National Column: Twelve Canadians who will wield influence in 2016

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

By word or by deed, 12 people, five women and seven men, including a prime minister, a mayor, three premiers and a First Nations leader, are set to be the most influential dozen political personalities in 2016.

Here is my (subjective) list:

1. Justin Trudeau (Montreal/Ottawa)

An activist prime minister with a brimming agenda, Trudeau will lead a team in 2016 that will move on files as disparate as physician-assisted dying, climate change, marijuana legalization, electoral reform and missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The days of incrementalism in Ottawa are over. The Liberal government promises fundamental, transformative change and Trudeau enters the year riding a wave of popularity at home and star-struck attention abroad.

Canadians have invested much in the new prime minister. In the coming year, he will try to deliver, but he will have to grapple with inflated expectations and the reality of day-to-day, post-honeymoon governing.

2. Rachel Notley (Edmonton)

The Alberta NDP premier ended the year with problems at home, facing down opposition to a bill setting mandatory health and safety standards for paid farm workers. She is sagging in the polls, and an energy industry royalty review is coming up in 2016.

If she can weather the ongoing blowback in a province suffering under plummeting oil prices, she will be the natural leader in federal-provincial climate talks scheduled for early in the year. If she can ascend to that leadership role representing Alberta, she will pull other would-be laggards with her.

Notley will need to be tenacious because more economic pain is sure to head Alberta’s way in 2016.

Regardless, she is the country’s most powerful New Democrat.

3. Naheed Nenshi (Calgary)

The Calgary mayor has had a national profile since his election in 2010 when he first introduced the country to the new, multicultural Alberta.

The first Muslim to lead a major North American city was re-elected with 74 per cent of the vote in 2013.

But in 2015, he became the country’s most eloquent voice in support of Canadian diversity and against intolerance.

He has spoken far and wide on Canada’s need to welcome refugees, something that will continue to top the news as government-sponsored Syrians arrive in this country in 2016 and the Donald Trump echo chamber from the south continues to receive Canadian attention.

Nenshi is only 43. Given his influence on the national stage, his political future is whatever he chooses it to be.

4. Brad Wall (Regina)

The Saskatchewan premier faces a re-election campaign early in 2016 and should he prevail, his role as a leading conservative voice in this country will only be enhanced.

He has already established himself as a voice of caution on climate change and has spoken out on the suffering of prairie families as the oilpatch workforce shrinks.

There will be speculation about Wall’s interest in a potential run for the federal Conservative leadership and whether he is interested or not – he denies interest – that talk will give his pronouncements disproportionate weight.

5. Bill Morneau (Toronto/Ottawa)

Trudeau’s rookie finance minister – Morneau is the first political neophyte to hold the post in almost a century – had already moved on an overheated housing market and tax breaks for the middle class by the end of 2015, but he is overseeing national numbers that could keep any minister up at night.

Oil prices continue to slide, natural gas prices hit a 14-year low in December, the Canadian dollar had its second-worst year-over-year performance and household debt has hit record levels.

His promised $10-billion deficit is now aspirational and he has to present his first budget early in 2016.

6. Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont./Ottawa)

Morneau’s adversary in the Commons, Raitt will be able to showcase her ample political skills as the Conservative finance critic in 2016.

The next federal Conservative leader will not likely be chosen until 2017 and may yet be a political meteor on no one’s radar. But if the next leader comes from the party’s existing caucus, Raitt is one to watch.

She grew in stature with each portfolio she held under the previous Stephen Harper government and, while highly partisan, she is without the hard edges many of her former cabinet colleagues featured. A change in tone for the Tories? Raitt would fit that bill.

7. Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver/Ottawa)

Wilson-Raybould, because she is the first justice minister of First Nations heritage, will be carrying extra hopes in her role in establishing the inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

But her appointment goes well beyond symbolism. She will be in charge of the government’s response to the Supreme Court ruling on physician-assisted dying, the legalization and regulation of marijuana, a review of a decade of Harper law-and-order measures with an eye to repeal, plus the overhaul of anti-terror legislation Bill C-51.

8. Jason Kenney (Calgary/Ottawa)

The former Harper minister and Calgary MP can shake up two political races with one decision.

If he decides not to pursue the federal Conservative leadership, he will crack that race wide open, because Kenney would either win the leadership or play a key role in deciding the ultimate victor.

If he decides he was too closely aligned with Harper or could not win the country as Conservative leader, he would become a front-runner for a united right-wing party in Alberta to take on Notley. Alberta opposition leader Brian Jean has opened the door to a merger with the Progressive Conservatives, but many observers feel this group hug on the right could be a long time off.

9. Perry Bellegarde (Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask./Ottawa)

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has just ended his first year in the post and could be on the cusp of history.

Trudeau has pledged to reset the relationship with First Nations, but the AFN must put infighting behind it and work with the government.

“You may have had no part in this dark chapter of our shared history,” he told Canadians as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released, “but you can play a role in rebuilding our shared future.”

10. Nathan Cullen (Smithers, B.C./Ottawa)

Tom Mulcair appears unlikely to contest another election as NDP leader and with many of his talented frontbenchers collateral damage in the Trudeau wave, the berth is wide for Cullen to shine.

He has been his party’s House leader and finance critic and now, as a man who led much of the opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline in his home riding, he is the party’s environment critic.

He finished a surprising third to Mulcair for the leadership in 2012 and he has the chops to rise to leader and try reach out to progressives who have migrated to the Liberals.

11. Kathleen Wynne (Toronto)

The Ontario premier is also facing woeful support numbers at home, but is Trudeau’s biggest ally and with Liberals running the two largest governments in the country, with majorities, her power is immense.

She helped deliver the province to the Liberals with an eye-opening battle with Harper. She took a chance and has been rewarded.

She is also expected to table legislation in the new year implementing a carbon-pricing system and will be one of the leaders at the table when the premiers meet in March to hammer out environmental targets.

12. Carolyn Bennett (Toronto/Ottawa)

If Trudeau is going to reset relations with First Nations, the work in the trenches will fall to the indigenous and northern affairs minister. Bennett, a Parliamentary veteran, knows her file inside out.

Because she worked so hard as aboriginal affairs critic in opposition, she is known and trusted by First Nations leaders. That trust will be key in a government-First Nations relationship that has historically crumbled. Bennett will be asked to do nothing less than develop and implement a national framework for reconciliation.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


Copyright 2016- Torstar Syndication Services

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