Written by Douglas Quan, Adrian Humphreys, Marie-Danielle Smith
Originally published by National Post on Jun 23, 2018
One day in August 2000, Valerie Bourne — at the time the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance, a small community newspaper in British Columbia’s southern interior — received a visit in her office from one of the newsroom’s two reporters.
The reporter, a woman in her early 20s whom Bourne later described as having an “awesome work ethic” and a “heart of gold,” told her publisher about an unsettling encounter she said she’d had with Justin Trudeau. Not yet involved in politics, the then-28-year-old Trudeau had come to Creston to attend a music festival raising funds to build a backcountry lodge in honour of his late brother.
“She came to me just because she was distressed,” Bourne told the National Post.
Bourne doesn’t recall the exact words the reporter used to describe the incident. However, in its edition of Aug. 14, 2000, the Advance published an unsigned editorial that accused Trudeau of “groping” the reporter.
The now former reporter has declined a request for comment from the Post, which has chosen not to name her. However, both Bourne and the Advance’s then-editor, Brian Bell, told the Post the reporter spoke with them about the alleged incident in its immediate aftermath. What’s more, the reporter appears to have taken steps at the time to make the complaint public; the Post understands she wrote the editorial herself.
Bell, who was on vacation at the time of Trudeau’s visit and of the editorial’s publication, said the reporter spoke with him about the encounter when he returned to the newsroom.
“I believe that it happened,” Bell told the Post. “I know that she told me about it when I got back and I don’t doubt she spoke to the publisher about it.”
The Prime Minister’s Office gave the Post a statement earlier this month saying Trudeau does not recall any “negative interactions” during his visit to Creston that year. Presented Friday with the contemporaneous accounts from Bourne and Bell, Trudeau’s office reiterated the original statement.
The Creston Valley Advance editorial was republished at the beginning of April, verbatim and without context or comment, by Frank, an Ottawa-based political gossip and satire magazine. Earlier this month, Warren Kinsella, a consultant, political commentator, former Liberal operative and frequent critic of Trudeau, posted the editorial on Twitter, setting off a social-media storm. That led to stories about the allegation on conservative U.S. websites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, as well as columns in the Toronto Sun, a post on BuzzFeed, a smattering of coverage in the U.K. and France and a reference in The New York Times. The Post has not previously reported on its contents because it was in the process of authenticating the allegation and researching its author and context.
It has resurfaced amid an international debate about how to define and deal with sexual harassment by men in positions of authority, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has seen many prominent men, including several Canadian politicians, accused of inappropriate behaviour. It is not clear, however, that the allegation fits the template #MeToo has so often exposed of a pattern of inappropriate behaviour towards women by a man in a position of power. The Post is not aware of any other such allegations against Trudeau.
The editorial has also re-emerged in a charged political environment. Though it first appeared in Frank in April, Kinsella’s tweet had it making the rounds on social media and in political circles in the days before Trudeau was to shake hands with U.S. president Donald Trump on Canadian soil for the first time.
The Times’ piece of June 8 was a standard examination of Trudeau’s relationship with Trump against the backdrop of their meeting that weekend at the G7 summit in Quebec, but it began on another note: “Hours before President Trump landed in Canada on Friday, 18-year-old allegations that Justin Trudeau once groped a reporter resurfaced on a website sympathetic to the president,” Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter wrote of Breitbart’s coverage of the allegation. “Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.”
Asked whether the theory had been floated to her that the resurfacing of the allegation was politically motivated, Porter told the Post her story spoke for itself. Frank editor Michael Bate said he couldn’t reveal his sources, while Kinsella said only that he had been given the editorial by someone “active in politics.” Kinsella had previously said on his website that it was a Canadian Member of Parliament.
As prime minister, Trudeau has earned an international reputation as an advocate of women and women’s issues, naming a cabinet containing an equal number of men and women, submitting the federal budget and other government initiatives to gender-based analysis, and pursuing an explicitly feminist foreign policy.
In his 2014 memoir, Common Ground, Trudeau wrote that while a student at McGill University he was “part of the first cadre of men trained to join the women activists in leading discussion groups on sexual assault and date rape.” In an interview with CBC Radio earlier this year, Trudeau said he had been “very, very careful all my life to be thoughtful, to be respectful of people’s space and people’s headspace as well.”
In the original statement emailed to the Post, Prime Minister’s Office spokesman Matt Pascuzzo said Trudeau “remembers being in Creston for the Avalanche Foundation, but doesn’t think he had any negative interactions there.
“As the PM 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, and he knows the importance of being thoughtful and respectful.”
On Friday, the Post asked the Prime Minister’s Office if its staff, or representatives of the Liberal Party, had suggested to any journalists that the resurfacing of the allegation was politically motivated. The Post also asked if, at any point since the festival, a representative for Trudeau, his family or the Liberal Party had ever communicated with the woman who made the allegation. A spokeswoman for Trudeau, Eleanore Catenaro, did not address either of those questions.
The editorial began with an apology it said Trudeau offered the reporter on Aug. 4, which it said was the day after the alleged incident. “I’m sorry. If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward,” it quotes Trudeau as saying after learning she had been covering the festival not only for the Advance but for the National Post and Vancouver Sun (at the time all three papers were part of the same newspaper chain).
While the editorial suggests the allegation dates from Aug. 3 and the apology from Aug. 4, the actual dates of the festival were the weekend of Aug. 5-6. Tanya Oliva, the festival’s PR manager at the time, told the Post it was her recollection that Trudeau arrived in Creston on Aug. 5. The Post has not been able to reconcile the discrepancy.
The editorial then took Trudeau to task for allegedly “inappropriately ‘handling’” the reporter.
“Shouldn’t the son of a former prime minister be aware of the rights and wrongs that go along with public socializing? Didn’t he learn, through his vast experiences in public life, that groping a strange young woman isn’t in the handbook of proper etiquette, regardless of who she is, what her business is or where they are?” it asked.
The scathing editorial stood out from the usual community news stories the paper, at the time published twice weekly, covered that month: the search for a permanent surgeon, the quality of the season’s cherry crop and concerns about air quality from nearby forest fires.
The big event in town that August was the second annual Kokanee Summit, a festival sponsored by the local Columbia Brewery and featuring music, games and lots of beer. That year, however, the festival was also helping raise money for the Kokanee Glacier Alpine Campaign.
The Trudeau family had launched the campaign in the wake of the 1998 death of youngest son Michel, killed as the result of an avalanche in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. It sought to raise money for the construction of a new backcountry cabin in memory of Michel and other victims of backcountry avalanches. Justin Trudeau had come to the Summit that year to accept the festival’s donation of $18,500.
At the time, he was still a teacher in Vancouver; the death of his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, was still nearly two months away, as was the eulogy Trudeau would deliver at his father’s state funeral, earning him national headlines of his own and leading to speculation that he could follow in his father’s footsteps with a career in politics.
Coverage of the festival fell to the paper’s young female reporter, whom Bourne showered with praise.
“She had high integrity … wasn’t a gossip. Very professional,” Bourne told the Post.
As Bourne recalled it, the reporter told her the alleged incident between her and Trudeau was brief, lasting no longer than the blink of an eye. Bourne declined to be specific about the exact nature of what the reporter told her out of respect for her privacy.
Bourne said she left it up to the reporter to decide whether or not she wanted to pursue the matter further. “Staff knew I’d have their backs,” she said.
Her recollection was that the meeting ended with the reporter deciding to keep the matter between the two of them. There was never any discussion about taking the matter up with authorities, Bourne said. “After my conversation, I did not see it going further.”
To Bourne’s surprise, however, a 240-word editorial soon appeared on page 4 of the paper, accusing Trudeau of unwanted touching.
Though she had not expected the editorial, Bourne told the Post its contents were “on point” and “pure of heart,” reflecting accurately how the reporter had described the alleged incident to her.
Bell, too, told the Post the editorial accurately reflects his recollection of the reporter’s verbal report to him when he returned from vacation several days after the festival. He said the way the reporter characterized the alleged incident was more along the lines of “unwelcome and inappropriate” than something that had left her “distraught or traumatized.”
Bourne said public response to the column was muted, and she doesn’t recall ever following up with her staff to discuss it. Bell also did not recall any follow-up action. While he wrote most of the editorials, his reporters were authorized to fill the editorial space when he was away from the newsroom, and both he and the one other reporter at the paper that summer have confirmed to the Post they did not write the piece containing the allegation.
The Advance’s news stories about Trudeau’s appearance at the festival describe him as being “all smiles” as he chugged back a mug of beer and was inducted into the “Order of Sasquatch Hunters” alongside a local MP. Trudeau was also photographed relaxing with members of the Saskatoon band Wide Mouth Mason.
At the festival, “thousands of people cruised the grounds” drinking, eating and listening to live music, the Advance reported. But while the festival drew rave reviews from many patrons, the reporter’s coverage also included quotes from two unnamed sources who raised concerns about the safety of women.
“It wasn’t a good place to be if you’re female. It was a 10-1 ratio of men and women. I got my ass grabbed I don’t know how many times,” the reporter’s story quoted one woman as saying. “Guys were just grabbing you. It was scary. I was just surprised nothing happened. I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.”
Columbia stopped holding the annual festival a decade ago. In a statement, Labatt Breweries of Canada, which acquired Columbia in 1974, said it has “no record of any complaints or concerns being raised about the event or its atmosphere.”
“Labatt has always had, and continues to have, an operating code of conduct that applies to all sponsored events such as the Kokanee Summit … to ensure that all laws and regulations regarding the consumption of alcohol are adhered to and that the event focuses on a safe and enjoyable experience for all.”
Oliva, who acted as Trudeau’s chaperone during his visit, acknowledged she had concerns about the festival’s mix of booze and testosterone.
“That event was a high risk for Columbia,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for four days. I had to be on my game.”
However, while Trudeau was “letting off some steam like everyone else” and “having a good time,” Oliva said he remained professional and respectful at all times.
“He was an excellent guest. He met a lot of people. He was very generous with the crowd.”
Oliva had hired the same female reporter to take photographs of the festival for her. At no time, she said, did the reporter relay any concerns to her about Trudeau’s behaviour.
“She never mentioned it to me,” Oliva told the Post.
Chris Zarafonitis, whom an article in the Advance described as Columbia’s brands manager at the time, said he was unaware of any allegations against Trudeau stemming from the event, saying the future prime minister “conducted himself like a perfect gentleman.”
The one other reporter working at the Advance that summer was also unaware of the allegation. Paul Frey told the Post he remembers the Kokanee Summit festival that year and the visit by Trudeau. He did not, however, know of any scandal or allegation stemming from it.
“I don’t recall that specific incident. She never indicated to me anything like that,” Frey said of his colleague. He has since left the newspaper industry and has not kept in touch with her.
On the same day Kinsella tweeted the editorial, it was reported that an investigation had concluded into former minister Kent Hehr, who had resigned from Trudeau’s cabinet in January after being the subject of sexual harassment allegations. Though Hehr was permitted to remain in caucus, Trudeau decided after the investigation that Hehr would not return to cabinet. In a statement released after the conclusion of the investigation, Hehr said he had apologized to those who had complained about his behaviour, though he said the report found one incident of inappropriate touching had been unintentional, and that he did not recall the other incident, in which he is alleged to have made inappropriate comments to a woman a decade earlier. “Since the complaints were made, I have taken the time to focus on the improvements I can make in both my personal and professional life,” Hehr’s statement said. “I have never claimed to be perfect, and have always strived to do better.”
Hehr is not the first MP Trudeau has disciplined for his alleged conduct towards women; in 2014, before becoming prime minister, he kicked two MPs accused of sexual misconduct out of the Liberal caucus while an independent investigation was conducted. At its conclusion in 2015 they were kept out.
Additionally, in August 2017 Calgary MP Darshan Kang resigned from caucus after allegations of sexual harassment — he has made little public comment about the matter — and in February the deputy director of operations in the Prime Minister’s Office, Claude-Éric Gagné, resigned after a third-party investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct. Gagné has denied the allegations and said he made the decision to resign.)
While Trudeau’s critics online have been eager to accuse him of hypocrisy as the allegation has circulated, the exact details of the allegation remain private.
Oliva, for one, expressed dismay that the editorial was making waves 18 years later, and said its resurfacing seems like an unfair “witch hunt.”
“Come on, people,” she said. “This is not how we activate #MeToo.”
Bell, who has since left journalism, is amazed an article published in his small paper so long ago has become the focus of international interest and intrigue.
“It’s pretty bizarre. It’s nothing I would have ever expected or anticipated,” he said.
He has “no doubts” the incident happened as described, based on the reporter’s word. “I consider (her) to be of sound character and that she would not have made this up.”
“It wouldn’t have come to light at all, I’m sure, if the person in question hadn’t gone on to become the prime minister of Canada,” Bell said. “If he wasn’t prime minister, I’m under no illusions that people would be scouring the archives of the Advance to find the great journalism that we did.”