Canadian Government

Rays of hope as the Trudeau era begins

Cabinet appointments reflect the voice of a long-buried Canada emerging from its winter slumber

“Sunny ways” are infectious, it seems. On Wednesday, the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau was sworn in, unleashing the rush of a collective catharsis as the weight of a traumatic decade lifted like a sombre fog.

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I confess. I was among the first to mock Trudeau’s campy invocation on election night, and I have long been an ardent critic of the Liberal leader. He may yet prove my initial stance right. But as the newly minted cabinet ministers paraded eagerly before the media, it was hard not to feel even the most tenuous and superfluous utterances of ideals from their mouths — a "most vulnerable among us" here, an "extreme poverty in the world" there — ring out as echoes of a once-familiar country we nearly let slip away. There will be no shortage of opportunities over the next four years to criticize this government, and we will surely have many opportunities to be disappointed, perhaps soon. But for the moment, we can allow ourselves to be deeply moved by these moments, as if they were the voice of a long-buried Canada emerging from its winter slumber.

The new face of Canada

For the first time in Canadian history, Justin Trudeau's cabinet is gender-balanced. Its young members are the most diverse in our history too, including two Indigenous Canadians, five other visible minorities, a quadraplegic, and a visually impaired former paralympian. And that is to say nothing of the equally promising diversity of experiences and skills, with nearly half our cabinet new to politics entirely and a great number possessing backgrounds in civil society and community activism.

This isn't simply a symbolic coup in checking off the boxes of communities needing representation. Much to Trudeau's credit — and my own delighted surprise — beneath the mosaic surface, there’s substance and talent in spades. And in the crucial domains of climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, and social justice, in particular, there is hope, at least today, for a new beginning.

Of the many inspired choices in this team, the most transformative are without a doubt those affecting Indigenous Canadians. In a bold and potentially epochal move that is eliciting the elation of aboriginal communities, Judy Wilson-Raybould, a former Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), former B.C. Treaty Commissioner, and former Crown prosecutor, is the new Minister of Justice, inheriting one of the most powerful positions in the government. One could hardly think of an appointment with a greater potential for rebuilding the shattered relationship with Canada’s first peoples.

But that is only part of the story. Former Nunavut cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo, who is Inuit, will take over the Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, while Carolyn Bennett, a medical doctor with a strong record of engagement with Indigenous communities, will head up the newly renamed Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs - a nod, believes AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde, to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For a party that flightily promised to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report immediately upon its release, this is a promising start to backing up their pious intentions with the devotion and gravitas that is so urgently required.

A climate change government

On climate change too, we find cause for an unexpected gush of optimism. Catherine McKenna, an impressive young lawyer with an international background in human rights and development, is the newly renamed Minister of the Environment and Climate change. Environmentalists quickly lauded the move for bringing a much-needed social justice perspective to the issue of climate change, whose most cataclysmic impacts will be (and already are being) felt by the world's most vulnerable populations.

The new focus seems confirmed by the appointment of former Environment Minister and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion to Foreign Affairs, in a clear signal that climate change will be a cornerstone of Canada's foreign policy. Dion was of course the Liberal leader who risked it all (and lost) on a platform geared towards "shifting" to a green economy.

Importantly, there will also now be a Minister of Science in the form of Kirsty Duncan, a climatologist and former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Amarjeet Sohi, a former city councillor and strong advocate of public transit with a history of social activism, becomes Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, lending a timely green tinge to that ministry as well. And perhaps the most crucial and convincing decision of all was to also place Dion in charge of a new cabinet committee on the environment, climate change, and energy, which will be tasked with ensuring much-needed coherence across eight key ministries, including those mentioned above.

For a party whose weak campaign promises suggested an incomplete grasp of climate change, the remarkable robustness of understanding reflected in this cabinet comes as yet another heartening surprise.

An international perspective

There are enlightened choices in other ministries as well. Sikh-Canadian Harjit Sajjan, a former military and intelligence officer with a record of accomplishments in Afghanistan, is the new Minister of National Defence. Jane Philpott, a medical doctor with a social justice bent, international development background, and a decade of work experience in Africa, is the new Minister of Health (and shockingly, Canada's first MD named to the post).

Other appointments are promising, though not without a hint of qualification. Maryam Monsef, a 30 year-old Afghan refugee, is the new Minister of Democratic Institutions (inexplicably renamed from Democratic Reform). Intelligent and articulate, Monsef also comes with a dramatic backstory, but the political neophyte will be charged with the complex and crucial task of shepherding in the promised abolition of our first-past-the-post voting system, which will be a major test of the Liberals’ commitment to true democratic reform.

Vigilance: the suits still control the purse

Yet it's not all rainbows and unicorns in Canada the morning after a new Liberal government is sworn in. Despite the promising signs in a wide array of areas, the Liberal cabinet also reaffirms the party's basic substance as being inextricably entwined with Canada's corporate establishment.

Vigilance is called for across the board of course, but nowhere more so than in the key economic portfolios, most especially with the new Minister of Finance. The government's second-in-command, Bill Morneau, is a multi-millionaire former Bay Street executive and former head of the right-leaning C.D. Howe Institute. He'll be joined by Treasury Board President Scott Brison, a former Progressive Conservative and former investment banker. Other economic portfolios went to so-called "blue Liberals" as well, notably International Trade (Chrystia Freeland), Economic Development (Navdeep Bains), Transportation (Marc Garneau), and Natural Resources (Jim Carr). Liberals will be Liberals, after all.

But there will be plenty of time for holding feet to the fire. This week belongs to Justin Trudeau and his new government, who may already be credited with restoring hope to a tired country that was in dire need of believing in itself again.

Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister. We'll be watching.

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