Cabinet shuffle puts focus on issues including pipelines, discontent in Western Canada and trade
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has moved Canada’s international trade file into the hands of small business minister Mary Ng, while promoting former Infrastructure minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to Minister of Global Affairs in a cabinet shuffle that places a new focus on domestic issues.
The new cabinet, unveiled at Rideau Hall Wednesday, sees Champagne take the place of Chrystia Freeland, who was named deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs with responsibility for managing rising political discontent in Western Canada.
Freeland — who shepherded the new North American free trade pact through 17 months of turbulent negotiations with the United States — will retain responsibility for the trade deal and for Canada-U.S. relations.
“When Trump was elected in 2016, Trudeau had to adjust, and did, by putting Freeland into foreign affairs to manage NAFTA,” said Robert Wolfe, professor emeritus of policy studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “Now with a minority government he has to do what’s necessary to keep the confidence of the house. That means a new focus on pipelines and Western Canada. So that’s where Freeland is headed.”
Keeping Freeland at the helm of Canada’s efforts on the revamped NAFTA makes sense, Wolfe added, given the deal has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress where House Democrats are seeking changes to provisions on pharmaceuticals and Mexican labour reform. Canada could still refuse to ratify the agreement if those changes are not palatable.
“If we have to send someone to Washington to look them in the eye and say no it needs to be someone who was deeply involved in the file,” said Wolfe. “So it would be a surprise to move Freeland before Congress votes.”
Ng assumes the trade file from Manitoba MP and former Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr, who is being treated for cancer in Winnipeg. Carr will become a special adviser on the Prairies.
Ng, who became Minister of small business and export promotion last summer, spent much of the last year criss-crossing the country promoting Canada’s portfolio of trade deals to the small businesses that account for 98 per cent of firms.
The decision to shift international trade to her portfolio is a strong signal that Ottawa will strengthen its focus on trade promotion rather than seeking to negotiate “ever more trade deals,” said Meredith Lilly, the Simon Reisman chair at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
In addition to NAFTA, Canada has recently completed an 11-country Asia-Pacific trade agreement and a hard-won pact with the European Union.
“We now have access to most world markets through our trade deals with the exception of China and India,” Lilly said. “So we need to become more focused on implementing the deals we signed.”
We need to become more focused on implementing the deals we signed
Champagne, who previously succeeded Freeland when she was shifted from the trade portfolio to Global Affairs, will be tasked with managing a damaged diplomatic relationship with Beijing. Relations between China and Canada have been at a low point since December when Canada arrested Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. In a measure widely viewed as retaliation for that move, China — which has demanded Meng’s return — halted all purchases of Canadian canola and has also slowed or stopped buying other commodities. It has also detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on charges of espionage.
Champagne, a former vice president at Swiss engineering multinational ABB, has gained much of his international experience in Europe “though he has cut his teeth to some extent on the Asia file,” said Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat and head of the University of Alberta’s China Institute.
As trade minister, Champagne accompanied Trudeau to China in December 2017, in an attempt to launch formal free trade talks with the superpower. Those talks foundered when Beijing resisted Canada’s efforts to add provisions on the environment, human rights, labour and gender issues.
“A free trade agreement with China is a dead letter right now,” said Houlden. “And I don’t think it will get better until the twin issues of Meng and the detained Canadians go away.”