Trudeau's got a cabinet to build — and this time, it'll be harder

Chrystia Freeland may be staying put in finance, but that's the only easy call facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he puts together a cabinet out of what the election left him.

Losses in some regions, coupled with gains in others, are complicating the math

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has confirmed that Chrystia Freeland will be staying on in finance and as deputy PM — which may be the only easy decision he has to make as he assembles a post-election cabinet. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will announce his new cabinet at some point in October. But he's already made it clear that the number two job in his government is not up for grabs.

"I have asked Chrystia Freeland to continue serving as deputy prime minister and our minister of finance, and she has accepted," Trudeau announced last week at his first extended press conference since the election.

Picking Freeland to stay on in those two roles is a no-brainer, given the importance of continuity on the fiscal and economic fronts as the country continues to navigate its way through the pandemic.

But picking Freeland was also the easy part. Trudeau will have to rebuild the rest of his cabinet while missing some key pieces. And his commitment to a gender-balanced cabinet will be put to the test by the loss of four female cabinet ministers and the need for new regional representation from Nova Scotia and Alberta.

"I will be seeking, as I always do, to ensure that there is a proper regional distribution. That there is a range of skills and diversity around the table," Trudeau said outside a vaccine clinic in Kanata, Ont. "But it's a base starting point that we have gender parity in any cabinet I put together."

Trudeau will have to get to that "base starting point" without Catherine McKenna — who left politics before the election — and Bernadette Jordan, Maryam Monsef and Deb Schulte, who were all defeated on election night.

Doing the math

But replacing them may not be as simple as promoting four female MPs into those roles. 

Take, for example, the loss of Jordan as both fisheries minister and Nova Scotia's representative at the cabinet table. On paper, it would seem that newly elected Halifax West MP Lena Metlege Diab — a former provincial cabinet minister — would be an easy replacement.

Former provincial cabinet minister Lena Metlege Diab, now the Liberal MP for Halifax West, could be a strong cabinet prospect. (Canadian Press)

But that would mean once again passing over Central Nova MP Sean Fraser, a popular parliamentary secretary who was overlooked in 2019 to make Jordan the first female federal cabinet minister in Nova Scotia history.

Compounding this challenge is the fact that Jordan was the only female cabinet minister from the Atlantic region. That could open the door to either Nova Scotia or New Brunswick — the two largest Atlantic provinces — having more than one cabinet minister each. That option would put Ginette Petitpas Taylor and Jenica Atwin in contention, along with Diab.

Further complicating the math is the need to create space at the cabinet table for Alberta, where two Liberals — George Chahal in Calgary and Randy Boissonnault in Edmonton — were elected.

At least one MP from Alberta is likely to get into cabinet. Could it be Randy Boissonnault in Edmonton Centre? (Terry Reith/CBC )

There is an argument for giving both cities cabinet seats, although Chahal's prospects could be held back now that he is being investigated by the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections for allegedly tampering with his opponent's election pamphlets.

So to make the regional balance work — and maintain his commitment to an equal number of men and women — Trudeau could be forced to drop some men from his cabinet or expand it beyond its current 36 ministers.

The contenders

There is a strong roster of female MPs to fill the spots of defeated and departed ministers. Conspicuous by her presence at Trudeau's visit to the Kanata clinic was Jenna Sudds, an economist and former deputy mayor of Ottawa.

Sudds' presence may have been a simple consequence of geography (she is the MP-elect for Kanata-Carleton, where the clinic is located). But as a professional mother from the suburbs, Sudds also embodies a core part of the Liberal voting base.

Kanata MP-elect Jenna Sudds is another strong prospect for cabinet. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

With McKenna's departure, there is space for another minister from the Ottawa region. Some 40 kilometres east of Sudds' riding, Marie-France Lalonde in Orleans gives Trudeau another option with cabinet experience across multiple portfolios in the Ontario government.

In fact, Canada's largest province appears to offer the largest pool of potential new women ministers.

Helena Jaczek in Markham-Stouffville is a former provincial health minister. Jennifer O'Connell in Pickering-Uxbridge and Pam Damoff in Oakville North-Burlington are parliamentary secretaries who fended off the Conservative push to break into the GTA.

Then there are the newcomers. Leah Taylor Roy is a Harvard-educated businesswoman who defeated the floor-crossing Leona Alleslev in Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill. Rechie Valdez in Mississauga-Streetsville has a background in corporate banking and is the first Filipino woman ever elected to the House of Commons.

Valerie Bradford in Kitchener South-Hespeler worked in economic development. Vivian Lapointe in Sudbury held senior positions in the Ontario public service.

In Quebec, union leader Pascale St-Onge (who narrowly won Brome-Missisquoi) was featured in television ads along with prominent ministers such as Melanie Joly, Steven Guilbeault and Pablo Rodriguez.

Before she won Pontiac, Sophie Chatel worked for the federal finance department on international tax policy — including work with the OECD on taxing digital giants.

Continuity or change?

A central question hanging over the new cabinet is how much Trudeau will value continuity over change. Freeland is staying put in finance to advance national child care and lead the post-pandemic economic recovery.

But what about other ministries central to the Liberal agenda? Does the upcoming climate change summit in Glasgow mean Jonathan Wilkinson stays in the environment portfolio?

Does Harjit Sajjan survive in defence, a portfolio he has held for every single day Trudeau has been prime minister? Or has the accumulation of scandal and allegations of misconduct in the military made his position untenable?

Can Harjit Sajjan hang on in the defence portfolio? (Royal Canadian Navy)

Would Trudeau move Marc Garneau out of Foreign Affairs after already cycling through four foreign ministers in six years? Or is it time for some consistency in the role of Canada's top diplomat?

Does Trudeau risk progress on reconciliation by moving Marc Miller or Carolyn Bennett, or both? Or do Bennett's pre-election controversies mean her time on the Indigenous file could be at an end?

Then there's the matter of changing tack in the health portfolio while riding a fourth wave. Does Patty Hajdu remain minister of health for the duration of the pandemic?

And what about promotions for ministers like Melanie Joly and Marco Mendicino, who played decisive roles in the Quebec and Ontario campaigns for two straight elections?

Trudeau and his team are grappling with some big questions. We'll get the answers at an unspecified date in October.


David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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