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Michael Sabia at a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2020. Officials in Ottawa are wondering who Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will appoint as the next deputy minister of finance following reports that Michael Sabia is leaving to head Hydro-Québec.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Official Ottawa is buzzing over who the Liberal government will appoint as the next deputy minister of finance after reports that trusted adviser Michael Sabia will soon be leaving to head Hydro-Québec.

It is a key position that involves leading the government’s budgeting efforts, overseeing the launch of major programs and dealing with the many economic surprises that spring up each year, both at home and internationally.

Deputy ministers provide non-partisan advice to their ministers but also work as a group on various committees to oversee the management of government as a whole.

The Globe and Mail spoke with several current and former senior government officials, including three former deputy ministers, in order to get a sense of the likely candidates to fill the key position. It is not yet clear when Mr. Sabia will formally leave the job.

The Globe is not identifying the officials so that they could comment candidly about colleagues and internal processes.

The former officials said the hunt likely begins by reviewing the current roster of deputy ministers and whittling it down based on years of experience, whether they’ve spent time in senior roles at the Finance Department and their personal rapport with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and their fellow DMs. Experience assisting cabinet in senior roles at the Privy Council Office is also viewed as an asset.

Chris Forbes, currently the deputy minister of Environment and Climate Change, has several years of experience in the Finance Department, including as associate deputy minister.

While he only recently started at Environment in February, he is mentioned by some as a likely leading candidate for the job.

Carolyn Wilkins, former Bank of Canada senior deputy governor, is mentioned as a strong option. She was invited to brief the Liberal cabinet on economic matters during a retreat in Hamilton in January.

Ms. Wilkins is now outside of government, sitting on the Intact board of directors, acting as a member of a Bank of England financial-policy committee and working as a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University. She left the bank in late 2020. Her lack of experience leading a department as a deputy minister is viewed as a drawback.

The current associate deputy minister at Finance, Nick Leswick, is well-respected and viewed as having the trust of the minister. He would be a long-shot candidate given that he has not been a full deputy minister, but could potentially hold the position on an interim basis.

While the final decision belongs to the Prime Minister and Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, it is widely expected that Ms. Freeland would have a say in the appointment.

Ms. Freeland’s focus on international issues in addition to finance has led to some speculation that the government could turn to current Natural Resources deputy minister John Hannaford, despite his lack of senior Finance Department experience. Mr. Hannaford is a former foreign and defence-policy adviser to the Prime Minister. He has past experience on trade files.

Marci Surkes, who was executive director of policy and cabinet affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office from 2019-22, said the government will be looking for someone who can provide broad policy analysis and who could potentially lead the public service as PCO Clerk in the future.

“The post is not just somebody who can read pie charts and knows what’s happening on Bay Street – that’s helpful, obviously – but somebody who can also assume broader leadership around the table of deputies,” said Ms. Surkes, who is currently a strategic adviser with Compass Rose.

Other names that former officials say would likely be on a short list include Treasury Board Secretary Graham Flack, who has been an assistant deputy minister of Finance and also has senior experience in the Privy Council Office, and Simon Kennedy, the deputy minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Mr. Kennedy has held six deputy-minister-level roles and senior economic positions at the Privy Council Office, Agriculture and International Trade, but has not been a senior leader at the Finance Department. Rob Stewart, the deputy minister of International Trade, has spent most of his career at Finance.

Another name that is frequently mentioned is Louise Levonian, who is widely viewed as having been on the short list the last time the government was searching for a new Finance deputy minister.

Ms. Levonian is a recent executive director for Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group. She spent more than two years as deputy minister of employment from 2016 and 2018 after a long career at Finance. She is currently retired from the public service and is the chair of the Better Evidence Council at Blueprint, a non-profit public-policy organization.

Perrin Beatty, president and chief executive of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said Ottawa should turn to another outsider.

“I hope they’ll look to someone with private-sector experience,” he said in an interview. “The single greatest issue we face is the need to restore growth in the economy. And that’s going to require attracting investment.”

Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political management at Carleton University who has worked on federal economic-advisory panels, questioned whether now is a good time to bring in a big name from the outside.

“There’s the DM the government might want and the DM the government needs,” she said. “I’d be encouraging them to look for someone who knows the portfolio, commands the respect of the DM community and is safe hands.”

She said a cautious choice may be best during a minority Parliament at a time when there is considerable economic uncertainty.

“I’m not sure now is the time for novelty or ‘outside the box,’ ” she said.