How Should We Feel About the Justin Trudeau ‘Groping’ Incident?

Two FASHION staffers discuss the allegations against the Prime Minister from a 2000 incident

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was about the purported comebacks of men who’ve fallen from grace in the #MeToo era, and today we’re wading into the alleged Justin Trudeau ‘groping’ incident. Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

GH: I’m predisposed to like Justin Trudeau because when I was a teenager, for some reason, I started really liking his Old Man. (When Pierre Trudeau died, people would stop me in the halls to offer their condolences as I actually knew the former PM. ) That might be shading my reaction to this ongoing semi-controversy about an 18-year-old allegation that a 28-year-old Justin Trudeau groped a female reporter, but I hope it’s not. That’s why I bring it up with you. We straight white cis dudes need to keep ourselves honest.

In short: this news story bugs me. It actually represents a few of my personal bugaboos (ugh, I hate that word). It frustrates me whenever Canadians want so desperately to be Americans that they cling to, or blow up, stories and issues that seem comparable to what’s happening in American media. This story feels like some reporters desperately wanted one of our leaders to have a Trumpian #MeToo scandal, too. But also, it mostly feels like members of the media wanting a story for a story’s sake. After all, the woman at the centre of this story isn’t clamouring to have this story told (for whatever reason), and the allegations are so vague as to be both meaningless and insidious. [Update: the female reporter in question has since revealed her identity in an official statement and does not wish to comment on the matter, although she did confirm that “the incident…did occur, as reported.”] So, who is this story for? Because it feels like it’s only for the self-gratification of a handful of journalists. But maybe I’m wrong?

PB: First off, never use the word bugaboo again. But, yes, the story bothers me too but not for the same reasons as you.

I do agree with you that the story seems to have been dredged up for reasons that don’t quite fall into the “speaking truth to power” camp. For one, it was nearly twenty years ago. Not that there should ever be a statute of limitations on these kinds of stories, but it does seem to be an isolated incident, something stupid and regrettable he did as an inebriated 28-year-old. Fine. But as a far more wise and mature 46-year-old, I would expect better from him. Better than saying, “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.” Okay, glad you’re reflecting and reevaluating, Justin. But you can’t Aziz Ansari your way out of this. Is it too much to expect him to say that he behaved inappropriately, it was wrong of him, and he has never behaved like that since? Why is that too much to ask?

GH: It’s telling that you mention Aziz because I almost did, too. When the story of his Bad Date came out, it was like the first time the Movement had to deal with nuance, and it seemed to split commentators and activists, often along generational lines. The Aziz thing annoyed me for the same sensationalist reasons this story does, where getting a win against the patriarchy (which is a good thing) becomes more important than intellectual honesty and even justice.

And here is where I get this strange feeling, this creeping temptation to reference The Crucible–which is really just a highbrow (well, as highbrow as a grade 12 English class) way of calling this whole thing a witch hunt. Trump has made that phrase into an authoritarian battle cry against truth. But, in this scenario, it seems appropriate. Why is it too much to ask for Trudeau to say that he behaved inappropriately and that he was wrong? Maybe because it wouldn’t be true.

I would argue, that the idea raised by Trudeau that you mentioned–that a man and a woman can walk away from the same experience with different interpretations, both still accurate–is more valuable to consider than a mea culpa that would likely seem hollow. It seems to be the most accurate way to look at the situation. We don’t even know the details of this accusation. The word that gets used is “grope,” but what does that mean? I mean really, honestly, not asking rhetorically here: when you hear grope, what do you picture? Do we all picture the same thing?

In the absence of specifics, the interpretation that two things can be true seems more helpful than someone just copping to bad behaviour they don’t think they displayed. One encourages men to remember their privilege in a patriarchal society–where what they do can mean different things depending on the people they are interacting with–whereas the other seems to give credence to the tired idea that men should just avoid dealing with women, out of fear of doing something wrong.

PB: It’s surprising how quick you are to say that Trudeau admitting to behaving badly would be a false confession. Let’s clear a couple of things up before getting into that. One, the Ansari thing is actually nothing like the Trudeau thing because the scenarios are completely different. Ansari and his accuser, Grace, were actually on a date, at his apartment, drinking wine, flirting etc. In that situation, it’s completely possible for wires to get crossed and signals to get misconstrued. If you remember, I thought the whole thing got blown out of proportion too, although it did spark some thoughtful conversations—and hopefully internal monologues—about the ways in which a given situation can be interpreted in wildly different ways by the people involved, mostly when they’re projecting their own desires onto their partner or companion, and also because, well, patriarchy.

The Trudeau situation is nothing like that, because, as far as we know, he and the reporter had no prior interactions, so their ‘relationship’ was either a strictly professional one or that of complete strangers (I’m really unclear on whether she was interviewing him at the time, or if they just bumped into each at the festival). Either way, it would be quite a leap for Trudeau to so completely misinterpret her actions and signals. The second thing I want to address is the question you raised about what “groping” or “handling” (the two words used to describe the incident in the 2000 editorial, purportedly written by the reporter herself) could entail. You’re right, there are absolutely no specifics. When I think grope, I think: to grab or pinch someone’s butt, put an arm around someone’s waist, inappropriately touch someone’s breasts or stomach, a hand on one’s thigh. It could be anything, really. But all of these are examples of uninvited contact completely out of place in interactions with either a complete stranger or with someone to whom you’re speaking in a professional capacity.

Now, back to the false confession thing. Since the editorial is vague, and since the reporter in question doesn’t seem to want to make herself known (I don’t blame her at all for wanting to stay out of this), do you think it never happened? Trudeau himself isn’t saying it’s even remotely fabricated. He’s admitting that something happened, but just saying it was interpreted differently by both parties. Also, while we’re on the subject of what he said, apparently his response to the reporter at the time was: “I’m sorry. If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward.” What on earth is that about?!

GH: You’re totally right that the two situations are different. Good call. I like how you put that. And no, I’m not saying Trudeau and the reporter didn’t ever meet or have an interaction, just that I have no sense of what actually happened. And that’s what’s similar between this and the Aziz thing: how we interpret the story depends so much on our own personal experience and bias. Which, I suppose, is also just life…you know?

But so we have terms like grope and handled, which are words that mean different things depending on who is hearing them (for me, grope almost exclusively means cupping/grabbing breasts or butts. I think that might be because grope and cup both have ‘p’s at the end of them?). And the details we’ve got from the secondary sources–the reporter’s editor and publisher at the time–are similarly vague: that it wasn’t criminal or traumatizing but it was…something. If we don’t know anything, then to feel outrage, or to expect any particular behaviour from the participants, is either performative or partisan (or both). And so, in that context, to say that he did something wrong and he hasn’t done it since, feels more insincere than trying to discuss perspective.

If I’m completely, out-of-our-present-context honest, I think that whatever happened was likely a 2 on a touching scale, that was rounded up to a four or a five by a reporter either looking for something to write, or feeling annoyed at a privileged son of a former Prime Minister. And then, because of the moment we’re in, that four or five gets treated like a 6 or a 7 by the media. I imagine the kind of touching that would normally happen between say a server and a customer (which, before you say is creepy, remember goes both ways. I have been touched far more by servers than I have ever, ever touched a customer): so, like a lingering hand on an arm or knee. A kind of uninvited touch that would be considered pretty natural among humans. And I consider his “If I’d have known you were reporting for a national paper…” comment to be a 28-year-old’s tongue in cheek, maybe a bit cocky, dismissal of something he probably didn’t remember doing, and didn’t do intentionally.

But! That’s my own reading based on my own bias, and my own experience. What present-day Trudeau is saying speaks to that. But, I’m probably just defending Trudeau because his dad was cool and cocky to reporters, threw shade at Nixon and twirled ironically after meeting the queen.

PB: We may not know exactly what went down at the Kokanee Festival so many summers ago, but I’m inclined to believe that whatever it was, it was unsettling enough to drive this reporter into her editor’s office to report it and for them to collectively decide to publish this anonymous editorial.

That said, all of this does not mean that Justin Trudeau is suddenly a villain and we’re revoking his membership to the Good Guys Club. He has a pretty good track record of being a feminist and an ally. He messed up a long time ago and he’s trying to figure out how best to extract himself gracefully from it now. I do wish he would own up to the whole thing more fully, but honestly, I’m so ready for it to be buried in the news cycle (and wish it hadn’t been dredged up in the first place). Because however much conservatives and certain media pundits might want to drum up public outrage, let’s just be glad the leader of our country would never say shit like this.