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The newly sworn-in Minister of Heritage Melanie Joly leaves Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The newly sworn-in Minister of Heritage Melanie Joly leaves Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mélanie Joly to reset ‘symbols of progressiveness’ as heritage minister Add to ...

“It’s the ministry of symbols.” That’s how Mélanie Joly, the new Minister of Canadian Heritage, likes to talk about the portfolio she was handed on her very first day in public office.

What kinds of symbols? Not the ones promoted by the Harper government, which seemed to view Heritage as a rudder with which to steer the imaginations of Canadians toward the glorious past we had before revisionist historians got hold of it. No, Heritage is now the ministry of progressive symbols, said the rookie Montreal MP. “It’s very interesting to be in charge of symbols of progressiveness. That was the soul of our platform.

“The past government didn’t have the same vision and values as Canadians, and to that extent some symbols were changed,” she said. “The relationship between artists and the cultural milieu suffered from that – and from the fact that there were so many cuts.”

So yes, she added, the money promised during the campaign is on the way. The CBC will get its $150-million, the Canada Council’s budget will be doubled, and the government will reinvest in Telefilm and the National Film Board. But Joly will also devote herself to the tasks of resetting the symbols tweaked out of alignment by the previous regime and of bringing Heritage issues more forcefully to the cabinet table.

“I see the importance of culture and content creation in a holistic way,” she said. “I want to make sure that the impact of innovation in arts is part of the process of decision-making in cabinet and in different ministries.”

But who is this new minister of symbols who has taken charge of a diverse portfolio that also oversees several national museums, the CRTC and official languages and who will be party central for the 150th anniversary of Confederation? The 36-year-old Joly is well-known in Montreal as a bright and articulate political actor, but her national profile is tiny, and her actual political accomplishments are mostly, as she might say, symbolic.

She certainly has plenty of ambition. When this lawyer and former public relations manager decided to make her start in municipal politics in 2013, she didn’t just put her name forward for a councillor’s seat. She formed her own party, marshalled a field of 50-odd candidates and ran for mayor against a well-known former Liberal cabinet minister, Denis Coderre. She lost by less than six points – and was suddenly a figure to be reckoned with in Quebec politics.

“She has a lot of determination,” said Frédéric Lepage, who co-managed her municipal campaign, worked for her at the Montreal PR firm Cohn & Wolfe and counts her as a friend. “She’s very focused, and when she sets a goal, she really fights for it.”

She grew up in a political household. Her father, Clément Joly, was on the Liberal Party of Canada finance committee in Quebec. Her stepmother, Carole-Marie Allard, sat as a Liberal MP from 2000 to 2004 and during that time was parliamentary secretary to the minister of Canadian Heritage. Joly’s mother, Laurette Racine, ran municipally for her daughter’s party in d’Ahuntsic-Cartierville, the same district where Joly won federally on Oct. 15. None of this seems irrelevant to the rookie minister’s current situation, though Joly has been terse when asked about the utility of her family’s political connections.

“I always knew I would go into politics,” she told Le Journal de Montreal in February. “I think I made this decision when I was still a child. In my view, [political action] is the best way to improve your community.”

Her municipal campaign foregrounded one major issue – a large increase in public-transit investment – and a broad promise that politics as usual had to stop in Montreal. “People are ready for change,” she said, and even named her party Vrai changement pour Montreal, precisely anticipating Justin Trudeau’s call to the people of Canada for “real change.” Even the style of her posters – dramatic head-on portraits against a dark background – were remarkably similar to what Team Liberal offered later during the federal contest.

She became acquainted with Justin Trudeau before he became party leader, after asking his brother Alexandre (Sacha) to join a young patrons’ group at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain (MAC). “[Sacha] and I quickly became friends,” she told Le Journal. “He was the one who asked me to get involved with his brother’s campaign.”

It’s no surprise that the new leader saw the charismatic Joly as potential caucus material, though her entrance into the nomination race in a riding where she did not live rankled some Liberals. It was said that her mayoralty run was merely a trampoline for her federal ambitions, and that she had been parachuted into d’Ahuntsic-Cartierville. Joly’s detractors tend to reach for gravity-defying metaphors.

She is well-connected in Montreal’s cultural and philanthropic communities, having served on the boards of the MAC, Les Ballets Jazz and the Montreal Bach Festival, as well as on those of a major hospital and the Quebec Pension Plan. She also spent five years on the provincially appointed board of the Conseil supérieur de la langue française – an interesting CV item, given her new responsibility for official languages.

“We have to promote bilingualism,” she said. “I see it as a fundamental symbol and value of Canada. It’s something we can’t take for granted, and I’ll be the defender of bilingualism in decision-making in government.”

She’s equally emphatic about our bilingual national broadcaster, where she once spent six months interning as a TV news reporter. “The reinvestment in CBC and Radio-Canada is very important, but it’s also important to create a public broadcaster for this digital era. We need to make that digital shift, to put a lot of emphasis on content creation and to prepare the new generation that will create the public broadcasting company of 2015.”

As for Joly’s managerial and personal style, Frédéric Lepage said that “when she was running Cohn & Wolfe, she made sure that the ambiance in the office was always good, and that people felt appreciated. She’s a really fun person, and she’s pretty balanced. She keeps time to do sports, see her family, go outside the city.”

Lepage had one telling anecdote to offer, about a pitch he and Joly made to a client while both were at Cohn & Wolfe. “It was something very last-minute and kind of on the fly,” he said. “It was a very tough meeting, and the client got very personal with her, said she was disorganized or something like that. She accepted that comment, but there was this feeling, like, ‘No, you’re not going to get me, no matter how you may try to diminish me.’ And by the time we finally left the place she had brought the client around and landed the account. That’s how feisty she is.”

Feistiness is always a good quality for a new MP and cabinet minister, in a place where buoyant ambitions often founder on the shoals of expedience and bureaucracy. The inaugural ceremonies of government are done and the first briefings are still going on, but we shall soon see what substance Joly will bring to her tenure at the ministry of symbols.

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