Published On: Sat, Jul 7th, 2018

There’s less than meets the eye in Justin Trudeau’s Creston encounter

In the matter of Justin Trudeau and what transpired at a beery music festival in Creston, B.C. back in 2000 there are, as usual, two things at play: what actually happened and how he’s handled it since the incident resurfaced last month.

From all we know now, what happened in Creston amounts to not much at all.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces questions from reporters following his meeting with Ontario Premier Doug Ford at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces questions from reporters following his meeting with Ontario Premier Doug Ford at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto.  (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

At the time, Trudeau was a 28-year-old unmarried teacher with a famous name but no political involvement. He had an encounter in the crowd with a young reporter from the local Creston Valley Advance, who subsequently penned a short editorial stating that Trudeau “inappropriately ‘handled’” a reporter (her) and engaged in “groping.”

He apologized at the time for being “so forward,” she wrote, and offered the odd and troubling explanation that he wouldn’t have acted that way if he’d known she was also reporting for a national paper.

That’s it. Since the old editorial was unearthed by a gossip site, the woman at the centre of the controversy has declined to come forward publicly or add anything more to what she wrote at the time.

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That’s her perfect right. There’s no obligation on anyone to pursue such a matter after so many years, especially when it would bring a firestorm of publicity because of Trudeau’s rise to high office.

But there’s no reason to doubt what she wrote at the time, and the former editor and publisher of the paper both back up her story.

Some things to keep in mind: This was a very brief, one-off encounter in a crowded public place, not an assignation at a home or hotel room. Trudeau was a semi-public figure due to his name, but had no authority over the young woman. Nor did he hold any official position at the time; whatever happened was not an abuse of power.

Importantly, too, we know of no pattern of past misbehaviour by Trudeau. No other women have come forward to tell similar stories.

This is key. In almost all the recent cases of men brought down by accusations of sexual wrong-doing, from Harvey Weinstein to Bill Cosby and Norman Hardie, a pattern is established. Once one or two women tell their stories, others join in. Abusers tend to be serial offenders, accustomed to wielding their sexual and financial power.

How Trudeau has handled this saga is another matter. His office first attempted to brush it off by saying the prime minister “doesn’t think he had any negative interactions” at the Creston festival. In other words, I don’t remember. That wouldn’t wash.

This past week he offered a more convincing explanation: that men and women can experience the same interaction in very different ways. What a man sees as “benign or not inappropriate” may well come across to a woman as something more threatening or demeaning.

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Trudeau’s critics, especially those who delight in mocking his feminist pretensions, see this as so much dodging and weaving. But he’s actually right. As society grapples with matters of harassment and abuse we’re finding that men and women can be experiencing two different realities. It’s important that men, in particular, listen carefully and learn.

There’s also the matter of perceived hypocrisy: Trudeau has held others to a rigorous standard in these matters, so how can he let himself off the hook?

There’s a germ of truth in this, but it’s less clear-cut than it seems. Liberals who were disciplined or ousted by Trudeau after being accused of misbehaviour were public office-holders, not young private citizens. Surely MPs and ministers must be held to a higher standard than many others.

This story could still develop. The woman involved in the Creston incident may yet come forward and share more damning details. And if other women emerge to make similar accusations, this will become much more serious for the prime minister.

But at this point, only those inclined to attack him for other reasons will continue to harp on what went down in Creston so long ago.

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There’s less than meets the eye in Justin Trudeau’s Creston encounter