Trudeau has bet double-or-nothing on Freeland to pacify West
In a statement responding to the announcement of Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said, “We have much to discuss with the prime minister and his new cabinet on these and other items we have already set out in letters and public communications since the federal election.”
Justin Trudeau is putting former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland – his star diplomat – in perhaps her most difficult role yet: intergovernmental affairs. It’s a fitting appointment, as the West has apparently become foreign territory to a Liberal Party that elected a total of zero MP’s between Winnipeg and Vancouver.
The rise of Wexit, as well as Kenney’s landmark Firewall Speech, have shifted the political narrative in recent weeks away from climate change and blackface into the dangerous realm of national unity. Western alienation has become the front-page storyline across the nation.
Freeland comes to the table with plenty of experience as Trudeau’s go-to minister, navigating dangerous diplomatic waters in negotiating the new NAFTA agreement. Her performance must have impressed Trudeau, as she now holds the portfolio that seems to be the most treacherous for the Liberal Party – bridging a growing divide between Alberta, Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada.
“Today, in 2019, I think Canadians understand that our most important challenges are more domestic,” Freeland said. “It’s a moment when we must work to be a united country and a country that can work in a united manner.”
“The election sent a message from the West,” she told reporters, adding, “Now is a moment when we need to respond, to begin with, by listening really, really hard.”
The rest of the cabinet appointments, at least at first glance, don’t seem to make her job much easier. Noticeably, of the 36 cabinet ministers, 10 were from Quebec. An over-representation of Quebecers could prove to be a bane for Freeland, especially as Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Premier Kenney are locked in a fiery battle of words over Alberta’s energy sector and Equalization.
Newly appointed Natural Resource Minister Seamus O’Regan brings a lack of experience to the portfolio, and his strong ties to Newfoundland could add another obstacle in the way of resource development in the West.
“What it looks like the Liberals are trying to do is to just piece together a semblance of a national cabinet that includes people that can at least claim that they have a Western voice — that they’re not tone deaf,” said pollster Nik Nanos. “The fact of the matter is, when you’re looking at individuals like Freeland and [environment minister Jonathan] Wilkinson, they can say that they’re from the Prairie provinces.”
Freeland was born in Alberta, but spent most of her life in the East, and represents a Toronto constituency. The Liberals seem to believe that the soil of her birth will add to her credibility with Westerners.
Whether the strategy pays dividends is another question. What is needed to bridge the divide between the West and Ottawa are structural changes. Western alienation is not an issue in which a band-aid and simple recognition can fix.
Kenney’s recently announced “Fair Deal Panel” now have a clearer picture of what kind of a federal government they are working with. Granted, just because Trudeau has signalled that he is listening, the centralized manner in which he has operated his government means that those making decisions lie in the Prime Ministers office.
If we want a fair deal, the Prime Minister simply sending subordinates to “listen really really hard” is not going to help. It’s going to come down to Albertans to make sure that we are heard.
It’s time to fight for a fair deal. A fair deal that abolishes an equalization program that has deepened an already devastating recession in Alberta. A fair deal that upholds the constitutional right to free trade across provincial borders for goods, services, and infrastructure such as pipelines. A fair deal that builds into government regional representation, rather than hoping that the federal government is actually listening.
The ball is back in Kenney’s court now.