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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Margaret Wente

Justin Trudeau’s rotten two weeks Add to ...

Just last week it was all going so well. Justin Trudeau was strutting the stage in Hamburg with the world’s top leaders. So tall, so trim, so respected! Nothing happened at the G20, but the images were great. Then came the Khadr settlement, which was supposed to be quick, clean and low-key, but turned out to be a giant cow pie – one that will stick to Mr. Trudeau for quite some time.

On top of that, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry is in trouble. A leading commissioner resigned. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett had to call a crisis meeting. It’s painfully obvious that one of Mr. Trudeau’s big campaign initiatives has hit the ditch.

Both of these catastrophes were predictable. But the PM’s top strategists were caught flat-footed, leaving their boss exposed to anger from all sides. What happened?

The first thing that happened was the leak about the size of the Khadr settlement – a whopping $10.5-million. The government clearly thought it could keep the amount secret. That was a colossal misjudgment. When The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife broke the story, the PMO was visibly caught off-guard.

The Trudeau government had been determined to settle the case. Its aim was to clear up the outstanding lawsuits from the Stephen Harper days. Last March, it settled a lawsuit with three Muslim men who’d been jailed in Syria, for undisclosed terms. The news barely made a ripple. Of course, none of them were named Omar Khadr – the man who has been a polarizing force for more than a decade.

Last month the government sped up the Khadr negotiations after the family of Christopher Speer, the U.S. soldier Mr. Khadr may or may not have killed, started legal action to block any payment to him from Ottawa. The government almost certainly wanted to announce the settlement and apology together, when Mr. Trudeau was conveniently out of the country. That plan blew up when The Globe broke the story about the settlement amount. The government rushed the cheque to Mr. Khadr before the Speer family’s lawyer could stop it. The Globe promptly broke that story, too (though Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale denied the payment was expedited). The fallout was explosive – and the Liberals had no media strategy to handle it.

As the Conservatives slammed the Liberals for giving a winning lottery ticket to a “convicted terrorist,” the Liberals trotted out two cabinet ministers to blame it all on Mr. Harper. That was disingenuous, given that the CSIS investigation of Mr. Khadr – the central human-rights violation that the Supreme Court so severely condemned – occurred on Jean Chrétien’s watch. And Mr. Trudeau’s delayed defence from Europe, coming several days after the story broke, struck a lot of people as lame. He argued that the government had no choice. The Charter made them do it.

The PM’s team of very smart advisers seem to have believed that people’s reverence for the Charter was as great as their own and that simply invoking the Charter would put the matter to rest. They were wrong. Even though most Canadians agree that Mr. Khadr was hard done by, they found the $10.5-million too hard to swallow. The overwhelming majority (71 per cent) told pollsters the government should not have settled without a court fight. By Thursday, Mr. Trudeau was still playing catch-up, arguing that a court fight could have cost even more.

The Khadr case wasn’t necessarily doomed to be a train wreck. The MMIW inquiry, on the other hand, was doomed from the start. The mandate is too broad, the expectations are too high and there are fundamental disagreements on how it should be run. This week, Marilyn Poitras, one of the five commissioners, threw in the towel, saying that she objects to the “status quo colonial model” of the hearings. Many people think the inquiry’s structure is too top-down and legalistic. One coalition of family members and parties has called for Mr. Trudeau to stop the inquiry and start over. It wants a more grassroots approach, with Indigenous languages, Indigenous medicine and an “Indigenous, trauma-informed process.”

Nearly a year after it started, the $53.8-million inquiry is in near paralysis. High-level staff members have quit. The families of the victims are upset. Ms. Bennett gamely says she still has faith in the commissioners to do the job. Scarcely anybody else does. You could have seen this coming. The inquiry is of a piece with Mr. Trudeau’s exalted rhetoric about Indigenous reconciliation. What, exactly, does reconciliation look like? What steps will he take to make it happen? He hasn’t said. This gushy posturing – set against a rising tide of native anger and demands – can only result in bitter disappointment and more cynicism.

Mr. Trudeau’s strategists have generally looked sharp and smart. Now they look like amateurs. Thank God for Julie Payette. At least they got that right.

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Justin Trudeau says Omar Khadr case could have cost more (The Canadian Press)

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