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Minister of Transport Marc Garneau responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Nov. 3, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Former astronaut Marc Garneau’s political career has not always unfolded as expected. The first Canadian to travel to space had seemed predestined for a stratospheric rise when he first ran for the House of Commons in 2006. Poised and serious, with a stellar public profile, plenty of Liberals and non-Liberals alike saw him as a future prime minister.

Alas, his blistering defeat that year in a suburban Montreal riding served as a reminder that what looks good on paper does not always translate into the right stuff in the political ring. In 2008, Mr. Garneau won a seat in safer Liberal territory – the Montreal riding of Westmount-Ville-Marie – before almost losing again in the 2011 NDP Orange Wave in Quebec.

By the time he launched his bid for the Liberal Party of Canada leadership in 2012, Mr. Garneau’s star had paled considerably. He was considered a long-shot candidate against a Teflon-coated Justin Trudeau, who made one impolitic remark after another and demonstrated a shaky grasp of policy. But even beyond his pedigree, Trudeau the Younger possessed both the charisma and emotional intelligence that Mr. Garneau seemed to lack.

Mr. Garneau ended up dropping out of the leadership race before the vote, although not before warning his party against choosing style over substance. Leadership is “about making some very, very difficult decisions, often on your own,” he said during one debate, before turning to Mr. Trudeau. “So please tell us what in your résumé qualifies you to be the leader of the country.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Garneau has often seemed to be the odd man out among Mr. Trudeau’s ministers. Not one for emoting or virtue signalling, he has struggled to fit in. In the five years he served as transport minister until Tuesday, he kept a low profile, despite handling some decidedly hot-button files.

He came under fire for moving too slowly to ground Boeing 737 Max jets flown by Canadian airlines after a second deadly crash of the new aircraft in 2019. And his airline passenger bill of rights was widely panned by critics as a loophole-filled public relations exercise. But Mr. Garneau spent most of his time at Transport out of the limelight.

Thus, it is unclear whether Mr. Garneau’s appointment as Foreign Affairs Minister amounts to a promotion for him or a move by Mr. Trudeau to shuffle him to a portfolio that he no longer considers central to his government’s agenda. With the Prime Minister’s 2015 “Canada is back” spiel having long been exposed as an empty slogan, Mr. Garneau will have limited room to manoeuvre.

His two immediate predecessors at Foreign Affairs, François-Philippe Champagne and Chrystia Freeland, tweeted incessantly about standing up for human rights but made little apparent effort to end Canadian light-armoured vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia or apply pressure for the release of Saudi dissident Raif Badawi. Mr. Champagne’s parting act as foreign affairs minister – the announcement of new measures to crack down on the importation of goods produced using forced labour – was made only after months of calls for action against China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province, and it remains to be seen what effect, if any, the new measures will have.

Mr. Champagne used Twitter to criticize – condemn would be too strong a word – last week’s arrest of more than 50 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. But his declaration was emblematic of the tiptoeing that characterized his 14-month tenure as foreign affairs minister. The Conservatives have long called for the adoption of Magnitsky sanctions against officials responsible for carrying out the human-rights crackdown in Hong Kong. Ottawa’s timid reaction has been nothing short of shameful.

Mr. Garneau’s mandate letter is hardly encouraging. It does not even mention the detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by Chinese authorities on baseless espionage charges; in fact, it does not even mention China at all. Ditto for the United States, our most important ally. Canada will need to make an extra effort in the coming months to ensure its interests are not ignored amid the political transition happening in Washington.

Mr. Garneau is, at least, thinking about it. “We’re going to develop, in the coming weeks with the new administration [of president-elect Joe Biden], our ideas about the two Michaels and other issues that jointly affect our two countries vis-à-vis China,” he said on Tuesday.

Who knows? Foreign Affairs just might be the perfect fit for Mr. Garneau. He has always been a diplomatic politician, rising above the partisan jousting that typifies Ottawa. He may seem dull compared with Ms. Freeland or Mr. Champagne, but that also makes his appointment oddly refreshing. After all, Canadian foreign policy is in dire need of some substance.

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