Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made major changes to the senior ranks of his cabinet – a shuffle prompted by the decision of Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to step down from his portfolio and not seek re-election.
The moves have added fuel to speculation that the government is preparing for the next election campaign, even though the Liberals were re-elected with a minority mandate just over a year ago.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters he is not seeking an election and would prefer to continue governing.
This wasn’t the pre-election cabinet shuffle Trudeau really would have liked
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The Prime Minister said Mr. Bains’s decision to step down was his own – he will remain an MP – adding that he did not ask his ministers to resign if they were not planning to run in the next campaign.
Asked if he would wait to trigger an election until everyone who wants to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot has done so, Mr. Trudeau avoided answering the question directly, saying: “My commitment is to doing whatever is necessary to support Canadians through this pandemic.”
“From the very beginning of any minority Parliament, every political party understands that elections can happen. But as I’ve been consistently saying, we don’t want an election, we need to continue to work hard and focus on Canadians,” he said.
The cabinet shuffle sees Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne replace Mr. Bains, with Marc Garneau moving from Transport to Global Affairs.
Mississauga Centre MP Omar Alghabra has been promoted into cabinet to replace Mr. Garneau, and Jim Carr returns to cabinet as a minister without portfolio while continuing in his role as special representative for the Prairies. Mr. Carr left cabinet after the 2019 election owing to a cancer diagnosis.
Mr. Bains has been a key organizer for Mr. Trudeau, working with him on his first, 2007 nomination race in Papineau and most recently serving as a federal election campaign co-chair.
He recently asked the Prime Minister to go for a “walk in the snow” to discuss his plans. “I think we all know what that means in politics,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The Prime Minister said he initially tried to persuade Mr. Bains to stay during their physically distanced walk on the grounds of Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, but the minister explained why it was the best decision for him and his family.
A senior government official said the Prime Minister was taken aback by the decision and that Mr. Bains told Mr. Trudeau his wife wanted to return to work and he wanted to spend more time with his daughters.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the senior official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss behind-the-scene deliberations of the cabinet shuffle.
The official said Mr. Champagne was a natural choice for the Innovation portfolio because of his “energy and intelligence,” and the Prime Minister believes he can play a key role in rebuilding the economy when the pandemic subsides.
He takes over responsibility for building up domestic vaccine production and spurring medical research on COVID-19. Under Mr. Bains’s tenure, the government made ambitious promises about domestic production that have been stymied by construction roadblocks.
Mr. Bains has spent 17 years in politics and won a seat in five of the past six federal elections. He said he decided not to run again after his older daughter pointed out that, if he puts his name on the ballot in the next election, she might be in university before he is back living at home full-time. He said it struck a chord with him and led to tough conversations.
“I came to the realization with my wife that I’ve got this small window of opportunity to spend time with my girls,” he said.
Compared with the typical pomp and circumstance of a swearing-in event, Tuesday’s was a sparse affair that was managed remotely over a video call.
“Bravo on this first-ever virtual swearing-in ceremony in the history of Canada,” Governor-General Julie Payette said at the end.
Mr. Carr served in the cabinet until his fall 2019 cancer diagnosis. Since then he has held the special representative role. His return to cabinet is another sign the Liberals are turning their attention to the next federal election. The small foothold they won in the Prairies in 2015 was almost wiped out in 2019, and elevating Mr. Carr shows the region will get a renewed focus.
“It goes without saying that the Prime Minister is looking ahead and certainly would want ministers to be present to make sure we’re facing one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history,” Mr. Champagne said when asked if all ministers had been asked if they would run in the next election. “The Prime Minister wanted to have a continuity and kind of a transition to make sure that the people who served on cabinet would be there for the long term.”
Mr. Champagne, who held leadership positions in global energy and technology firms prior to his first election as an MP in 2015, suggested he will be an advocate for workers and businesses at the cabinet table.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe that the government should put health and economic concerns ahead of electoral politics.
“At a time when Canadians are concerned about the health and well-being of their families and their personal financial security, it’s clear the Liberals are getting ready to force an election,” he said. “Conservatives will continue to focus on helping Canadians weather the pandemic and the devastating economic crisis, even if the Liberals won’t.”
NDP House Leader Peter Julian said the Liberals appear to be sending “ambiguous messages” about their interest in an election.
“The concern and the focus absolutely has to be COVID-19,” he said.
Mr. Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family, immigrated to Toronto at the age of 19 to study mechanical engineering at Ryerson University. He recalled that his only contact in Canada at the time was a cousin who met him at the airport and that he worked nights at doughnut shops and convenience stores to support himself through school.
He was first elected as a Liberal MP in 2006, but lost his seat in the 2008 election. He returned to Ottawa after the 2015 campaign. He said his personal story will help him represent immigrants and people of colour at the cabinet table.
“I’m a proud Syrian Arab Muslim,” he said. “All of those experiences together, I think, give me the insight into what many Canadians feel. My story represents the story of many, many Canadians.”
Mr. Garneau, a former astronaut, pointed out that he lived in the United States for almost a decade before entering politics and is familiar with the Canada-U.S. file through his work chairing the committee on that relationship during recent trade negotiations. He said that, as the new Foreign Affairs Minister, he will work with the incoming Biden administration on areas of shared interest, in particular the cases of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been arbitrarily detained in China.
“Certainly, the relationship between Canada and China is very important, but there are also points of intersection in the relationships with the United States and China,” he said.
With reports from Robert Fife and Josh O’Kane
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