OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making his cabinet brave a Winnipeg winter, bringing his ministers next week to a city still likely to provide a warmer reception than anywhere else in the Prairies.
"Choosing Winnipeg is interesting — it's not Calgary, it's not Edmonton, or Saskatchewan, for that matter," said Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.
"It's in, I would say, friendlier territory for a Liberal government. But it does demonstrate that they're willing to get out of Ottawa and listen to Canadians in those regions."
Voters from across the Prairies gave Trudeau's Liberals the cold shoulder in last fall's election. The party failed to win a single seat in either Alberta or Saskatchewan, and lost three of its seven Winnipeg seats.
Trudeau and the ministers will meet Sunday to Tuesday, to brainstorm and set priorities ahead of the House of Commons sitting for most of the next five months.
"I look forward to a productive cabinet meeting in Winnipeg, a fantastic city and an important economic and cultural centre for the Prairies," the prime minister wrote in a statement.
His office said the agenda will include climate change, measures aimed at helping "the middle class," reconciliation, safety, and global affairs.
The choice of Winnipeg comes at a time where Trudeau is boosting minister visits and attention for the Prairies, after last autumn’s setback that reduced the Liberal government from a strong majority to a minority government.
Wesley said putting the meeting in Winnipeg can help "heal the rifts of national unity" — if ministers actually interact with their local counterparts. "It's a rather low-risk, high-reward move. Whether they build on it, and actually try to engage directly with governments while they're on the road, remains to be seen."
At the retreat, Trudeau plans to emphasize finding common ground across all regions of Canada.
Wesley said cabinet meetings outside Ottawa give ministers "a sense of what's happening in the rest of the country," which is now particularly important for Western Canada.
Cabinet retreats often include meetings between ministers and local officials, as well as briefings from ambassadors on major foreign-policy issues.
A January 2017 retreat in Calgary included that city’s mayor paying a visit to the cabinet, as well as an American official linked to the NAFTA trade negotiations.
In January 2018, Trudeau’s ministers met with some provincial counterparts about ongoing issues such as sheltering asylum seekers, ahead of a retreat in London, Ont.
This past January, a retreat in Quebec included a visit from that province’s premier, as well as a briefing from Canada’s ambassador to China on the rocky relationship between the countries.
Wesley said he’d prefer if federal ministers held joint retreats with provincial cabinets, to help inform each of their perspectives. British Columbia and Alberta held such meetings in the 2000s, including once with Saskatchewan.
"It’s a great opportunity for politicians to meet with one another and break bread, and develop trust in a way that we don’t see very often in Canadian politics," he said. "It's a good first step; there are ways to do this a bit better."
Wesley also questioned whether Trudeau has given enough notice to Manitoba officials about the looming meeting.
Premier Brian Pallister’s office said Monday he hopes to meet with the prime minister during the visit, and the two "had a productive discussion" late last week.
The prime minister’s youth council has met alongside previous cabinet retreats, but will not be doing so this time.
Winnipeg forecasts call for temperatures to dip early next week to -27 C, before the windchill.
Updated on Monday, January 13, 2020 at 6:37 PM CST: Updates story