Mélanie Joly received one of the biggest promotions in Tuesday’s cabinet shuffle, vaulting into the foreign-affairs post as Ottawa grapples with increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and tries to resolve challenges in its relationship with the United States.
The 42-year-old Quebec lawyer was most recently responsible for Canada’s economic development agencies, official languages and tourism.
In 2018, she suffered a major cabinet demotion after, as Canadian Heritage minister, she bore the brunt of criticism in her home province over the Trudeau government’s unwillingness to impose sales taxes on the Netflix video-streaming service.
Ms. Joly replaces Marc Garneau, who only served as foreign-affairs minister for 9½ months. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dodged a question Tuesday on speculation that Mr. Garneau was destined for an ambassadorial posting.
Asked by a reporter what her biggest challenge would be, Ms. Joly only said there would be several but suggested it was too soon to name them. Citing comments she said were once made by former prime minister Lester Pearson, Ms. Joly added: “I will tell you at the end of the year.”
She was asked whether China will face reprisals for having jailed Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for more than 1,000 days in what Ottawa once criticized as “hostage diplomacy,” but declined to say. She said she plans to meet with experts on China shortly. “I can tell you, however, that we have no illusions. Our eyes will be wide open.”
She said she regards the vision for Global Affairs as a “mix of humility and audacity.” Again, quoting Mr. Pearson, she spoke of how Canada is able to play a big role on the international stage because it punches above its weight.
The rate of change of ministers at Global Affairs is causing trouble for the huge ministry and its more than 6,000 employees. Ms. Joly is the fifth foreign-affairs minister the Trudeau government has appointed in six years – although as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau often speaks for Canada at international events.
Roland Paris, a former foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau and director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said turnover at Global Affairs has become a problem.
“It’s a role that necessarily involves a learning curve and it benefits from some continuity,” Mr. Paris said.
Ms. Joly first drew political attention in Quebec when she ran for mayor of Montreal as a virtual unknown and came six points behind the winner, former federal cabinet minister Denis Coderre. She won her first seat as a Trudeau Liberal in the 2015 election.
Pollster Jean-Marc Léger said he’s not surprised with Ms. Joly’s promotion given her performance as a co-chair of the Liberal campaign in the 2021 federal election.
“Over the last election campaign, she was good for Trudeau,” he said. Mr. Léger also cited a 2020 poll showing Ms. Joly was the most popular federal minister in Quebec after Mr. Garneau and Mr. Trudeau.
Scott Reid, a former communications director for Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, said he thinks Ms. Joly won back Mr. Trudeau’s trust “file by file” since her 2018 demotion. During her stint as head of federal economic development agencies, she created two new ones focused, separately, on British Columbia and the Prairies.
Then came the closely fought 2021 campaign, which the Liberals were at risk of losing at one point.
“My guess is that during that very challenging campaign, she cemented her status as a trustworthy lieutenant,” Mr. Reid said. “When you fall behind during a campaign and then mount a comeback, you see up close who can be counted on. I suspect he saw that in her and decided he wanted that in Foreign Affairs.”
Ms. Joly does not come to the Global Affairs portfolio with no international experience. For a period in 2018 and 2019, she was the federal minister responsible for the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, an international alliance of francophone countries. She served as vice-chair of the cabinet committee on global affairs and public safety between November, 2019, and when the 2021 election was called in August. She also obtained a master’s degree in law at Oxford.
Ms. Joly arrives at Foreign Affairs during a shift in relations between the West and China, where countries are treating the Chinese Communist Party as more of a rival and less of a partner, and where concern is growing about Beijing’s military and political influence in the Indo-Pacific.
In September, the United States, Britain and Australia struck a defence pact, called AUKUS, to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, a deal that includes Washington sharing top-secret nuclear-propulsion technology with Canberra.
Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said allies want Canada to lay out its Indo-Pacific strategy. He spent Tuesday in Ottawa with senior diplomats from Canada’s top allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific who told him, he said, that “Canada needs to get serious, quickly, about the region.”
“AUKUS should be a wake-up call for us,” he said.
Canada also faces the prospect of a shutdown of Line 5, a key energy pipeline that carries Western Canadian petroleum through Michigan to Ontario and Quebec. Michigan’s governor wants to shut it down over oil spill fears but Canada has invoked a 1977 treaty to trigger negotiations with Washington on the matter.
With a report from Marieke Walsh
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