Justin Trudeau adds fresh faces to cabinet; Freeland up, Dion, McCallum out


Published on January 11, 2017

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shook up his cabinet Tuesday in a bid to adjust to the upheaval wrought by incoming American president Donald Trump to international affairs in general and Canada's relationship with the United States in particular.

He entrusted to Chrystia Freeland — a former economics journalist with extensive contacts in the United States — the crucial responsibility of navigating the changing domestic and global dynamic as his Liberal government prepares to deal with an unpredictable and avowedly America-first Trump administration.

Freeland leaves the international trade portfolio, where she distinguished herself overcoming eleventh-hour obstacles to a Canada-European free trade agreement, to replace veteran Liberal MP Stephane Dion at Global Affairs. And she will retain responsibility for Canada-U.S. trade relations.

"Obviously, the new administration to the south will present particular both opportunities and challenges as well as a shifting global context," Trudeau told a news conference following a swearing-in ceremony that saw Dion and fellow veteran John McCallum leave politics altogether, MaryAnn Mihychuk return to the backbenches and three newcomers welcomed into the inner circle.

"We are always going to be expected by Canadians to adjust and to put our best team forward in dealing with the important issues that matter to Canadians, whether it be the relationship with the United States, whether it be the relationship with China, whether it be how we engage with Europe."

Trudeau expressed confidence in his government's ability to work with the Trump administration, which officially takes over on Jan. 20. But he repeated his assertion that he'll continue to stand up for Canada's values and principles.

And on that score, some of his other cabinet choices appeared to reflect his determination to chart a different course to the populist, protectionist, anti-immigration Trump regime.

He named rookie Toronto MP Ahmed Hussen, a Somali refugee, to the immigration portfolio vacated by McCallum, who oversaw the welcoming of 25,000 Syrian refugees.

"We've always been generous by opening our doors and opening our hearts and we've been the better for it," Hussen said. "The story of Canada is the story of immigration."

McCallum will become Canada's new ambassador to China, signalling just how serious Trudeau is about expanding relations with the world's most populous country, including exploratory talks on a free trade deal. The prime minister referred repeatedly Tuesday to the need to pivot toward Europe and Asian countries, evidently in response to the more protectionist mood in the U.S.

Even in his choice of Freeland as foreign affairs minister, Trudeau signalled a different course from Trump, who has taken a much friendlier stance than Canada on Russia, which has been accused by the CIA of interfering in last fall's U.S. presidential election.

Freeland is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent who made decidedly undiplomatic remarks about Russia in the wake of that country's military incursions into Ukraine in 2014. That same year, she and 12 other Canadians were barred from entering the country as part of a series of retaliatory sanctions imposed by President Vladimir Putin.

Asked about her ability to navigate the Trump-Putin relationship, given her history, Trudeau would only say: "She speaks fluent Russian."

"We continue to stand strongly with Ukraine ... and continue to condemn in no uncertain terms the illegitimate and illegal actions of the Russians in Ukraine," he added.

Freeland, who worked as a journalist in Moscow for four years, said she agrees with her government's position that "it is important to engage with all countries around the world, including Russia," noting that her background and familiarity with the country makes her uniquely qualified for the role.

On the subject of whether she'd be allowed to travel there, she said, "That's a question for Moscow."

Quebec MP Francois-Philippe Champagne, until now parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, replaces Freeland at international trade. Rookie Burlington MP Karina Gould is the third newcomer, taking Democratic Institutions from Maryam Monsef, who was demoted to Status of Women.

Trudeau dismissed suggestions that the change in Democratic Institutions signals a move away from his vaunted promise to do away with Canada's so-called "first-past-the-post" voting system in time for the next election in 2019.

"I continue to be committed towards renewing our electoral system, there's no question about that, and I look forward to having Karina continue on the extraordinary work Maryam did over the past year of reaching out to Canadians, engaging with them and talking about how best to improve our democracy," he said.

"This is something that matters deeply to Canadians, it matters deeply to us, and to me."

Patty Hajdu, a strong performer who shone as status of women minister, takes over the labour portfolio from Mihychuk.

Trudeau heaped praise on Dion, whom he called a friend. But the fact that there was no immediate indication of a plum diplomatic posting for the one-time federal Liberal leader made clear that Dion is not leaving willingly.

"Over the last 21 years, I have devoted myself to my riding, to my fellow citizens, to Quebec, to all of Canada, to the role that we must play in the world, and to the Liberal Party of Canada," Dion said in a statement released in the midst of the swearing-in ceremony.

"I have enjoyed political life, especially when I was able to make a difference to benefit my fellow citizens. I emerge full of energy ... renewable! But politics is not the only way to serve one’s country. Fortunately!"

Dion's tenure at Foreign Affairs has been a rocky one, marred by controversy over his approval of a $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. His prickly demeanour was also seen as ill-suited to dealing with Trump, who has demonstrated a tendency to easily take offence.

Trudeau said he has offered the former minister "a very important senior position that is going to be key for me in the coming years" and that Dion "is rightly taking his time to consider" whether to accept it.

Sources not authorized to speak publicly on the matter say Dion rejected an ambassadorship to France because it would have required him to give up his dual French citizenship. He was subsequently offered another diplomatic post, possibly ambassador to the United Nations or to the European Union.

Trudeau also paid tribute to McCallum, calling his work in the immigration portfolio on behalf of Syrian refugees "an inspiration to Canadians and an example to the world."

In his first cabinet of 30 ministers, Trudeau famously appointed an equal number of men and women "because it's 2015." That parity was upset last fall when Hunter Tootoo resigned from cabinet and the Liberal caucus in order to seek treatment for alcohol addiction following what he later admitted was an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer.

Tuesday's shuffle restores that gender balance.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press