The prime minister has renovated the cabinet he put together barely more than a year ago with an eye, it seems, to fashioning a sturdier version of the original to withstand the attention of a new, more bellicose neighbour.
Tuesday’s shuffle was an almost solemn affair at Rideau Hall, with voices never rising above a murmur as the invited guests awaited the arrival of the six people who take on new and/or expanded roles in Justin Trudeau’s government.
This wasn’t just tinkering by the prime minister.
These changes came out of necessity, just over a week before Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington and on the day U.S. lawmakers began confirmation hearings of the president-elect’s own cabinet choices.
Counterbalance to Trump
Most of Trump’s picks are rich guys. A few of them are military types. A good many appear to possess the same self-assured swagger their boss routinely displays when he vows to make America great again at the expense of everyone else.
With Trump sure to shake up official Washington, Trudeau felt compelled to shake up his own team, naming Chrystia Freeland as Canada’s counterbalance to a Trump administration that will surely be more assertive, more protectionist and self-centred.
The journalist-turned-politician impressed during her time at International Trade. She has a contact file that opens doors around the world.
As foreign affairs minister, Freeland will be the main point of contact and principal voice in articulating Canada’s steadfast pro-trade stance to a U.S. president who says the only good deals are the ones that give Americans the clear upper hand. She’ll be the one promoting globalization at a time when it’s become a dirty word not only in Washington, but in London, Rome and other capitals.
“She brings key assets to that position. She is a very effective communicator. She is a good negotiator. We saw that in the critical role she played in finalizing the Canada-EU trade agreement,” says Fen Hampson, director of global security and politics at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Hampson says Freeland will be taken seriously in Washington.
“She’s one of the few cabinet ministers who has what you would call an international reputation. And that reputation is very strong south of the border.”
It’s the kind of role that seemed ill-suited for Stéphane Dion, the introspective former academic who is weighing his options after being offered the job of ambassador to the European Union.
It is not, we are told, a move he relished. Sources say he wanted to remain in politics and cabinet.
Dion, remember, played a crucial role in preventing Quebec from separating in the 1990s. His knowledge of federal/provincial relations and federalism is unsurpassed among politicians in Ottawa.
That expertise seemed better suited to a Canadian representative who must navigate the hallways of Brussels, where command of French is an asset and where political leaders are grappling with their own separatist movement fuelled by last year’s Brexit vote.
But Freeland isn’t the only headline from Tuesday’s shuffle. Just as dealing with Trump isn’t its sole objective.
John McCallum’s departure as immigration and refugees minister to become ambassador to China is another key piece in the cabinet remake as the Liberals seek to deepen ties with the world’s second-largest economy.
The post has been vacant now for a couple of months. Government insiders say the need for an ambassador who can open doors in Beijing and who would have a direct line to the prime minister was both urgent and essential.
Beijing joins Washington, London and Paris whose Canadian envoys are political appointees, a move intended as a sign of respect and to show the Chinese that the Trudeau government is serious about building closer ties.
It’s an added bonus that McCallum, who successfully managed Canada’s influx of 25,000 refugees with few hitches, represents a riding with a large population of voters with Chinese roots.
If necessity dictated the key cabinet moves, opportunity guided the other choices.
The three new ministers will make an already young cabinet even younger. The appointments match priorities Trudeau established in crafting his first cabinet: gender balance and roles for people from diverse backgrounds.
Ahmed Hussen, 41, replaces McCallum as immigration and refugees minister. He arrived in Canada as a refugee from Somalia in 1993. Liberals say he’s exceptionally hard-working and well-liked. His new role, they say, underscores the government’s openness to the world and the contributions newcomers make to Canada.
Karina Gould, at 29, becomes the youngest female cabinet minister. She takes over the difficult electoral reform file from Maryam Monsef, who becomes minister for the status of women. Gould has filled one of those thankless but essential roles in Commons debates, frequently being tapped to speak in support of government bills. Just as important, she represents Burlington, a riding in southwestern Ontario where support for the Conservatives remains strong.
And François-Philippe Champagne, 46, is an international trade specialist from Jean Chrétien’s old riding in Quebec. He takes over from Freeland.
So Trudeau has his new cabinet. Sturdier, he hopes. Younger. Still balanced between men and women.
Those goals were met. The job of promoting Trudeau’s trade agenda and taking on a new president determined to assert American dominance has just begun.