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OTTAWA — Dan Vandal was a professional boxer in his past, but Manitoba’s newest federal cabinet minister will be leaning on the softer touch he developed at city council as he takes over the northern affairs portfolio.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Vandal (Saint Boniface—Saint Vital) as the only Manitoban in his cabinet Wednesday, placing Jim Carr (Winnipeg South Centre) as a regional adviser while he deals with cancer treatment
"(Vandal) started off as a boxer and a fighter, but he also knows when not to bother fighting. He's a very practical guy," said Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, who has campaigned alongside Vandal.
As the previous sole Manitoban in cabinet, Carr had overseen issues such as Churchill’s railway disruption and Winnipeg’s infrastructure-spending dispute with the province. Vandal will likely take on such files.
Christopher Adams, a University of Manitoba political scientist, said Vandal’s performance in tough elections suggests he’d be adept at finding common ground in a minority government.
"He’s not an exhibitionist," Adams said. "I've seen him as more of the quiet but astute politician, who can read what's going on and then act on it."
Vandal was first elected MP in 2015, after five terms as a Winnipeg city councillor. He was previously a social worker.
Trudeau had appointed Vandal, who is Métis, as parliamentary secretary for Indigenous Services Canada in October 2018.
He told reporters Churchill will be part of his role as minister, which he expected will touch on climate change, energy, food security. "There’s certainly not a lack of issues in the North."
Three of Vandal's former city council colleagues lauded his ability to work with different people, which they all said could help manage the relationship between the Trudeau, Pallister (Manitoba) and Bowman (Winnipeg) administrations.
"It wouldn't be easy for anybody, dealing with some of the issues with the province, but I think he'd be very well-suited for it," said former councillor Jenny Gerbasi. "I think he's going to be a champion of the city, which is what we need."
“(Vandal) started off as a boxer and a fighter, but he also knows when not to bother fighting. He's a very practical guy." –Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont
Coun. Matt Allard was Vandal's assistant for three years; Allard called him an "excellent" choice for cabinet. "We used to say: ‘Dan, Dan, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can.’"
Coun. Brian Mayes said he was impressed with Vandal when he joined council in 2011, in dealing with contentious issues such as reviewing city-operated golf courses.
"I remember him saying, ‘You get too caught up in the details; you have to have a bigger picture here; you have to communicate that to the public,' and he was right on that," Mayes said.
"He’s used to handling a lot of different files at the same time."
Vandal has largely avoided controversy since coming to Parliament Hill four years ago. However, he apologized in October 2018 after flashing a middle finger to Conservative MP James Bezan in the House, during "a heated debate" over a convicted killer being placed in an open-concept prison lodge.
Carr’s new role as "special representative" appears to have him sitting at the cabinet table, despite not having a role as minister. Trudeau said Carr has to prioritize his health, but was "very clear" he wanted a role representing the region.
"I’m very excited about sitting around the cabinet table with him on various cabinet committees, and continuing to hear the great insights he has on how we ensure that what we're doing as a government reflects the challenges, opportunities and priorities of the entire country," the prime minister said.
"He will be able to focus entirely on that relationship (and) engage with the Prairies in a strong and present way," Trudeau said, adding this will be informed by conversations with premiers, mayors, industry and Indigenous leaders.
Carr was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, the same week he was re-elected in Winnipeg South Centre.
He declined an interview request Wednesday, but wrote in an email he was happy with being Trudeau’s "eyes and ears in the West" and "a strong voice" for the region.
"This is the right balance for now," Carr wrote. "Many western Canadians are feeling frustrated. I will work with them, listen to them and advocate for a strong West in a united Canada."
“Many western Canadians are feeling frustrated. I will work with them, listen to them and advocate for a strong West in a united Canada." –Jim Carr
In Tuesday’s provincial throne speech, the Pallister government indicated it would reverse cuts to infrastructure spending, an area the federal Liberals have pledged to expand and one that Lamont expects Vandal to play a key role.
"This is an opportunity for Trudeau and the Liberals to show what they're made of," Lamont said. "There's potential to get a lot of good done."
Winnipeg’s other two Liberal MPs, Terry Duguid and Kevin Lamoureux, do not have a role in Ottawa's inner circle, though Trudeau is expected to soon name parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs.
Duguid was most recently assisting the minister for the status of women, while Lamoureux supported the House leader. Adams said the two have seats that are electorally vulnerable, making it unlikely Trudeau would put them in a role that requires long stretches outside their ridings.
“It’s quite symbolic for people in Manitoba to see this happen, in a sense of where was the birth of Manitoba, in the Red River Resistance.” –Political scientist Christopher Adams
Adams added it’s notable to have Vandal sitting at the cabinet table as a Métis, from a historically French-speaking riding.
"It’s quite symbolic for people in Manitoba to see this happen, in a sense of where was the birth of Manitoba, in the Red River Resistance."
St. Boniface—St. Vital has previously been represented by Métis MPs, such as Shelly Glover in the Harper government, and Roger Teillet in the 1960s.
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Updated on Wednesday, November 20, 2019 at 6:29 PM CST: Full writethrough