Justin Trudeau’s Response To The Groping Allegations Is A Missed Opportunity

The prime minister could have used this moment to show how a feminist man might seriously grapple with allegations about his own past conduct.

Justin Trudeau

Photo, Getty Images.

Eighteen years ago, Justin Trudeau attended a music festival in British Columbia. He was 28, an unmarried teacher and a private citizen, deep in his goatee and choker phase, with his political career still a few years in the distance. He was, however, a special guest at the event, there on behalf of his family to accept a donation for avalanche safety, in memory of his brother Michel, who had been killed in one in 1998.

At some point, Trudeau was interviewed by a young female reporter, who was working for the local newspaper, the Creston Valley Advance, as well as covering the festival for two national outlets. According to an unsigned editorial in the Advance that appeared a few days later, Trudeau allegedly came on to the reporter, “inappropriately handling” and “groping” her, leaving her feeling “blatantly disrespected.” (The editorial did not offer specific details of what occurred.)

The editorial — which former staff of the paper say was written by the woman herself — also claimed that Trudeau later apologized: “I’m sorry,” he is reported to have said. “If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward.”

In the intervening years, the story had all but disappeared. Then, this spring, the editorial was resurrected, popping up at first on blogs and a few websites, and eventually picked up by larger mainstream news outlets. The reporter was not involved in the story’s resurfacing, and she has declined numerous interview requests. On Friday, she released a statement confirming her account of the events 18 years ago and expressing that she did not wish to pursue the incident further now. “The debate, if it continues, will continue without my involvement,” she said.

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When Trudeau was finally questioned about it, at a Canada Day event, his initial response was a disappointingly vague and lawyerly hedge: “I remember that day in Creston well,” he said to reporters. “I had a good day that day. I don’t remember any negative interactions that day at all.”

For someone who’s proudly proclaimed his feminism, who enjoys global celebrity as a champion of progressive values, who’s made gender equality central to his policy decisions and has imposed a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misbehaviour on his caucus, it was notably dismissive. Last fall, at a United Nations event for youth, he urged men to shut down the “bro culture” that disrespects women. “We need to know that we are better than that,” he said. “How we treat our sisters, our girlfriends, our cousins, our mothers and the world around us matters.” And just a few months ago, at the World Economic Forum in January, he gave a speech referencing the #MeToo movement, saying, “As women speak up, it is our responsibility to listen, and more importantly, to believe.”

Yet now he is minimizing allegations about his past conduct as a “negative interaction,” which is how you might describe someone cutting in front of you in a beer line, not how you’d characterize unwanted touching. He didn’t appear curious or concerned about the woman, or about why her report immediately after the event diverged so much from his own 18-year-old recollection. Did he not wonder how it was that she felt “blatantly disrespected,” while he “had a good day”?

Trudeau’s initial retreat from an honest, searching, nuanced response to the allegations was maddening — a missed opportunity to show the world how a feminist man might seriously reckon with allegations about his own past conduct. Instead, his office released a statement that read: “As the Prime Minister has said before, he has always been very careful to treat everyone with respect. His first experiences with activism were on the issue of sexual assault at McGill (University), and he knows the importance of being thoughtful and respectful.”

The implication: Trudeau couldn’t have done what the woman has said, because he’s a good guy. But if the floodgates of #MeToo have taught us anything, it’s that good guys can behave badly, too. Harassing and abusive behaviour is ubiquitous and spans a spectrum — from extreme violence to general creepiness, from rape to boundary-crossing, from predation and stalking to telling crude jokes and being handsy.

Most men, even ones who believe themselves to be “thoughtful and respectful,” have at least one situation in their past when they said or did something to a woman that was inappropriate, or worse. Many of them are seeking a model for how to take responsibility and make amends. And collectively, we haven’t yet established enough meaningful processes for redress. The result is that women who have bravely spoken out have been left exposed, in their trauma, humiliation or hurt, without a resolution or even an apology.

I can’t help but think about the silence of the woman at the centre of this: What is owed to her? What does she need to make this right? How do we not lose sight of her? Since the story re-emerged, she has been hounded by media and watched as her story was reduced to a social media hashtag (#GroperGate). If Trudeau had addressed the allegations sooner and more sincerely, perhaps he could have spared her some of this drawn-out and unwelcome attention.

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Over the past week, the prime minister seems to have shifted his response slightly. On Thursday, he said to reporters, “I’ve been reflecting very carefully on what I remember from that incident almost 20 years ago. I do not feel that I acted inappropriately in any way. But I respect the fact that someone else might have experienced that differently.” He went on to add, “This lesson that we are learning, and I’ll be blunt about it, often a man experiences an interaction as being benign or not inappropriate and a woman, particularly in a professional context, can experience it differently and we have to respect that and reflect on that.”

It’s a fuller explanation, but still a deflection and a denial (“I do not feel that I acted inappropriately in any way”), with an impersonal distance: he doesn’t talk about himself, but rather what “we” are learning and how “a man” experiences an interaction. It’s an avoidance of responsibility. And to paraphrase his own words, he should know — and do — better than that.

Why not simply apologize? Why not say something like, “She felt disrespected and mistreated by me and I am truly sorry. She was a professional doing her job and deserved to be treated professionally. She should be listened to and believed, then and now.”

The prime minister has been a vocal and valuable advocate for gender equality. Now he has an opportunity to put his feminism into personal practice by demonstrating that he’s willing to live up to the same expectations he’s set for others.