February 25, 2020

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Opinion

East-West divide mirrored in federal cabinet

Dan Vandal, shown being sworn in as Minister of Northern Affairs at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, is the only member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet from the Prairie provinces.

THE CANADIAN PRESS / SEAN KILPATRICK

Dan Vandal, shown being sworn in as Minister of Northern Affairs at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, is the only member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet from the Prairie provinces.

Western Canada got another poke in the eye from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Out of seven new appointees Wednesday to federal cabinet, only one is from the West: Dan Vandal, who was re-elected in St. Boniface in last month’s election. Vandal was appointed minister of northern affairs.

Winnipeg South Liberal MP Terry Duguid, shown after being re-elected in October, is a former Winnipeg city councillor that has decades of experience and could have easily handled a cabinet portfolio.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg South Liberal MP Terry Duguid, shown after being re-elected in October, is a former Winnipeg city councillor that has decades of experience and could have easily handled a cabinet portfolio.

With Jim Carr (Winnipeg South Centre) out of cabinet (he has been diagnosed with cancer), Vandal is the only minister from the Prairie provinces. The Liberals were shut out in Saskatchewan and Alberta last month, and, while that posed a significant challenge for Trudeau in trying to secure western representation, he could have done better.

The prime minister was right not to appoint non-elected members to cabinet (such as senators), but he could have at least added one more member from Manitoba: Terry Duguid (Winnipeg South).

The former Winnipeg city councillor has decades of experience, as both an elected official and head of numerous environmental task forces (he has a master's degree in environmental science). He’s a longtime, loyal Liberal, who could have easily handled a significant portfolio, such as environment or energy.

Even Vandal, who’s also very capable and politically experienced, could have been given something more substantial. It’s not that northern affairs isn’t important; it is. But it’s not a high-level appointment.

Meanwhile, Trudeau made sure to take care of Quebec and Ontario. Six of seven new cabinet ministers are either from the Toronto-Ottawa corridor or Montreal. They include the new "minister for middle-class prosperity" (whatever that is), a role given to Ottawa MP Mona Fortier.

Out of 37 cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, 28 are from Ontario or Quebec.

Trudeau faced some backlash in Quebec during the recent election — resulting in the unexpected resurgence of the Bloc Québécois — but the Liberals still did relatively well in the province. There was no reason to further mollycoddle Quebecers, yet the province got a boost in cabinet representation.

The appointment of Carr to the newly-created position of "special representative for the Prairies" is hardly a consolation for the West. It’s a non-cabinet position that carries little to no clout. It appears to be nothing more than a ceremonial appointment.

None of this bodes well for the rise in western alienation. Alberta and Saskatchewan are feeling increasingly shunned by Ottawa. There’s a sense the federal government doesn’t take the economic problems in the West as seriously as they do when things go sideways in the East. An Ontario/Quebec-centric cabinet doesn’t help soothe those feelings.

Meanwhile, appointing Chrystia Freeland as minister of intergovernmental affairs was a good tactical move. Having successfully handled the difficult North American free trade and Canada-U.S. relations files in her former role at foreign affairs, Freeland is probably the best-suited for the job.

She will be tasked with trying to appease the western premiers. But it’s unclear how much time Freeland will have to devote, since she retained responsibility for Canada-U.S. relations and was also appointed deputy prime minister.

Trudeau could have appointed someone from the West as deputy prime minister. The Liberals won 11 seats in British Columbia. Surely there must have been someone in B.C. worthy of the appointment.

Giving the West one or two more cabinet posts wouldn’t have solved Trudeau’s problems in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but it would have helped. It would have shown Ottawa takes the West seriously.

In the end, it will be up to Trudeau to show leadership in Western Canada to bridge the divide that developed on his watch. He’s going to have to spend a lot more time in the region, including in meetings with premiers to address their concerns. He can’t dump it all on Freeland’s lap.

Trudeau had a chance to show a little more love this week. Instead, he gave the West the cold shoulder.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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