Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has taken on a major new role: finance minister.
In a physically distant ceremony at Rideau Hall on Tuesday, Freeland removed her face mask briefly to take the oath of office and become the country’s new minister of finance before replacing the mask to bump elbows with both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. General Julie Payette, also masked.
Veteran Liberal Dominic LeBlanc was also sworn in to take over the intergovernmental affairs portfolio.
The mini-cabinet shuffle follows the resignation Monday night of Bill Morneau after reports of a rift between him and Trudeau over the best course forward on the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Freeland was asked on Tuesday to share whether she has had disagreements with the prime minister and how they handled those, and to reflect on what it means to be the first woman in the role.
“It’s actually something we talked about yesterday and we reflected, I think with good humour, on a few of the issues we have disagreed on. I’m actually not going to catalog those,” she said.
“My motto has been to have open, candid conversations with the prime minister in private but also to have a united front when we come out in public … that’s a really, really important part of any working relationship.”
On being the first female finance minister, Freeland said: “It’s about time that we broke that glass ceiling.”
“This particular economic challenge our country is facing, the economic challenge created by the coronavirus is hitting women particularly hard. It’s hitting mothers particularly hard,” she continued.
“Certainly I’m glad that I’ll have an opportunity as a woman, as a mother, to address this really important challenge our country is facing.”
Morneau had been under fire over his role in the WE Charity scandal, particularly his failure to recuse himself from cabinet discussions on the group given his family financial ties.
Both Morneau and Trudeau are now under investigation by the ethics commissioner over accusations of conflict of interest in that controversy, which emerged after the government granted to WE Charity the administration of what was originally billed as a $912-million student service grant program.
The office of the ethics commissioner said on Tuesday that its investigation will continue despite Morneau’s resignation.
Several House of Commons committees are also conducting studies into the allegations of conflict of interest but proroguing Parliament would short circuit that work.
Prorogation is the process of terminating a parliamentary session, meaning all business on the agenda dies. That includes bills, motions and committee work as well.
Trudeau previously criticized former prime minister Stephen Harper for using prorogation as a means to avoid political accountability, and the 2015 Liberal platform vowed not to do the same.
“We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny,” that platform vowed. “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. We will not.”
Following a prorogation, Trudeau would face a confidence vote with a new Speech from the Throne.
Trudeau is expected to face questions about those rumours and about his decision to move around his cabinet when he speaks with reporters later in the afternoon.
Freeland has risen over the last five years from minister of international trade to minister of foreign affairs, minister of intergovernmental affairs and deputy prime minister, making her one of the most powerful and trusted members of Trudeau’s team.
This new role places her yet again at the very centre of a high-profile, high-pressure national conversation around the best way to move forward as the country continues to grapple with the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and a deficit currently pegged at $343 billion.
LeBlanc had previously held the post as intergovernmental affairs minister before stepping back in early 2019 to seek treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
He received stem cell treatment last fall and was sworn in as president of the Queen’s Privy Council at Rideau Hall in December 2019, a role that put him in charge of overseeing the Privy Council Office.
That’s the branch of bureaucracy tasked with supporting the operations of the Prime Minister’s Office.