The U.S. relationship is the number one foreign policy file for any Prime Minister. With the election of Donald Trump, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was handed the most complex situation – at least since the Iraq War. Foundational agreements like NAFTA and the earlier Free Trade Agreement are in question. Canada’s access to its largest market (and American access to their largest market) may be jeopardized. Issues from energy to agriculture to tourism are all plagued by uncertainty. (NOTE: Read our analysis of what the President-Elect will mean for Canada)

To address this challenge, the Prime Minister is shifting resources, especially by moving his most effective foreign policy advocate to the senior post of Global Affairs. Cabinet shuffles can be over-hyped, and some of the decisions here are simple housekeeping. But in this case, there is a much more significant policy driver that is guiding some of these decisions which will have a real impact on how the government conducts itself.

New Faces in Trudeau’s Cabinet

The most critical move is that former journalist and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland moves to Global Affairs Canada, while continuing to have specific responsibility for Canada-U.S. trade. Freeland is a tireless worker with a long list of relationships in Washington. Freeland’s former role at International Trade will be filled by François-Philippe Champagne, a rookie Quebec MP who impressed as a smart, able and tireless Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance.

The new Immigration Minister is Toronto MP Ahmed Hussen, an immigration and human rights lawyer. A former advisor to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Hussen arrived in Canada from Somalia in 1993 and was a long-time leader in the redevelopment of Regent’s Park in Toronto.

Patty Hajdu of Thunder Bay is promoted to Employment and Labour and Karina Gould of Burlington joins Cabinet as Minister of Democratic Institutions. Maryam Monsef moves to Status of Women while MaryAnn Mihychuk leaves Cabinet.

Markham’s John McCallum is leaving Cabinet to become Canada’s Ambassador to China. This move adds a statesman with the ear of the Prime Minister as Canada’s voice in Beijing. Stéphane Dion, a former leader of the Liberal Party, who held the Global Affairs post is also leaving Cabinet.

Why This Matters

The Trump administration is now the number one challenge for the government. The Prime Minister and his senior staff are seized with how to maintain access to the U.S. economy. Ideally, they want to not only keep the border open but also enhance access through infrastructure from pipelines to the Detroit River International Crossing.

At the same time, the Canadian government may need to address issues related to competitiveness that may arise from Trump’s domestic policies.  Accordingly, Trudeau has reorganized his cabinet to manage this challenge. The Liberal platform priorities of infrastructure, innovation and climate change remain critical to the government’s re-election and long-term agenda. But mismanagement of the U.S. relationship would be fatal and the safest hands are being charged with this task.

The primary U.S.-focused players will include:

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
  • Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland
  • Finance Minister Bill Morneau
  • Transport Minister Marc Garneau
  • Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr
  • Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale
  • Trudeau’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford
  • Trudeau’s Principal Secretary Gerald Butts
  • Canada’s Ambassador to the United States David MacNaughton

The U.S.-focus appears to be balanced by the appointment of a cabinet-experienced Ambassador to China.

Given the breadth and ambition of the Trudeau government’s plans, bandwidth was always a problem. However, last November a highly unpredictable and attention-demanding relationship with our immediate and massive neighbour was added to the mix. A busy agenda that sometimes made Ministers scarce – and slowed decisions on important files – is now greatly expanded by a mercurial and unknowable U.S. administration that may turn public policy on a single Tweet.

The Canada-U.S. relationship has often been challenging to manage.  It is now even more complicated.  Conventional wisdom and long-standing conventions are likely to be in question. The need for public policy counsel that creates the conditions for success has rarely been higher.