Trudeau's cabinet kicks off 2-day retreat focused on trade, wildfire response

Justin Trudeau may have ruled out an early fall election, but as the prime minister gathers his cabinet for a retreat in Nanaimo Wednesday, the Liberals look more and more like a government with next year's campaign on its mind.

Ministers meet in Nanaimo, B.C., for 1st time since July's shuffle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's federal cabinet posed together as a group for the first time since July's cabinet shuffle. Ministers kicked off two days of closed-door meetings Tuesday evening in Nanaimo, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau may have ruled out an early fall election, but as the prime minister gathers his cabinet for a retreat in Nanaimo, B.C., Wednesday, the Liberals look more and more like a government with next year's campaign on its mind.

The haze of smoke from B.C.'s brutal wildfires hung over the Vancouver Island city Tuesday as ministers new and old arrived and posed for an updated family photo.

Trudeau's cabinet is forming a new ad hoc cabinet committee to co-ordinate its response to the recovery and rebuilding effort after the wildfires, similar to an approach taken after fire devastated Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016.

"Combatting a crisis of this nature involves a great many departments and agencies of the government of Canada," said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. "The level of engagement and collaboration has been extensive right from the very start."

Flight over fire zone

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan spent the day flying over the fire zone near Prince George with B.C. Premier John Horgan.

The premier paid tribute to the courage of the province's first responders, saying the fires were an example of the challenges of climate change, a concern the federal government shares.

B.C. Premier John Horgan met Trudeau Tuesday. The pair expressed solidarity with B.C. residents dealing with devastating wildfires for the second summer in a row, but said nothing about their ongoing dispute over the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (Benoit Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Trudeau told reporters his thoughts are with those in B.C. who are struggling. He'll be touring some of the affected areas himself on Thursday morning to meet with evacuees and first responders.

Horgan said all levels of government working together on the fire crisis "gives comfort to the public" as it faces its unprecedented second consecutive summer under a state of emergency.

Barely a mention of pipeline

Horgan's relationship with the federal government had been strained.

His NDP government in B.C. strongly opposes the Trudeau government's decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline, citing environmental concerns, particularly around ocean tanker traffic and the risk of an oil spill in sensitive coastal waters.

B.C. is taking the federal government to court, questioning its jurisdiction to proceed with the pipeline against the province's wishes. The federal government is considering legislation to exert its authority over pipeline construction, something it argues is essential to get Canadian resources to Asian markets and provide assurances to foreign investors who could otherwise have sued Canada for billions if the project was blocked.

During a joint photo call between the premier and the prime minister Tuesday, Trudeau listed infrastructure funding, housing and protecting B.C.'s "iconic" salmon stocks as being on their agenda — no mention of resolving their pipeline dispute.

Protests expected

Trudeau's new intergovernmental affairs minister, Dominic LeBlanc, joined the leaders for their "very positive" half-hour meeting and downplayed any tension between the two.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc is in charge of managing the Trudeau government's relationship with provincial governments who disagree with federal policy. He has his hands full on energy files. (Benoit Roussel/Radio-Canada)

The Trans Mountain extension was touched on "only very briefly," LeBlanc said, as the leaders focused on areas of common interest. He said it wasn't his job to change the premier's mind and he didn't think anything had changed since the last time the pair discussed their views on the pipeline.

Horgan spoke to the full cabinet Wednesday morning.

Protestors opposed to the pipeline construction are also expected to greet ministers outside their talks on Wednesday.

In a second protest, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada are expected to rally and then march to the location of the cabinet's talks to voice their displeasure with the government's persistent inability to fix ongoing issues with the Phoenix payroll system.

One eye on Washington

For the next two days, Trudeau's ministers will be working out strategies for keeping these kinds of hot issues under control.

The closed-door meetings will be the first deliberations of the full cabinet since Trudeau shuffled it last month, in response to shifting winds in provincial politics and the resurgence of issues like border security and gun violence.

Later Wednesday, Canada's ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, will brief ministers on the latest winds blowing in Washington, as Canada waits to see if the Americans were able to make enough progress in their fifth week of talks with Mexico to call Canada back to the bargaining table.

A resumption of trilateral negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement is contingent on the other two countries making some kind of a breakthrough this week, as United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer suggested may be possible.

Report suggests U.S.-Mexico talks progressing

A report by Politico out of Washington late Tuesday suggested enough progress has been made, potentially  on NAFTA's critical automotive rules, for U.S. President Donald Trump to have something to announce by Thursday.

It's unclear, however, whether Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will be called away for an urgent trip to D.C.

"We're doing very well, thank you," was all the minister said about the NAFTA talks, walking past reporters Tuesday evening.

A second attempt later by reporters to confirm the Politico report was also unsuccessful.

Economic concerns are expected to be discussed throughout the ministers' retreat in Nanaimo.

The urgency of the economic and trade threats on Canada's horizon led provincial premiers to request a First Ministers meeting on the economy this fall. Trudeau agreed to host one, likely in October. 

First cabinet meeting on Vancouver Island

After Trudeau spent part of last week visiting NDP ridings in Quebec that the Liberals could target in the next election, the decision to bring the full cabinet to Vancouver Island — where the NDP won all the seats in 2015 save for the constituency of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May — also resembles one an election campaign on the offensive might make.

"As a born-and-raised Vancouver Islander, I was racking my brain trying to think of the last time a Liberal cabinet would have come to hold a meeting here, and I can't remember it ever happening," Premier Horgan told reporters.

Ahead of the two-day meeting, about a dozen ministers fanned out across British Columbia. 

The immigration messages the government wants to prioritize, like the family reunification announcement Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen made on Monday, continue to be overshadowed by opposition critics questioning the extent to which the federal government's management of irregular border crossings is under control. 

Goodale said the numbers of irregular border crossers fluctuates month to month or year to year, depending on a variety of circumstances, but the the flow is being managed in a sound and secure manner.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters Tuesday that Canada continues to secure its border, enforce its laws and respect its international obligations with regards to irregular border crossers who claim asylum in Canada. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

"There is no free ticket to Canada," the public safety minister insisted Tuesday.