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Western alienation, climate change questions loom as Ottawa awaits new Liberal cabinet

ABOVE: Singh says he's focused on Trudeau government changing 'how they do things' over cabinet shuffle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will unveil his new cabinet on Wednesday in a move that comes amid renewed frustrations in the West and growing demand among Canadians in other regions of the country to take clear action to deal with the threat of climate change, a new poll suggests.

Political circles have been rife with speculation for weeks now over who could get which portfolio and what the pending changes will signal about Trudeau’s priorities following an election that exposed deep regional tensions in Western Canada about the region’s ability to develop natural resources and have its voice heard in the halls of power in Ottawa.

READ MORE: 5 things to watch for during this week’s cabinet shuffle

At the same time, climate change was a key issue for roughly two-thirds of voters and is set to dominate a new minority Parliament in which the Liberals will likely need to rely on the support of either the NDP or the Bloc Québécois to get most of their legislative agenda through the House of Commons.

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According to a poll done by the Angus Reid Institute, 42 per cent of respondents from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba ranked their top priority for the new minority government as building the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, while 41 per cent said the most important issue was making sure the West’s voice is heard in Ottawa.

In contrast, the top issues for respondents from Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada were tax cuts for low- and middle-income Canadians, at 34 per cent, while 32 per cent said ensuring Canada meets its 2030 emissions reduction targets was the most important.

READ MORE: With the Liberals’ new minority, Trudeau’s greatest challenge is healing divide with Western Canada

At the same time, while a majority of respondents in all provinces — except for Quebec — said the government should do more to help Alberta’s natural resources industry, there’s not a clear consensus in the data about what specific measures Canadians would like to see.

“It suggests a nation deeply divided along regional and political lines about what’s important, what should be valued,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, noting that the range of perspectives in the House of Commons could actually prove useful to the Liberals on balancing the climate file.

“I think this actually represents an opportunity for the Trudeau government. Because of the NDP, Greens and Bloc, it has enough support in the House to drive movement on the climate file. Because completion of the TMX project is a key priority among Conservative voters in western Canada, there will be political buy in for that as well. In the best case scenario, it can be ‘both-and,’ instead of ‘either-or.'”

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Manitoba premier Brian Pallister on discussing western alienation with the Prime Minister
Manitoba premier Brian Pallister on discussing western alienation with the Prime Minister

Trudeau currently has 34 cabinet ministers.

But speculation that he could split portfolios like Environment and Climate Change Canada into two distinct ministries raises the possibility that Trudeau could increase the size of his cabinet as well as the number of corresponding parliamentary secretaries.

READ MORE: Separatist sentiment in Alberta, Saskatchewan at ‘historic’ highs, Ipsos poll suggests

There are also questions about how Trudeau could try to address the challenge of not having any MPs from Alberta or Saskatchewan in his cabinet — the Liberals were locked out of those provinces on Oct. 21, and Manitoba MP Jim Carr, currently the international trade minister, is battling cancer.

Carr’s health, as well as that of veteran Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc, who recently underwent a stem cell transplant to treat his own cancer, have also prompted questions on whether either could realistically be returned to cabinet at this point.

Jim Carr comments on blood cancer battle, says he feels ‘strong’ and ‘surrounded by optimism’
Jim Carr comments on blood cancer battle, says he feels ‘strong’ and ‘surrounded by optimism’

The defeat of veteran Saskatchewan MP and cabinet minister Ralph Goodale also leaves a further gap in the Liberal benches, and there are questions about whether prominent ministers like Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Organized Crime and Border Security Minister Bill Blair could be shuffled to reflect a more domestic and climate-focused legislative agenda.

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Trudeau will also need to balance his commitment to having a gender-balanced cabinet that includes both ethnic and regional representation with the need to keep some reliable Liberals out of cabinet in order to place them in prominent roles on various committees.

“An early test for Trudeau government in terms of changing tone and showing it is listening to concerns from all parts of the country will be whether the cabinet includes strong and able voices that can elevate the concerns emanating from Western Canada,” Kurl added.

How he weighs those concerns will provide an indication of how he plans to move forward with governing a country that is growing increasingly divided.

COMMENTARY: Separation sentiment soars in Alta. and Sask. — but there may be more smoke than fire

According to a poll earlier this month by Ipsos, 59 per cent of Canadians feel the country “is more divided than ever.”

That includes a majority of respondents from all of the provinces, Ipsos noted.

Those in Alberta and Saskatchewan were the most likely to say the country has never been more divided: 79 per cent in Alberta and 77 per cent in Saskatchewan.

Fifty-eight per cent of those from Manitoba, 56 per cent from Ontario and 54 per cent from both B.C. and Quebec said the same.

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A total of 66 per cent of respondents from the Atlantic provinces also agreed.

Trudeau addressed those sentiments during his first press conference with reporters after winning a minority government last month and has since met with provincial premiers and municipal leaders from Western Canada, along with each of the leaders of the federal parties elected to Parliament.

“We are moving forward to solve some of those challenges, but it’s going to take all Canadians sticking together, helping out folks who are struggling in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan. This is what Canadians expect of their government,” he said.

“It’s extremely important that the government works for all Canadians, as I’ve endeavoured to do over the past years and as I will do even more now, deliberately.”

Trudeau responds to questions about western alienation after election
Trudeau responds to questions about western alienation after election