National Column: Indigenous affairs gets cabinet makeover

Jane Philpott shuffled from health as Trudeau adds second minister in bid to salvage troubled file opters grounded

by Chantal Hebert

If living proof that no good deed ever goes unpunished was needed, the dispatching of federal minister Jane Philpott to the troubled Indigenous front offers it.

Just last week, Philpott – in her previous role as Justin Trudeau’s health minister – signed a funding agreement with Manitoba. Its Tory government was the last to resist a federal bid to set the terms under which Ottawa will transfer money for health care to the provinces for the next decade.

Over her first months as health minister, she and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould also co-authored a legislative compromise on the delicate issue of medically assisted death.

Having resolved two thorny files to the satisfaction of the prime minister – something most of her ministerial colleagues have yet to achieve – Philpott will now get to put her skills to the test of salvaging the capital of good faith Trudeau brought to the Indigenous front before it is completely depleted.

On Monday, she took charge of a new Indigenous services ministry to be carved out of Carolyn Bennett’s existing Indigenous affairs department. One of her tasks – to be undertaken jointly with Bennett – will be to set the floundering inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women back on track.

The two will initially have to navigate in relatively uncharted waters. Legislation to create two departments where there has always been only one will have to be drafted and passed by Parliament. The mandate letters setting out their respective responsibilities are still a work in progress. The division of labour could make for some uneasy moments between the two ministers – one being a success story and the other not so much.

On Monday, Trudeau’s choice of a rookie to take a portfolio as senior as the health ministry was the move that most puzzled many Parliament Hill insiders. This is Ginette Petitpas Taylor’s first cabinet appointment. The New Brunswick MP had been serving as parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance.

Part of the explanation for the prime minister’s choice has to do with language skills.

As health minister, Petitpas Taylor will be joining former Toronto police chief Bill Blair and Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould on the marijuana legalization front line. Her appointment ensures that at least one of the lead government members on the file is able to deliver its message in French.

She will have her work cut out for her in Quebec where a storm over Trudeau’s determination to fulfil his promise to legalize marijuana by next summer could be brewing.

The province has begun holding its own hearings into the plan and the initial public meetings have elicited a significant amount of unease over the federal timeline. The marijuana issue could surface in an upcoming federal byelection in Lac-Saint-Jean, the riding left vacant by former Conservative minister Denis Lebel.

Rounding out the load of poisoned apples the prime minister distributed on Monday, B.C. MP Carla Qualtrough traded the low profile portfolio of sports and persons with disabilities for the public works and procurement department. She will have to try to sort out the mess that is the Phoenix pay system. Despite her predecessor’s repeated assurances, the pay woes of as many as half of the country’s public servants remain unresolved.

This was Trudeau’s second major reshuffling of the cabinet he initially put together after his election victory almost two years ago.

It was less than nine months ago that he rearranged the chairs on his upper deck – essentially to deal with the challenges emerging from Donald Trump’s nascent presidency.

None of the 12 ministers who make up the special cabinet committee that was struck last January to oversee the Canada/U.S. file were reassigned on Monday, and none were added.

That reflects that government’s sense that the current approach to Trumpism works as well as can be expected in the circumstances and that the cabinet team Trudeau assembled in January does cover all the bases.

As an aside, National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who misrepresented his role in the crafting of a major military operation in Afghanistan and was subsequently expected by some observers to be demoted at the first opportunity, has survived his misstep.

The New Year shuffle signalled a major redeployment of government resources along the Canada/U.S. front.

By comparison, Monday’s makeover – while more significant than expected – was only designed to fix some isolated trouble spots.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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