The Canadian PM denies behaving inappropriately, but says he doesn’t want to speak for the woman involved. Now, he has a difficult tightrope to walk.
Justin Trudeau has long worn his feminist credentials as a badge of honour. Now, however, the Canadian prime minister has admitted that he apologised in 2000 to a woman who accused him of groping her – while maintaining that he doesn’t feel he did anything wrong.
In a sign that the famously savvy politician is conscious of the complexities of the conversations around the #MeToo movement, Trudeau rejected the idea that he had behaved inappropriately around a young female journalist 18 years ago, while acknowledging that she may have a very different memory of their interaction.
At a press conference in Toronto on Thursday (4 July), Trudeau said he “apologised in the moment” to the reporter who accused him in 2000 of groping her at a charity music festival in British Columbia.
“I’m responsible for my side of the interaction, which was certainly I don’t feel was in any way untoward,” he said in televised remarks reported by Vice News.
“But at the same time, this lesson that we are learning is, 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 it.”
The unnamed female journalist alleged in 2000 that Trudeau, then a 28-year-old teacher and the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, had groped her at a fundraising event in British Columbia. Her claims were reported in an editorial column in local newspaper the Creston Valley Advance.
The editorial includes the detail that Trudeau allegedly apologised by saying: “If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward.”
The newspaper said the woman felt “blatantly disrespected” by his behaviour.
The woman’s claims resurfaced in early June of this year, when Toronto-based blogger Warren Kinsella posted a photo of the 2000 editorial on Twitter. On Sunday (1 July), Trudeau was asked directly for the first time about the allegations. He denied that he had behaved inappropriately and said he didn’t recall any “negative interactions” during his trip to British Columbia.
“I remember that day in Creston well,” he told reporters. “I had a good day that day. I don’t remember any negative interactions that day at all.”
Now, Trudeau – who has spoken out in support of the #MeToo movement and whose government is currently working on new legislation to tackle workplace sexual harassment – will have to walk something of a tightrope. Clearly, he is determined to defend himself against claims of inappropriate behaviour.
But as a self-professed feminist, he would be unwise to attempt to silence or deny a woman’s account of sexual misconduct. His carefully phrased response to reporters’ questions on Thursday suggests that he is keenly aware of the rhetorical balancing act he will now have to perform.
The woman at the centre of this story, the unnamed female reporter, has not come forward publicly since Kinsella tweeted the editorial from 2000. Trudeau said he had not attempted to contact her and did not “want to speak for her”.
“I don’t want to presume how she feels now,” he said. “I haven’t reached out to her, no one on my team has reached out to her. We don’t think that would be appropriate at all.”
Since the allegations resurfaced, the reporter’s former boss has said she remembers the woman being “distressed” about the incident at the time.
“My recollections of the conversation were that she came to me because she was unsettled by it,” Valerie Bourne, the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance in 2000, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Bourne thought the reporter may have written the editorial – which does not have a byline – herself. She added that she didn’t think the interaction constituted a criminal offence. “It was a brief touch. I would not classify it or qualify it as sexual assault.”
Brian Bell, the paper’s editor in 2000, said he also remembered the reporter discussing the alleged groping at the time. He said he had no reason to doubt the woman when she said that “whatever had occurred in that moment was definitely not welcome and definitely inappropriate”.
“I certainly believe that it happened,” he said. “This reporter was of a high character in my opinion and was professional in the way she conducted herself and there’s no question in my mind that what was alluded to, written about in that editorial, did happen.”
In January, Trudeau was asked about his past conduct in the context of a discussion about the #MeToo movement. A string of Canadian politicians had resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and assault, prompting a reporter for CBC News to ask Trudeau if there was “a chance at some point that your actions might not have been construed the way they were intended”.
“I don’t think so,” Trudeau replied, adding that he had been working on issues around sexual assault for over 25 years. “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.”
Despite his confidence in his own past behaviour, Trudeau said he should also be judged against his government’s zero-tolerance approach to historic sexual misconduct.
“The standard applies to everyone,” he said. “There is no context in which someone doesn’t have responsibility for things they’ve done in the past.”
In the months since the #MeToo movement went global, it has become starkly apparent that men and women often have very different recollections of an interaction; that a woman can be left feeling unsettled or even traumatised by an interaction that a man saw as benign, humorous or insignificant. We have seen, with breathtaking clarity, that many men still do not understand the impact their behaviour can have on women. We have seen macho politicians from the US to Japan dismiss allegations of sexual misconduct against them.
What we have not seen, until now, is a self-proclaimed ‘male feminist’ political leader grapple with his past, his ethics and his own accountability on the world stage. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out.
Images: Getty Images