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Trudeau cabinet shuffle about protecting crucial U.S., China relations Add to ...

Fourteen months ago, Justin Trudeau named a cabinet for the Liberal platform. Now, he has shuffled his cabinet for the burning platform.

The burning platform is Canada’s trade relationship with the United States, and the fear that incoming U.S. president Donald Trump will immolate some of the basic underpinnings of the Canadian economy: the North American free-trade agreement, tariff-free Canada-U.S. auto trade and predictable rules for cross-border business.

Trudeau on shuffling cabinet ahead of Trump inauguration (The Canadian Press)

The story of this shuffle is not just that Mr. Trudeau chose a new team to engage with Mr. Trump’s America. His moves also made a major nod to a Plan B, and trade with another major partner, China.

Read more: Freeland tasked by Trudeau to negotiate with Trump administration

Read more: McCallum to play key role as Canada seeks to expand trade with China

Politics insider: Freeland appointment signals Trudeau's sterner approach to Putin

Out goes Stéphane Dion, a foreign minister more suited to talking about international principles than the kind of deal-making on tap with a Trump administration, and who was deemed out of step with Mr. Trudeau’s courting of China. Out goes immigration minister John McCallum, another veteran. But it’s where he’s going that stands out: Mr. McCallum will become ambassador to Beijing, the first political appointee to the post. He will be the high-level, politically connected envoy to China that Canadian PMs have been seeking for years – and that the Chinese have long wanted.

In comes a new-look international team. Chrystia Freeland, the former journalist who steered the troublesome Canada-European Union trade deal to signing, was promoted to foreign affairs.

François-Philippe Champagne, a former business executive who impressed as Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s parliamentary secretary, took her place as trade minister.

Those changes underline Mr. Trudeau’s confidence as the government’s chief executive. Mr. Dion and Mr. McCallum were two experienced hands from previous Liberal governments placed in tricky portfolios when the inexperienced Prime Minister came to power. Now, Mr. Trudeau feels he no longer needs them.

But it is the burning platform, the need to protect crucial trading relationships, that sparked the changes now.

Mr. Trudeau wasn’t the first leader to name a new team to try to cajole Mr. Trump’s administration away from its more threatening promises. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto appointed his former finance minister, Luis Videgaray, who was vilified in Mexico for organizing a mid-campaign visit by Mr. Trump, as foreign minister. But Mr. Trudeau’s shuffle also sent signals that while trying to protect trade with the United States, he will try to expand it with China.

Mr. Dion, highly regarded by Mr. Trudeau’s team at first, had lost his lustre. He’d handled files awkwardly in public, and inside the government, was seen as stubborn. He promoted Liberal Pearsonian diplomacy, but he wasn’t focused on trade. That was fine when the Liberals and the Obama administration were on the same wavelength, but now the foreign minister needs to win friends and influence people in Washington. Mr. Dion is nobody’s idea of an art-of-the-deal smooth-talker.

He was also out of step with Mr. Trudeau on China, and less gung-ho about courting trade there. He even roiled the relationship after Mr. Trudeau’s summer visit to China, publicly insisting that agreed discussions about a possible extradition treaty were not negotiations – sparking queries from the Chinese.

Ms. Freeland, on the other hand, is a China-trade booster. She also spent much of her journalistic career tracking the titans of international business – someone who understands the language of Mr. Trump’s world. After her experience in finalizing the EU trade agreement, she was seen as more of a deal-maker. And the Foreign Affairs Minister will really be the senior trade minister now: Ms. Freeland was handed responsibility for U.S. trade matters.

Mr. Trudeau said Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is anchored on trade and jobs, so he put one person in charge.

That’s why this shuffle marks a milestone for Mr. Trudeau. It is the end of Phase One of his prime ministership.

The cabinet he named on Nov. 4, 2015, on an unseasonably sunny day, was all about the Liberal election platform, and symbols of change. Mr. McCallum was appointed to bring in Syrian refugees; Mr. Dion was to pursue the “Canada is back” notion of re-engaging with the world, renewing a global do-gooder image. For that matter, Maryam Monsef, the fresh-faced Afghan refugee, was to symbolize a new, open politics by pursuing electoral reform. Two are gone, and Ms. Monsef was moved aside.

Tuesday’s shuffle came on a colder day. It marks a second phase, of wrestling with knottier issues, and of more anxiety. It’s about dealing with the possibility that once-solid rules of Canada-U.S. trade, so crucial to the Canadian economy, might be smashed. This time, Mr. Trudeau named a cabinet not to pursue his own agenda, but to cope with what might be coming.

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