With nine months to go before the next federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet in a way that places one of his most trusted ministers in charge of government spending while shaking up key portfolios at Justice, Indigenous Affairs and Veterans Affairs.
Outgoing Treasury Board President Scott Brison triggered the shuffle with his announcement late last week that he was stepping down from cabinet after deciding not to run for re-election.
Three current ministers received new assignments Monday, while two Liberal MPs were elevated to cabinet.
Replacing Mr. Brison at Treasury Board is Jane Philpott, who is now in her third cabinet post after moving from Health to Indigenous Services in the summer of 2017.
Mr. Trudeau said moving Ms. Philpott again made sense because she has been the vice-chair of the Treasury Board cabinet committee, which oversees the government’s internal spending decisions.
The President of the Treasury Board reviews and approves detailed spending plans submitted by departments. The job comes with a low public profile, but the responsibility involves preventing future political headaches for the government by challenging questionable spending proposals.
Veterans Affairs minister Seamus O’Regan will take over Ms. Philpott’s duties at Indigenous Services, while Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould moves to Veterans Affairs.
Speaking with reporters from the steps of Rideau Hall on a cold and sunny winter morning in Ottawa, the Prime Minister rejected suggestions that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s move could be viewed as a demotion.
“I would caution anyone who thinks that serving our veterans and making sure they get the care to which they are so justly entitled from any Canadian government is anything other than a deep and awesome responsibility,” he said. “With her experience and tremendous leadership, Jody will ensure our veterans receive the care and support of a grateful nation.”
During his year-and-a-half in the Veterans Affairs portfolio, Mr. O’Regan earned the scorn of some veterans’ advocates who accused him of being tone-deaf to their issues and, in some cases, not fully understanding the policies of his own department.
“I am very happy so see him go,” said Mike Blais, the head of Canadian Veterans Advocacy. “He said ‘I am here to listen’ but he clearly wasn’t hearing what the veterans were saying.”
In August 2017, Mr. Trudeau announced a decision to split Indigenous Affairs into two separate departments, with Carolyn Bennett continuing in the file as Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, while Ms. Philpott moved from Health to a new position as Minister of Indigenous Services.
Mr. O’Regan said his priority in the new position is to listen and work hard. He then outlined his personal connection to indigenous issues.
“I grew up in Labrador. I left a fairly urbane and cosmopolitan life in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and at 13 moved to Goose Bay, Labrador, and that was an isolated community up in the North.
“Suddenly, I was in high school with Métis, with Inuit. It was a very different experience for me. It opened my eyes at a very young age.”
In university, Mr. O’Regan added, he took courses in Indigenous studies and Indigenous resource development. Most of his experience, he admitted, is from 20 years ago, and there’s catching up to do.
“I walk into this portfolio with all humility but somebody who – at a very young age – knows what it is to grow up in the North, somebody at a very young age [who] knows the plight … of our Indigenous peoples.”
Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Monday’s changes will cause some concern among Indigenous people. He praised the work of Ms. Wilson-Raybould – a former AFN regional chief – and Ms. Philpott for advancing several files affecting Indigenous people. However, he also said their replacements should be given a chance to prove themselves.
“These issues are too important to drop the ball on,” he said. “There’s going to be some apprehension, but we’ve got to make sure that these ministers are doing a very effective job.”
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said the Prime Minister should have shuffled Mr. O’Regan right out.
“Conservatives cannot understand why he remains in cabinet,” he told reporters. “We’re surprised that he is now being inflicted on our First Peoples, who deserve so much better from a minister.”
Joining cabinet for the first time is David Lametti, who jumps into the senior position of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, while Bernadette Jordan takes over the newly created position of Minister of Rural Economic Development.
Mr. Lametti is a Yale-educated former associate dean at McGill University, where he was a professor of law. Since the Liberals formed government in 2015, he has held two parliamentary secretary positions: first to the International Trade Minister and then more recently as parliamentary secretary to the Innovation Minister.
Ms. Jordan, who represents the Nova Scotia riding of South Shore-St. Margarets, will replace Mr. Brison as the only member of cabinet from Nova Scotia.
She is a former parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Democratic Institutions and was elected by Liberal MPs as the chair of the Liberal caucus. She will be the first woman in cabinet to represent a Nova Scotia riding.
With files from Gloria Galloway