Prime Minister Justin Trudeau picked his old school in Montreal as the setting as he began a counter-attack Wednesday evening in the SNC Lavalin affair — a setting that underlined some of the interprovincial tensions in the controversy, with many Quebeckers believing that government was right to use drastic measures to protect thousands of jobs in the province.
“I think it’s important to keep the jobs," said one Liberal supporter, Maryse Fontaine, at the event at the school, Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, in the predominantly French-speaking Outremont neighbourhood. "I think that’s the most important thing to do, is to keep the jobs for the families and the kids.”
The private high school and college is also the alma mater of Pierre Trudeau.
And it was busy on Wednesday. As the prime minister arrived, students were walking through its campus to and from extra-curricular activities, while people carried hockey gear across the parking lot on their way to the school's arena.
The event came only hours after the public testimony by former justice minister and attorney Jody Wilson-Raybould's that Trudeau, his advisers and other top public officials had interfered in her judicial independence by pressuring her to drop a prosecution against SNC Lavalin. The Quebec engineering giant, which employs about 9,000 people across the country, has its headquarters in Montreal.
Trudeau delivered his remarks and took questions from reporters with a group of about 30 Liberal supporters standing behind him, celebrating the party's victory in a Feb. 25 byelection in the riding that was previously held by former NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.
As the prime minister entered the room, he was quick to mention his own connection to the school, also saying that his daughter Ella-Grace was accompanying him, though she wasn't at the media event.
But the larger focus was on the response to Wilson-Raybould's testimony.
Trudeau said he "completely disagreed" with his former cabinet colleague's characterization of events, insisting that he and other members of his staff acted appropriately to protect Canadian jobs, pensions and the economy.
“As we govern and make decisions for the good of all Canadians, we will always act within the bounds of what is appropriate,” Trudeau said.
But he also said that he hadn't heard all of what Wilson-Raybould told the parliamentary committee and would decide whether she would remain in the Liberal caucus after reviewing it in detail.
“Obviously, I haven’t had the chance to listen to all of her testimony and I will do that before making a decision,” Trudeau said.
The Liberal party said that the event was meant to thank local Liberal supporters who had volunteered on the campaign during a heavily contested byelection for the Outremont seat. The riding includes the Montreal borough of Outremont as well as parts of the multicultural Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood and the Université de Montréal campus.
Liberal Rachel Bendayan won the election and stood next to Trudeau during the news conference, without making any comments.
The Liberal supporters on hand lined up in rows behind the microphone, smiling and chatting, while Trudeau entered the room.
Fontaine, one of the volunteers who was thanked at the event, said that campaigning for the winter byelection had been extremely difficult, in terrible weather. But she added that the group was elated when they won, despite feeling caught in a moment between a high and a low.
“It’s huge for us,” she said. "Now we have this wonderful news," she added, gesturing wryly at the room where Trudeau spoke, referring to the SNC Lavalin controversy.
"We’re fighting, and we’re fighting and fighting because we believe this is a good party," said Fontaine, who spoke to National Observer in a hallway after the event had concluded. "And I think, [despite any] bad things, we did a good job for Rachel, and I’m really proud of it, and it’s the reason why we are here tonight, to support the Liberal Party.”
In any case, she said she believes that Quebeckers do tend to see the situation differently, knowing that SNC is a local economic giant, responsible for thousands of jobs.
“There’s always something to talk about, and today, this is the subject," she said. "Tomorrow there’s going to be another one. I’m sure he’ll deal with this properly and he’ll do something good with this whole war. He’ll do something extraordinary, because he’s our prime minister.”
After a handful of questions from reporters, Trudeau abruptly ended the event and he, along with all the Liberal supporters, were ushered quickly out of the room.