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Politics In Quebec, Trudeau’s handling of SNC-Lavalin crisis met with muted disapproval

The day after Justin Trudeau was elected four years ago, he strode into a Métro station in his Montreal riding and posed for selfies with beaming supporters. These days, with the SNC-Lavalin controversy raging in Ottawa, the Prime Minister might face a chillier welcome.

He could run into voters like Jean-François Lanthier, a 46-year-old artist who lives in Mr. Trudeau’s riding in north-central Montreal. Mr. Lanthier is unhappy about reports that the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to avoid prosecuting Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

“I’m disappointed by this scandal,” Mr. Lanthier said at a supermarket a few blocks from the Métro station where Mr. Trudeau waded into the crowd in 2015. “The team around Mr. Trudeau exaggerated when it pressured [Ms. Wilson-Raybould]. Ethically, it’s unacceptable. It’s tarnished Mr. Trudeau’s image.”

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Mr. Lanthier is not alone. A new poll shows Mr. Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file has cost his party support in his home province. A strong majority of Quebeckers – 68 per cent – say he has mismanaged the controversy, and backing for the Liberals dropped four percentage points since Feb. 2 to 35 per cent, according to the Léger survey.

Still, Mr. Lanthier is not ready to condemn his member of Parliament outright.

He thinks Mr. Trudeau was trying to save jobs at SNC-Lavalin, and as a voter he is perplexed why the Quebec engineering giant wasn’t offered a deal to pay a fine – preferably an “enormous” one – rather than face criminal prosecution.

“Despite everything, I think Justin Trudeau was acting in good faith,” Mr. Lanthier said.

Mr. Lanthier’s views reveal how, despite their disapproval for the Prime Minister’s management of the file, Quebeckers’ response to the SNC-Lavalin affair has been more measured than elsewhere in the country.

A majority of voters polled by Léger – 59 per cent – said they believe that allowing SNC-Lavalin to pay a fine as punishment for past misdeeds was the best course of action, while 21 per cent would prefer a trial. Other polls have shown that majorities in regions outside Quebec and the Atlantic provinces favour prosecution. In the charged rhetoric about the controversy in parts of Canada, and the opposition to an out-of-court deal for a Quebec company, some see hostility toward the province.

“The whole country is mad at Quebec,” Jacqueline Sigouin, a 78-year-old retiree, said on her way to do volunteer work at an elementary school in Mr. Trudeau’s riding. “But it’s not our fault. It’s the politicians. It was badly managed. Mr. Trudeau lacked courage.”

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Quebeckers are hardly indifferent to issues of corporate shenanigans and backroom political deals. During the 2011-2015 Charbonneau commission inquiry, they responded with outrage to evidence of widespread corruption involving engineering and construction firms and the awarding of contracts in exchange for political donations. They do not appear to have found the seeds of similar outrage in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The Globe and Mail has reported that the Prime Minister’s Office pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to stop a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. But the former attorney-general herself told the parliamentary justice committee last month that while pressure was “inappropriate,” it was not illegal.

“Quebec lived through the Charbonneau Commission, where you had sleazy figures leaving piles of money in envelopes and walking away,” said Graham Fraser, a visiting professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in Montreal. “Here, no money changed hands, there’s no sign that political figures were corrupted.” In that context, the SNC-Lavalin affair “is much less likely to provoke moral indignation” in the province.

Also, the Prime Minister himself never enjoyed the aura in Quebec that the Trudeau name carried in much of the rest of the country, another factor that helps explain Quebeckers’ more muted response to the controversy.

“I don’t think that Justin Trudeau was ever on the kind of pedestal in Quebec that he was for large parts of the population in English Canada, and so there isn’t the same sense of disillusion,” Mr. Fraser said. “There isn’t the same almost vindictive sense of: ‘We’ve been betrayed by somebody that we felt was this moral icon.'"

In the complicated narrative of the story, many voters in Mr. Trudeau’s Papineau riding said they felt unsure where the truth lies. The Léger poll found that 39 per cent of respondents in Quebec believed Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version of events compared with 25 per cent for Mr. Trudeau’s. But 36 per cent said they didn’t know whom to believe.

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Mary Deros, a long-time city councillor in Mr. Trudeau’s riding, said voters talk to her more about garbage collection and icy streets than the SNC-Lavalin controversy. Ms. Deros represents Park Extension, an ethnically diverse area where she believes Mr. Trudeau remains very popular. Ms. Deros herself is not taking sides on whether the PMO exerted inappropriate pressure on the former attorney-general.

“It’s 'he said, she said,’” Ms. Deros said. “I wasn’t there.” (Ms. Deros ran against Mr. Trudeau for the Liberal nomination in the Papineau riding in 2007, coming in second).

Still, if there is a consensus in Canada, it is that Mr. Trudeau’s poor handling of the controversy fed a crisis. Several voters in Papineau said the Prime Minister did not respond quickly enough to the controversy, then said too little once he did. “His silence made it worse,” said François Provost, a semi-retired consultant. “He should have taken the bull by the horns, said his mea culpa, and made things clear.”

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The Léger survey found that despite their drop in support, the Liberals still lead in voter intention in Quebec – a province crucial to the party’s electoral hopes this fall. The party’s decrease has mostly benefited the Conservative Party, which rose to 26 per cent from 21 per cent in early February. Greens also rose to 4 percentage points to 9 per cent support, while the Bloc Québécois and NDP lost ground. Interviews with voters in the Prime Minister’s home riding suggest Quebeckers are upset with Mr. Trudeau’s handling of the controversy while agreeing with the substance of the government’s position on the SNC-Lavalin file.

“There’s sympathy for SNC-Lavalin in Quebec; it’s been part of the economic fabric of Quebec for a long time,” said Jean-Marc Léger, founding president of the polling firm. “People are able to make a distinction between individuals who committed illegal acts and the company itself, while in the rest of Canada, everything gets lumped together.”

But Mr. Trudeau’s response to the affair has left voters dissatisfied. “What people retain from this is that the issue was poorly managed. Mr. Trudeau’s image was affected.”

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The poll of 1,014 Quebeckers, published in the Journal de Montréal, was carried out March 8-11. The margin of error is 3.08 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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