

There are different contexts, implications and considerations when it comes to what these different claims mean, but the Liberal machine nevertheless lumped them together, forcing the pair to share headlines, a hired investigator, and an announcement of their expulsion. Andrews eventually accepted the findings of the review, saying he's since learned how his "jovial Newfoundland friendliness can be perceived," but Pacetti has always maintained his innocence. That important distinction is often overlooked. 

Alberta MP Kent Hehr is out of the federal cabinet permanently following an investigation into his conduct with women. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

More recently, Kent Hehr, once the minister for sports and persons with disabilities, stepped down from cabinet, initially temporarily, in response to allegations that he made sexually suggestive and other unwelcome comments to a woman in an elevator, and touched a woman inappropriately at an event. Though the subsequent independent investigation found the touch was involuntary (Hehr is a quadriplegic and has limited feeling in and control of his limbs), Hehr conceded that his comments were inappropriate, even though he says he cannot remember the interaction. In any case, Hehr will not return to cabinet.

Interestingly, Hehr managed to maintain his cabinet position up to that point, despite reportedly telling thalidomide survivors that "everyone in Canada has a sob story," and dismissing a Calgary mother's "loaded question" about why the government was denying maternity benefits to sick mothers, saying it was akin to "the old question … 'When did you stop beating your wife?'" 

Perhaps it was simply the weight of all of the allegations that made keeping Hehr in cabinet untenable by the time the sexual misconduct claims landed, but the implication is that while there is some tolerance for cabinet members in terms of disparaging the disabled community, there is zero tolerance for harassing women.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the zero-tolerance standards on misconduct toward women applies to him, too, in an exclusive interview with CBC News. Trudeau says women who come forward with allegations of misconduct and sexual harassment should be supported 3:44

Trudeau has said as much in various interviews about his approach to tackling sexual harassment. "We have no tolerance for this — we will not brush things under the rug, but we will take action on it immediately," he told The Canadian Press earlier this year. In a CBC Radio interview around the same time, the prime minister said he should be held to high standards of conduct, adding: "I've been very, very careful all my life to be thoughtful, to be respectful of people's space and people's headspace as well."

In his many interviews on the topic, he has not included an appeal for allowances for youthfulness or genuine remorse, or simply the acknowledgement that people sometimes do bad things. This is not to suggest that any combination of these factors should necessarily exonerate the aforementioned men. I only mean to point out that the excuses that some have already used to defend the prime minister against this one accusation (This was almost 20 years ago!) haven't actually crossed his lips.

Trudeau has essentially boxed himself in with his own zero-tolerance policy. He has made clear, over and over again, that there is no time limit on defending women's rights or for standing up for what is right. This is the climate that Trudeau helped create. He can't forget that now.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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