At the halfway point in his mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau conducted a mini-shuffle of Cabinet to refocus government efforts to meet domestic priorities in advance of the next federal election.
Earlier this year, Trudeau tweaked his Cabinet in response to the election of President Donald Trump to recalibrate Cabinet resources with a focus on Canada-US relations, particularly trade.
The focus of today’s shuffle was to provide the same “best foot forward” in relation to domestic issues, such as Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and to fill the gap left by the departure of Minister Judy Foote at Public Services and Procurement. In this regard, Trudeau moved one of his trusted implementers, Jane Philpott, from the Health portfolio to become Minister of Indigenous Services.
When Trudeau first named his Cabinet in 2015, each Ministerial mandate letter stated, “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.” This has been echoed by Trudeau and his ministers many times, but the Liberal government has struggled to achieve progress on significant files related to reconciliation and the socio-economic outcomes of Indigenous Peoples. Trudeau’s decision to divide responsibility for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs into two new ministries recognizes the administrative challenges inherent in managing this critical, important relationship.
He also promoted a junior minister, Carla Qualtrough, to become the Minister of Public Services and Procurement. This is a very difficult portfolio for someone to navigate without deep political and governmental experience. Qualtrough will face significant political and implementation challenges, and will likely be a target in Question Period when the House resumes on Monday, September 18.
The mini-shuffle today also elevated three junior Liberals to new portfolios within Cabinet and increased the representation of Atlantic Canada, a region where the Liberals captured every single seat in the 2015 election.
Heading into the fall, we expect to see “behind the scenes” changes to staffing at the political and bureaucratic levels to shore up support for some of these challenging portfolios for the government.
Although it is not yet known whether the Prime Minister will shuffle the membership of Cabinet committees, his staff confirmed he will release mandate letters for his new ministers.
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (Carolyn Bennett) – in the restructured Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Bennett will assume responsibility for treaty rights implementation and retain responsibility for the Northern Affairs portfolio. The decision to split the portfolio is likely in recognition of the challenges the government has faced in this area, as well as the need to have additional support to build positive federal-Indigenous relations in order to make progress on key promises made during the 2015 election. It also aligns with original recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996. While Bennett will oversee the process to replace the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, it is unclear who will be responsible for the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Minister of Indigenous Services (Jane Philpott) – Philpott will be responsible for delivering on Liberal commitments to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples. Looking for progress on a difficult file, Trudeau is seeking to tap the management skills Philpott demonstrated in leading the Canada Health Transfer negotiations, overseeing the coordination of the Syrian refugee resettlement, and helping bring in legislation for medical assistance in dying. She brings previous experience overseeing Indigenous health issues into her new mandate; these are responsibilities which could possibly be transferred to her under her new ministry.
Minister of Public Services and Procurement (Carla Qualtrough) – the Liberals have struggled to address the challenges around the Phoenix Pay Centre implementation, which has left thousands of public servants with pay challenges. It has emerged as a significant political irritant with real consequences that could impact Liberal political fortunes in 2019. Qualtrough will also oversee the delivery of significant defence procurement initiatives: shipbuilding; fighter planes; and the Defence Policy Review. As this portfolio requires a strong understanding of the machinery of government, Trudeau’s decision to elevate a junior minister to the role could prove risky.
Minister of Health (Ginette Petitpas Taylor) – Petitpas Taylor, formerly Deputy Whip, is one of the two new additions to Cabinet. Hailing from New Brunswick, she becomes the fifth Atlantic Canadian minister in Cabinet. As a rookie minister, Petitpas Taylor takes over a department tasked with two politically sensitive and highly controversial files: addressing the opioid crisis and legalizing marijuana. In particular, setbacks in legalizing marijuana could create a significant political risk if the government fails to meet its self-imposed deadline of July 2018.
Other Changes – Trudeau shuffled Calgary MP Kent Hehr into the portfolio of Sports and Persons with Disabilities, while Newfoundland MP Seamus O’Regan was promoted to Cabinet as Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence. He replaces Judy Foote as the minister responsible for Newfoundland & Labrador.