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The best way for Justin Trudeau, seen here on Oct. 23, 2019, and his government to calm Western anger would be to move aggressively on a Western agenda, John Ibbitson writes.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

All Canadians will be rooting for Jim Carr, who served ably in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet during the last Parliament. He announced Friday that he has been diagnosed with blood cancer.

Mr. Carr will know that his illness worsens Mr. Trudeau’s already intractable dilemma of finding cabinet ministers who can represent the Prairie provinces.

The former natural resources minister helped engineer the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline to prevent its expansion from being cancelled. As international trade minister, he shepherded the ratification of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

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Mr. Carr may or may not be able to serve in cabinet while receiving treatment. Regardless, the diagnosis makes the work of putting together a cabinet even tougher for Mr. Trudeau.

Three other Winnipeg MPs survived the Prairie drubbing the Liberals endured on election night: Terry Duguid, Kevin Lamoureux and Dan Vandal. Mr. Lamoureux has been in Parliament since 2010; the others since 2015. None has made a particularly strong impression, but at least one of them is likely to be named to cabinet. Other than these three and Mr. Carr, there isn’t a Liberal MP to be found between Winnipeg and Greater Vancouver.

Senators can serve in cabinet, but Mr. Trudeau expelled all the Liberal senators from caucus in 2014 during the Senate expenses scandal and as Prime Minister has appointed only independents.

As Carleton University associate professor Philippe Lagassé points out, cabinet ministers need not be members of caucus. They could remain independent of party while still fulfilling ministerial duties.

“The Senate has traditionally offered a means of shoring up a lack of representation in cabinet in light of a party’s lack of MPs from a region or province in the House,” said Prof. Lagassé, an authority on Westminster parliamentary practice, in an e-mail exchange Sunday. “If the Senate reforms are now closing the door to this representative function, then the reforms may have a real problem.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is often mentioned as a possible parachute candidate for cabinet via Senate appointment. There are a couple of problems with that. First, while Prof. Lagassé is certainly correct that convention would permit someone who is not a Liberal to serve in a Liberal cabinet, most people would find it, well, weird.

Second, why would the mayor of one of Canada’s most important cities agree to the much-more subservient role of federal minister, bound by the convention of cabinet solidarity and the discipline of the Prime Minister’s Office?

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Other suggestions, each less attractive than the other, include hiring staff for the Prime Minister’s Office from the West – you’re supposed to do that anyway – and appointing a council of advisers on Western issues, which would deserve all the derision it would receive.

The best way for this government to calm Western anger would be to move aggressively on a Western agenda. That would include the rapid completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, despite the protests of environmentalists and some Indigenous communities.

It would also include moving ahead with Teck Resources Ltd.'s Frontier oil sands project, which needs cabinet approval. But that approval is bound to anger the New Democrats and Greens in Parliament, and environmentalists in general, because it will make it even harder for Canada to meet its target for reducing carbon emissions.

Having won only 13 per cent of the available constituencies in the four Western Canadian provinces, the Liberals are weaker in the West than in any election in which they formed government since Pierre Trudeau’s near-shutout in 1980.

Although Justin Trudeau may attempt this or that parliamentary sleight of hand to increase the Prairie representation in cabinet, the fact remains that this is an overwhelmingly Laurentian government, with almost three-quarters of its seats located in Ontario and Quebec.

This space has long maintained that the country works best when Ottawa avoids mucking around in areas of provincial jurisdiction. But Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals believed they had the right and the duty to bend provincial governments to their will in the national interest.

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As a result, most of the West is utterly estranged from the rest of the country, while the separatist Bloc Québécois has risen again in Quebec.

We rest our case.

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