April 10, 2020

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Opinion

Cabinet retreat aims to weather West's angst

Mike Sudoma / The Canadian Press</p><p>Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne speaks to media alongside (from left) Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Marc-Andre Blanchard, acting Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman, Canadian High Commissioner to the U.K. Janice Charette, and Canadian Ambassador to France Isabelle Hudon during the Liberal cabinet retreat in Winnipeg on Sunday.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / The Canadian Press

Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne speaks to media alongside (from left) Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Marc-Andre Blanchard, acting Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman, Canadian High Commissioner to the U.K. Janice Charette, and Canadian Ambassador to France Isabelle Hudon during the Liberal cabinet retreat in Winnipeg on Sunday.

The moment she stepped out of the elevator, the Fairmont Hotel guest knew she was in the wrong place.

Wrapped in a parka and sporting a natty tuque, the guest was trying to get to the lobby and then outside into the bitter Sunday morning cold. But alas, she got off on the mezzanine level, which had been conscripted as the nerve centre of a federal cabinet retreat, which is being held this weekend in Winnipeg.

Two steps out of the elevator, the woman stopped in her tracks as she spotted an impenetrable wall of journalists and television cameras with lights aflame, all gathered to snag comments from cabinet ministers.

Without a word, she slowly backed her way into the elevator like a zookeeper easing away from a cranky carnivore.

And with that, journalists witnessed the first and perhaps only dramatic moment of the opening morning of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet retreat, one of the more unusual events in the life of a federal politician.

Whenever large numbers of politicians gather, journalists are sure to follow. It’s our job to capture their every utterance and gesture to create the next great ripple in the torrent of stories that form the national news agenda.

Journalists do not attend the meetings, per se. Instead, they are permitted to capture the "ins," brief comments made as the ministers enter the meeting, and the "outs," the comments made as everyone heads back to their hotel rooms.

It may not seem like a high-value target, but political journalists are experts in wringing stories out of a few minutes of access to a cabinet minister. Consider the lineup of stories that were generated from just 15 minutes of "ins" on Sunday morning.

Justice Minister David Lametti stopped by to talk about his intention to bring forward a revised medically assisted dying bill in February. A Quebec Superior Court judge declared certain sections of the law to be unconstitutional and gave the Liberal government six months to deliver new legislation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, fresh from a meeting with Iranian officials in Oman, updated reporters on efforts to repatriate remains of Canadians killed when a Ukrainian jetliner was shot down by Iranian missiles.

Economic Development Minister Melanie Joly outlined her hope that opportunities to improve the life of middle-class Canadians would be on the retreat agenda. And Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, Manitoba’s senior cabinet representative, stopped by to applaud the decision to bring the retreat to Winnipeg so that local concerns could be highlighted.

And what of the prime minister? Trudeau and his new beard were among the first to arrive for Sunday morning’s working session. With the urgency of a Blue Bomber running back heading for daylight, Trudeau dodged most of the reporters by rushing past and into a restricted, ministers-only area as Champagne was holding court. Better luck next time, media scrum.

It may seem like way too much fuss and not enough actual news to justify the decision to relocate the entire federal cabinet — along with dozens of political staffers, audio-visual technicians and security personnel — to Winnipeg. The truth is that events such as this are, if nothing else, valuable reminders of the sheer magnitude of the national agenda.

When it comes to the business of governing the nation, there are no off days. From the emergency response to the blizzard that ravaged Newfoundland, to the new trade agreement with the United States and Mexico, and preparations for the first parliamentary session of the new minority Liberal government, Trudeau and his cabinet have their hands extremely full.

Still, you may wonder why Trudeau and his cabinet chose to come to Winnipeg in January, which typically features the cruelest winter weather this city can muster? As they watched the horizontal snow whipping by their hotel room windows Sunday morning, you can bet many journalists and politicians from Ottawa were asking themselves the same question.

There are a variety of theories. First, observers believe that leaving the comfort of Ottawa and coming here is a modest, conciliatory gesture to Western Canada, which summarily rejected the Liberals in last fall’s federal election.

The Liberals won only four of 14 seats in Manitoba and were shut out in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Anger over a range of issues has spawned a new western separatist movement that may not break up the country, but could make it difficult for Liberals to gain a foothold west of Manitoba in future elections.

However, if the location of the cabinet retreat was supposed to serve as an olive branch to cranky western separatists, one has to wonder why Trudeau didn’t venture a bit farther west than Winnipeg? Although Manitoba is a chartered member of "the West," it’s certainly not the epicentre of western alienation.

The short answer is that it’s too soon. Emotions among self-proclaimed Wexit activists are still at full boil. This past weekend, more than 700 hard-core separatists held a "Value of Alberta" conference in Calgary to discuss opportunities to recast the province’s relationship to the rest of Canada.

Had Trudeau visited Calgary this weekend, you would have been able to see the ensuing mushroom cloud all the way from the Ottawa Valley.

No, Winnipeg is "western lite," close enough that some will see it as a symbolic gesture, and far away enough from the oilpatch that it won’t be too provocative.

Save for the occasional hotel guest who inadvertently strays into the path of television cameras, Winnipeggers will likely not even notice that the prime minister and cabinet are in Winnipeg. But that does not mean there will be no news.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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