Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s next cabinet will have to grapple with an ongoing pandemic and its economic fallout, the persistent international threat of climate change, a crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces and finally establishing a national childcare program after more than a decade of false starts.
Trudeau will unveil his latest cabinet Tuesday morning after Canadians returned his Liberals to government with a minority mandate last month. It’s expected to be a larger cabinet than those Trudeau has worked with since becoming prime minister in 2015, and to maintain gender parity.
Regional, linguistic and demographic considerations will also go into Trudeau’s cabinet making exercise. But aside from ticking boxes, Trudeau has several major policy files facing his government that will go a long way to determining his legacy as Canada’s 23rd prime minister.
COVID-19 and its economic fallout
One cabinet position is not up for speculation: Chrystia Freeland will remain both deputy prime minister and the minister of finance.
Freeland will be responsible for implementing the Liberals’ economic agenda — largely laid out in their pre-election budget — and for tweaking the Liberals’ supports for those workers still facing disruptions from the COVID crisis.
There have been positive signs for the Liberals on that front — Statistics Canada reported earlier this month that employment returned to its pre-pandemic levels in September, with the unemployment rate inching down 0.2 percentage points to 6.9 per cent. That’s the lowest unemployment rate Canada has seen since the onset of the pandemic.
Much depends on how Canadian households will use the savings they amassed over the course of the pandemic, while public health measures restricted where and when they could spend disposable income.
A recent report from CIBC Economics suggested that pent-up consumer spending could be a “springboard” for Canada’s economy over the next two years — but noted that Canadians have been “cautious” with their money compared to U.S. consumers, even in sectors not directly hit with pandemic shutdowns.
For Freeland and the Liberals, the potential risk of persistent inflation is a more troubling economic — and political — issue. The consumer price index rose 4.4 per cent year-over-year in September, according to Statistics Canada — the largest increase since 2003. That’s something Canadians feel directly at the gas pump, in grocery stores and restaurants. It’ll be up to Freeland to reassure Canadians that the government has the finance file under control.
As world leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow, Scotland for the latest international conference on climate change, the World Meteorological Organization reports that greenhouse gas concentration hit record highs in 2020.
Trudeau has made the fight against climate change a central pillar of his government since coming to power in 2015, setting a price on carbon and ambitious new targets to curtail Canada’s emissions, including reaching net zero by 2050. But critics have pointed out that Canada’s emissions have risen between 2015 and 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.
Trudeau is scheduled to attend COP26, the UN climate change conference, later this month. But whoever the prime minister entrusts with the climate change file will have to shoulder the heavy-lifting to finally make good on Canada’s ambitious targets — even as some Liberal stalwarts express doubts about the government’s ability to meet them.
Among the most pressing of the files on the government agenda is the Canadian Forces sexual misconduct crisis, which has only continued to escalate over the past nine months as allegation after allegation emerges against senior military leaders.
Most recently, Adm. Art McDonald came under a firestorm of criticism after he sent a letter to senior military leaders arguing that he should be reinstated to the role as chief of the defence staff given that an investigation into an allegation of sexual assault against him did not yield charges.
McDonald argued the lack of charges was an “exoneration” of him and that the investigation deemed the allegation “unsubstantiated.” That is not the case, however, and the military’s provost marshal issued a statement shortly afterwards explaining that the determination of a lack of evidence to support laying a charge was not the same thing as deeming an allegation to be “unfounded.”
Yet so far, Trudeau and current Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have refused to say when they intend to make a decision on McDonald’s future.
At the same time, the government has refused to provide a timeline for when they will act to implement one of the major demands of advocates for survivors and victims of military sexual misconduct — an independent reporting system, operating outside the chain of command.
Will Sajjan — or whomever Trudeau chooses to serve as defence minister — act immediately on desperately needed reforms? Or will the military have to wait until another review — this one conducted by retired Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour — lands early next year?
Reconciliation and First Nations
One of the more pressing files for the new cabinet is a decision on whether they will appeal a Federal Court decision on providing services and compensation to First Nations children. The government has until Friday to make that decision, which will weigh on the shoulders of whichever MPs find themselves serving as Minister of Justice and Minister of Indigenous Services.
There are two rulings at the heart of the decision the Liberals will have to make.
The first is a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling from September 2019, which found the federal government “willfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserve through the underfunding of services. As a form of redress for this discrimination, the tribunal ordered Ottawa to pay $40,000 each to roughly 50,000 First Nations children and their relatives.
The second ruling is from November 2020. It expanded the scope of Jordan’s Principle — a rule that pledges to provide First Nations children with the services they need, when they need them, rather than first taking the time to sort out which level of government is responsible for the cost.
The Federal Court shot down the government’s most recent bid to appeal these decisions on September 29. Now the government has until Friday to decide if they’d like to continue to litigate the issue at the Federal Court of Appeal.
The next step after that would be the Supreme Court of Canada.