April 8, 2020

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Cabinet retreat in Manitoba a half-bold move

Editorial

As grand gestures go, this one doesn’t feel all that grand.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will bring his cabinet to Winnipeg next week for a three-day retreat, a clear signal the federal Liberals are trying to extend a figurative olive branch to Western Canada, a region that did not look favourably on Mr. Trudeau in last fall’s election.

Trudeau, cabinet to Winnipeg for three-day retreat

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a press conference in Ottawa on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Trudeau says Iran must take full responsibility for mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing all 176 civilians on board, including 57 Canadians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a press conference in Ottawa on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Trudeau says Iran must take full responsibility for mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing all 176 civilians on board, including 57 Canadians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Posted: 13/01/2020 12:00 PM

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.

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Of course, bringing the cabinet retreat to Manitoba — which represents the eastern margin of the West and also happens to be the Prairie province that elected four Liberals to Parliament, in contrast to the grand total of zero produced by Saskatchewan and Alberta — isn’t what anyone would describe as a bold stroke. Manitoba is, according to University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley, "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."

The symbolism of the meeting’s location is muted, at best, so it will be up to the PM and his cabinet counterparts to do and say things while they’re here that will make the western outreach seem meaningful.

According the the prime minister’s office, the point of the Sunday-through-Tuesday get-together is to set priorities for the House of Commons’ next session, and the agenda will include climate change, measures aimed at helping Canada’s middle class, reconciliation, safety and global affairs. That’s a rather hefty order paper, but it would be overly optimistic to expect the brief retreat to produce profound statements on any of those complex big-picture issues.

Unmentioned in the agenda released by the PMO is "Western relations," though one imagines the topic will provide a fair amount of the meeting’s subtextual momentum. Mending fences on the Prairies and beyond must become a front-of-mind issue for Mr. Trudeau if he hopes to reclaim majority status the next time Canadians go to the polls — and that’s not as easy as it sounds for a party that has traditionally tended to view everything northeast of Toronto as electorally inconsequential hinterland.

According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office, the point of the Sunday-through-Tuesday get-together is to set priorities for the House of Commons’ next session. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press files)

According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office, the point of the Sunday-through-Tuesday get-together is to set priorities for the House of Commons’ next session. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press files)

So it is not completely without significance that the Liberals have opted to bring their cabinet conclave to Manitoba. It is a gesture — though nowhere near as intrepid or impactful as if the meeting were to be scheduled in Edmonton, Calgary or Regina, where regional unrest remains at a low boil and Mr. Trudeau would face a much more uncertain welcome.

It might be, in fact, that the greater opportunity in the half-daring designation of Winnipeg as the cabinet retreat’s locale belongs to Manitoba rather than to Mr. Trudeau’s government. Having the PM and his top party operatives in this region will necessarily create openings for Premier Brian Pallister to grab a bit of useful federal-government facetime at a time when dialogue on such issues as climate change and the carbon tax could only be to Manitoba’s benefit.

"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," says Mr. Wesley.

While they seem to be at a more collegial stage than at other times during their nearly parallel tenures as government leaders, there remains room for improvement in relations between Mr. Pallister and Mr. Trudeau. Manitoba’s premier neither sought nor arranged this time-limited visit by the PM, but he should take full advantage of whatever opportunities it presents.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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