OTTAWA — Former longtime Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy says his party risks losing "the only Liberal bastion in the Prairies” as criticism mounted over the prime minister's decision to downgrade Manitoba's influence in his cabinet.

OTTAWA — Former longtime Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy says his party risks losing "the only Liberal bastion in the Prairies" as criticism mounted over the prime minister's decision to downgrade Manitoba's influence in his cabinet.

"I'm not happy with the fact there has been a bit of a bypass of our region," Axworthy told the Free Press a day after Justin Trudeau removed Winnipeg MP Jim Carr from cabinet during a post-election shuffle.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>
Former longtime Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy says his party risks losing "the only Liberal bastion in the Prairies" as criticism mounted over the prime minister's decision to downgrade Manitoba's influence in his cabinet.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Former longtime Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy says his party risks losing "the only Liberal bastion in the Prairies" as criticism mounted over the prime minister's decision to downgrade Manitoba's influence in his cabinet.

"I'm hopeful there will be some reconsideration; I think a mistake has been made," said the former MP who represented Winnipeg from 1979 to 2000.

Trudeau diminished the representation of MPs from the Prairies by removing Carr, and naming two MPs from the area to junior roles.

Saint Boniface—Saint Vital MP Dan Vandal will continue as northern affairs minister, while leading a regional economic development agency; neither role puts Vandal on the front bench.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Adrian Wyld</p>
Saint Boniface—Saint Vital MP Dan Vandal will continue as northern affairs minister, while leading a regional economic development agency.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Adrian Wyld

Saint Boniface—Saint Vital MP Dan Vandal will continue as northern affairs minister, while leading a regional economic development agency.

Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault has been named tourism minister, another junior post.

"It’s disappointing," Manitoba Premier Kelvin Goertzen said Wednesday. "Western Canada needs to be better represented at the cabinet table."

Goertzen said both Carr and Vandal were influential advocates for Manitoba. He said Carr would return his call within hours. He worries having just one Manitoban in cabinet will make it tougher to get issues of importance to the province on Ottawa’s radar.

The head of the Business Council of Manitoba noted Tuesday’s cabinet has 39 ministers and "just two come from (the Prairies); I don't think that's adequate," said Bram Strain.

"Their job is to represent us as a nation. They're going to have to work a bit harder, because they're (mostly) not from here."

Axworthy said issues related to the environment, agriculture and Indigenous rights affect the region. "I think it really deserves another person around the table," he said.

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Carr served as special representative for the Prairies since 2019.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Carr served as special representative for the Prairies since 2019.

He was puzzled Trudeau removed the role of special representative for the Prairies, which had been Carr's responsibility. The prime minister created the job in 2019 to address a western separation movement after the Liberals lost all their seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

In the Sept. 20 election, the Liberals won two seats in Alberta, but Calgary MP George Chahal is under investigation for taking down an opponent’s pamphlet. That left Trudeau with five MPs in Manitoba and Alberta from which to appoint to cabinet.

Axworthy said Manitoba’s four MPs will have to work extra hard to advance issues such as cleaning up Lake Winnipeg.

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Axworthy worries the Liberals could lose their relevance in Manitoba.

WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Axworthy worries the Liberals could lose their relevance in Manitoba.

"It's certainly more difficult to do that when you're not in the room," said Axworthy, who worries the Liberals could lose their relevance in Manitoba.

Former Liberal strategist David Herle was blunt. He described Trudeau's cabinet choices as "clearly a f--- you to the Prairies," during his Curse of Politics podcast.

Herle told the Free Press Trudeau should have given Boissonnault, the Edmonton MP, the regional development job, given that he represents a province built on the oil economy. Herle said Vandal and Boissonnault should have been chosen to lead ministries related to the economy.

"The government is really doubling down on climate change action, and I support that… at the same time, everybody knows there are going to be significant regional pressures that result from that," he said.

Herle said the Liberals could put both the ministers on influential cabinet steering committees, or have the Prime Minister's Office hire a senior staffer from the region — though neither would address the perception Trudeau doesn’t care about the Prairies, he said.

“There are things (the Liberals) can do, but it feels to me they chose not to do it." – Former Liberal strategist David Herle

"The more senior you are in cabinet, and the more important cabinet committees you're on, the greater the breadth of influence you can achieve," Herle said.

"There are things (the Liberals) can do, but it feels to me they chose not to do it," he said.

He added that Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet made it harder to pick spots for the six men elected in Alberta and Manitoba. "It probably fell on the altar of gender equality."

On Tuesday, Vandal said the Liberals demonstrated they care about the region by boosting funding and staffing for the regional granting agency, which he is tasked with overseeing.

Strain agreed that could have a significant impact on the Prairies — but that doesn’t mean influence in Ottawa.

"They're two totally different things — one is local and regional influence in economic development; the other is much larger, and it's our voice at the national planning table," he said.

“I’m not concerned right now with the structure of cabinet." – Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman

Not everyone was pessimistic. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said Trudeau is directly available to mayors, as have ministers who oversee files such as infrastructure.

"I’m not concerned right now with the structure of cabinet," Bowman said, adding that infrastructure delays stem from the provincial government.

— With files from Carol Sanders

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca