Trudeau cabinet: Real change or same-old, same-old?

Here's a short take on what a dozen ministers will face in their new portfolios

Mary May Simon, Governor General of Canada, presides over the swearing-in ceremony of members of the Canadian ministry, October 26, 2021 at the Rideau Hall Ballroom in Ottawa Ontario.
Sgt Mathieu St-Amour / Rideau Hall

Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is masked and ready to govern.

Gitskan Nation child-welfare activist Cindy Blackstock summed up Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as well as anyone. She said that that the new government needed to be judged on what it does, not what it says.

With that in mind, I’ve offered short takes on a dozen ministers in their new portfolios.

But first, you can see their faces in this tweet from Trudeau.

Anita Anand, National Defense

Job one for Anand will be to get the sexual-abuse scandal in the military out of the news. Job two will be to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces keeps white supremacists and psychopaths out of the military. Job three will be to play the game with Canada’s allies who want to hem in China, including Australia, the U.K., the U.S., Japan and India.

Yes, India. One of China’s closest friends in the world is Pakistan, which remains one of India’s enemies. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s operatives and friends in Canada may decide that with the diminishment of the Sikh presence in Canada’s cabinet and a genuine friend of India as defence minister, there will be less need to embarrass Trudeau in the Canadian media.

Randy Boissonnault, Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance

Canada doesn’t need a minister of tourism when the provinces have tourism ministers, but Trudeau had to throw a bone to Alberta after it elected two Liberals. Rookie George Chahal couldn’t be put in cabinet after being caught on camera removing an opponent’s flyer from a porch. So Boissonnault became the minister. Job one for him will be to ensure that most LGBTQ+ voters remain firmly inside the Liberal tent. His second job will be to help deflect criticism of the Liberal government from Alberta premier Jason Kenney.

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health

The health minister will be judged by many progressives on two things. One, will he usher in a safe supply of hard drugs to put a serious dent in the opioid crisis? That’s not likely, given Trudeau’s preference for politics over policy. He’s more intent on keeping the Conservative law-and-order attack dogs at bay over real life-saving measures for addicted Canadians.

None of Trudeau’s health ministers has had the latitude to seriously address drug overdoses, so why would it be any different with Duclos?

Secondly, Duclos will have to keep the ball in the air over a national pharmacare program, even though the current crop of premiers will likely never agree to this. As Duclos rags the puck, he’ll have to fend off criticism from the NDP on this issue.

To make liberal-minded Canadians feel that they have a government on the vanguard of change, Duclos will likely loosen up access to psychedelic medicines. That will help keep the harm-reduction movement off Trudeau’s back for his shameful response to tainted street drugs. Plus, it will provide more work for lawyers, accountants and public-relations people who work for publicly traded companies in this sector.

And to show that he’s a true Liberal, Duclos will fight in cabinet for more health-care funding for provinces. And when he delivers this, it will help blunt criticism from the premier of Quebec and the Bloc Québécois in time for the next election, when Trudeau might finally secure another majority.

Mona Fortier, Treasury Board President

The fluently bilingual new president of the Treasury Board will offer backup for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland in communicating financial issues with francophone voters. That’s one of her primary tasks. Secondly, she will ensure that any spending projects of particular interest to Quebec voters won’t fall under the radar, blocking opportunities for the Bloc Québécois to pounce on Trudeau.

Sean Fraser, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship

Trudeau has set ambitious immigration targets, aiming for more than 400,000 arrivals each year. That will set the xenophobes’ hair on fire even though there’s a crushing labour shortage in many sectors, which will only get worse as the population ages.

Job one for Fraser as the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship will be to calm the so-called old-stock Canadians who feel anxious about immigration. That includes old-stock Canadians who write newspaper columns and host talk shows that whip up fears around immigration.

Job two for Fraser will be to reassure Canadians that the government is ready to deport people who flagrantly violate the law. He’s a good debater in Parliament, so he will probably do a decent job fending off Conservative attacks on this front.

Plus, he can expect to spend a lot of time on the road attending dinners and making contacts, which just might help if he has any ambitions of becoming a future leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Fraser will also be one of the ministers responsible for mending fences with the Sikh community, which isn’t going to be thrilled that its voice in cabinet has been diminished by three recent developments: the demotion of Harjit Sajjan to minister of international relations, the dumping of Bardish Chagger from cabinet and the departure of former industry minister Navdeep Bains from federal politics.

Steven Guilbeault, Environment and Climate Change

Is Trudeau finally going to get serious about the climate? Or are we in for more performative theatrics on this file? I suspect the latter, but perhaps Guilbeault, as the new environment minister, will prove me wrong.

Does anyone in cabinet actually believe that carbon capture, utilization and storage offer a genuine means for Canada to continue increasing fossil-fuel production while diminishing emissions?

Guilbeault is certainly smart enough to realize that it’s fraudulent for the Liberal government to rely so heavily on net negative-emissions technologies to meet its climate targets. If he maintains that fraudulent stance, there’s little else to say about this issue. He’ll simply be Trudeau’s publicist on this file.

Keep in mind that Trudeau’s cabinet has already approved two pipeline projects. It supported a third, the Keystone XL.

And there’s a massive contradiction between what the Canada Energy Regulator is saying about future oil and gas production and what the federal government’s A Health Environment and a Healthy Economy document is purporting on emissions reductions.

Plus, Trudeau eagerly supported the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline system and endorsed the construction of a carbon bomb LNG plant in Kitimat. And if there are a trillion-dollars worth of stranded fossil fuel assets in North America by 2030, as some suggest, that’s going to be someone else’s problem because Trudeau will likely be gone by then.

But now, Guilbeault can travel with Trudeau to the COP26 climate meetings to assure the world that Canada cares about the climate. Give me a break.

Cindy Blackstock was right: judge them on what they do, not by what they say. I remain very skeptical that Guilbeault will bring about the “real change” that Trudeau loves to talk about.

Karina Gould, Families, Children and Social Development

Canada now has a minister of families, children and social development and her name is Karina Gould. Child welfare is a provincial responsibility except when it involves Indigenous kids – and that’s handled by the minister of Indigenous services. So the creation of this federal portfolio, like the federal tourism ministry, is a little silly.

But Gould is articulate. She performs well on talk shows like CTV Question Period. And at 34, she’s young enough and smart enough for the so-called soccer moms who swing elections to relate to her. So we can expect to see plenty of photo-ops with her and the prime minister surrounded by kids. And she’ll be a good ambassador for Trudeau to the Jewish community.

Gould has a bright political future but this job should be seen for what it is: a stepping stone to a more important portfolio at a later date. To borrow a baseball term, she’s in the bullpen in case a more senior minister falters.

Patty Hajdu, Indigenous Services

The new minister of Indigenous services will be judged on one thing – and that’s a decision that’s outside of her control. Will the Trudeau government appeal a recent court ruling upholding a huge financial award to First Nations kids? Or will Trudeau back down in the face of intense opposition from Indigenous leaders. If the government files an appeal, Hajdu’s going to be in for a rough ride, no matter how smooth her words might be. 

Her predecessors benefited from having a fairly friendly national chief in Perry Bellegarde. His successor, Chief RoseAnne Archibald, is not likely to be as soft on the government in the coming years. The decision on the appeal will set the tone for the near to medium-term future.

Hajdu will work alongside the new minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, Marc Miller, whose work implementing Trudeau’s self-government agenda will be the subject of a future column.

Ahmed Hussen, Housing and Diversity and Inclusion

Canada has a minister devoted to housing, which is a change. It’s too bad that many decision-making powers related to housing – such as zoning and regulation of real-estate and mortgage services – are held by local and provincial governments. The feds can play a role in funding non-market housing. And it has some land, though not much, to make available for housing. 

Hussen’s primary job will be to try to increase the supply of housing and for that, he’s going to have to persuade lower levels of government to get on with the job. There are various ways to do this. Ottawa can dish up money as a carrot or withhold money as a stick. He might even pressure the provinces to lean harder on municipal governments to speed up the approvals of new projects.

If he’s a really good minister, he’ll persuade Finance Minister Freeland to bring back 1970s-style incentives for developers to build more multi-unit residential buildings that don’t gouge tenants with high rents. Good luck on that front.

But let’s not kid ourselves – in the current fiscal environment, we’re not going to see social-housing programs like in Singapore that house the middle class. As for the homelessness, that problem will likely remain a blight on the country as long as the government refuses to look upon housing as a legislated human right.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs

Her appointment as the foreign affairs minister surprised many observers, given the criticism heaped on her in her first term as the minister of Canadian heritage. But let’s get real – Trudeau changes foreign affairs ministers almost once a year so it’s not a big deal who’s occupying this position at any given time.

Trudeau will continue dealing with the big issues, such as the relationship with the United States, China and the more ornery right-wing prime ministers of allied governments, like those who are ruling Britain and Australia. Anand will become one of Trudeau’s chief advisers on India. And deputy prime minister Freeland will offer counsel on Eastern Europe and Russia.

Joly might find that she’s dealing with the rest of the world and particularly the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. But she better not get in the way of what Canadian mining companies are doing abroad or she might receive a call from the PMO.

Plus, Joly will help burnish Trudeau’s well-crafted image as an international feminist – something that her predecessor, Marc Garneau, didn’t really do.

Joyce Murray, Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard

When Trudeau appointed Murray as the minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, many might have viewed this as a promotion.

But in reality, it’s a miserable job that puts the Vancouver Quadra MP in the midst of a multitude of conflicts, and not only between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers.

With climate warming the rivers and oceans, it’s going to create genuine hardship for marine species, including B.C.’s iconic salmon. They may not even survive. That might necessitate reductions in allowable catches, which will enrage licence holders, including companies owned by influential Canadian billionaires.

Then there are the unending fights between the aquaculture industry and those who make their livings from wild salmon.

Murray ran against Trudeau for the Liberal leadership back in 2013. Marc Garneau filed his nomination papers and paid the registration fee, but pulled out of the race.

Trudeau may have finally gotten even with Garneau by dumping him from cabinet. Trudeau’s revenge on Murray could have been to appoint her to one of the cabinet’s most painful portfolios. 

If Murray remains in this job for three or four years, it may be enough to persuade her to retire before the next election. Then Trudeau can choose her successor to represent one of the safest Liberal ridings in western Canada.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources

Trudeau trusts Wilkinson because they see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. They think they’re hard-headed realists on marrying the economy and the environment. They’re incrementalists who, to date, have failed to say that without a dramatic reduction in fossil-fuel production in Canada, we’re toast. And that won’t be good for the economy.

Wilkinson made serious inroads as fisheries minister in reducing the future impact of fish farms on wild salmon. Give him credit for that. But he refused to fully acknowledge the impact that diseases in aquaculture operations were having on wild salmon. And the southern resident orcas are still in jeopardy.

As the minister of environment and climate change, Wilkinson helped get a national price on carbon, which is a major accomplishment. The government also announced a plan to sharply reduce emissions by 2030, albeit not sufficiently to meet the Paris Agreement target. But it relies in its forecasts on largely unproven net negative-emissions technologies (see the section on Steven Guilbeault). And this has been condemned by dozens of environmental groups.

Now, Wilkinson is the minister of natural resources. And Canada still plans to continue increasing fossil-fuel production over the next two decades. Will he do an about-face or will he remain the incrementalist that he was in his last two posts, gaining some victories but failing on other counts? I suspect the latter.

Canada relies on the sale of petroleum products to prop up the Canadian dollar. International currency markets, rather than the climate crisis, are going to rule the day. That’s because Trudeau has little chance of winning a majority if the loonie is worth US$0.65 cents or less.

If Trudeau doesn’t already realize this, then Wilkinson and/or Chrystia Freeland will remind him of it.

This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.


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