The new Canadian cabinet announced on Oct. 26, 2021. (Image: Governor General/Twitter).
The new Canadian cabinet announced on Oct. 26, 2021. (Image: Governor General/Twitter).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just appointed a cabinet of 38 ministers – 39 if you include him. It’s almost as bloated as Brian Mulroney’s and Stephen Harper’s cabinets of 39 ministers.

After Mulroney left office in 1993, there was, for a brief moment, a trend to smaller, more efficient cabinets. His successor Kim Campbell did not last long in office, but her radically reduced cabinet of 23 ministers did set a pattern that subsequent prime ministers followed, for a short while.

After all, other large and complex federal countries manage to operate quite effectively without an oversized team of ministers. The current German federal cabinet has fifteen members, for instance.

Why should Canada need more than twice as many?

The answer is that Canadian prime ministers do not use cabinet appointments merely to fill key leadership and administrative roles. In this country, federal cabinet-making has a number of different political purposes.

Naming a cabinet allows a prime minister to reward loyal allies. Even more important, prime ministers can use cabinet-making to shore up political support throughout the country.

That’s why Prince Edward Island, with four MPs, invariably gets a cabinet minister. Currently it is long-serving Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Veteran’s Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.

New Brunswick, with ten seats in the House, and Newfoundland with seven, are equally well served. They have two ministers each in the cabinet Trudeau named on Tuesday.

Other federal countries have ways of assuring a voice for the provinces (or states) at the centre that are different from Canada’s. Our way is by having prime ministers name folks to the cabinet from as many provinces as possible.

Many federal countries achieve provincial participation in the central government via the upper house or senate of the federal parliament.

In Canada we don’t know what to do with our Senate, but it certainly is not set up to be any sort of house of the provinces (which a Quebec Liberal leader once suggested it should be). 

Ergo, the federalism-reinforcing vocation of the federal cabinet. And that is a big contributing factor to the cabinet’s excessive size.

Complex and confusing cabinet structure

So complex is this cabinet that for a number of newly-appointed ministers, the government felt compelled to add notes in its announcement explaining which teams of civil servants would support them.

Here, just a few examples:

Dominic Leblanc, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities, will work with civil servants in both the Privy Council Office (the central co-ordinating agency of government that reports directly to the prime minister) and the Department of Infrastructure.

Mary Ng, the newly-named Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development (quite a mouthful there), will be, in government jargon, “supported” by the ministry of Global Affairs and the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Trudeau named Toronto MP Ahmed Hussen to a new ministry that combines housing with diversity and inclusion. To carry out his duties, Hussen will have to call on bureaucrats from three different departments: Canadian Heritage, Women and Gender Equality and Infrastructure Canada.

It all makes for many crossed wires and potential duplication of effort throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The idea of a streamlined, lean-and-mean federal cabinet, with clearly-defined roles and lines of authority and decision-making, seems a distant memory now.

New faces at global, Indigenous affairs and environment

Among the well-known personalities swept up in this cabinet shuffle are former astronaut and now former Global Affairs minister Marc Garneau. He is out of cabinet altogether – weeks after having successfully piloted the release of the two Michaels.

Another Montreal MP, Mélanie Joly, now takes over the reins at the foreign ministry. She’s the fifth Global Affairs minister in six years.

Joly’s first job in a Trudeau cabinet was as minister of Canadian Heritage, responsible for broadcasting and culture. In that role, she got into big trouble in her home province over an ill-conceived deal with streaming service Netflix to invest in Canadian production.

When it became clear the U.S.-based mega-corporation had no plans to invest any serious dollars in French-language Canadian production, Joly had to answer some tough questions.

Her response was off-the-wall, to be generous.

She mumbled and bumbled something about Québécois directors, such as Denis Villeneuve, who had made successful careers for themselves in Hollywood (working in English, of course).

Nobody in Quebec was impressed with Joly’s answer, and Trudeau had to shuffle her out of the portfolio as quickly as decently possible. He replaced her with the sure-footed and experienced Montreal MP Pablo Rodriguez, who, in the views of many cultural industry insiders, did a great job.

When the Liberals were reduced to a minority in 2019, Trudeau decided he needed Rodriguez’s interpersonal and negotiating skills as House Leader. He put rookie MP and environmental activist Stephen Guilbeault in charge of Canadian Heritage.

Now, Trudeau has restored Rodriguez to Heritage, while giving Guilbeault the job for which his life’s experience has best prepared him: environment and climate change minister. Less than a week after taking on his new role, Guilbeault will attend the world climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland — COP26.

Canadian Heritage was not a perfect fit for Guilbeault, and he seemed to be learning about broadcasting, communication, the arts and culture on the fly.

Guilbeault has been an environmental activist since his student days. He helped found one well-known Canadian environmental organization, Equiterre, and worked for another, international one, Greenpeace.

At the same time, a series of Quebec premiers of different political stripes named Guilbeault to a number of environmental advisory bodies, while business organizations such as the Montreal Chamber of Commerce called on him for his environmental expertise.

This new role will be Guilbeault’s biggest challenge.

When he was elected the first time in 2015, Ottawa insiders clucked it was a good thing the prime minister kept Guilbeault away from the environment and climate change file. His activism and deep personal commitment would make it difficult for Guilbeault to craft the compromises necessary to succeed as a minister, they said.

Guilbeault has the chance to prove them wrong now, to show how an activist can successfully wield the levers of political power and not abandon his principles.

As for Joly, after bumping her from Canadian Heritage, Trudeau originally gave her the lighter tasks of tourism and official languages. He then expanded her role to economic development, and named her to the key political role of co-chair for the Liberals’ 2021 election campaign.

The prime minister obviously has enough faith Joly learned her lesson from the Netflix kerfuffle to entrust the job of international diplomacy to her. It does not hurt that Joly comes from a solidly Liberal family in Montreal and that she was an early supporter of Justin Trudeau’s leadership bid. Loyalty counts in this government.

Another potentially important cabinet change is the replacement of Carolyn Bennett at Crown-Indigenous Relations with the erstwhile Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller.

Former Health Minister Patty Hajdu takes over the Indigenous Services job, while Bennett remains in cabinet as minister of Mental Health and Addictions, a new federal role that has neither a department nor a budget associated with it.

It appears Bennett’s new job will be mostly hortatory.

The provinces do all the heavy lifting when it comes to mental health and addictions. It’s a fair bet they would rather get more money for addiction and mental health services from the federal government than more rhetoric.

The first challenge for the new tag team at Indigenous affairs will be the government’s response to the recent court decision on child and family welfare.

In 2020, a Human Rights Tribunal ordered the government to compensate victims who had been underserved – at times with tragic consequences – by the child and family services system for Indigenous people. The government appealed that ruling to the Federal Court and on September 29 of this year Justice Paul Favel ruled in favour of the victims. If the government wishes to appeal, its deadline is the end of this month in a few days’ time.

When asked what the government is planning to do, with the clock ticking, the Prime Minister was supremely evasive:

“We are looking very carefully at what the right path is forward to ensure that yes, we can compensate people who have been harmed in the past, but that we also have the ability to put an end to the ongoing harms that are continuing to happen in child and family services.”

Getting that balance right is at the heart of the path forward on reconciliation and the decision we will be taking in the coming days.”

Translation: The government will very likely appeal, but will do its darndest to bury the announcement by making it in a news release late on Friday evening, October 29, just before the deadline.

How ministers Miller and Hajdu finesse that one will be an enormous test of their political skills.

Two ministries that had been part of Trudeau’s previous cabinets are notable by their absence in the new one.

One is the ministry of democratic institutions, which had been responsible for the electoral reform dossier. The fact that it is no more should put the final nail in the coffin for any hope this government will undertake any sort of electoral reform.

The other missing ministry is the oft-mocked ministry of middle-class prosperity. Even for Justin Trudeau, it appears there are limits to self-serving and empty virtue signalling.

As for the former occupant of the middle-class prosperity role, Ottawa MP Mona Fortier has a big promotion. She is now President of the Treasury Board, a key central agency of government.

Among Treasury Board’s many roles are negotiations with federal public service unions. Given all the controversies around mandatory vaccinations and other pandemic rules and practices, that role will be a true test for this new minister.

Fortier is part of a team of women ministers holding key positions at the centre of power. As has been his promise since 2015, Trudeau has maintained gender parity in cabinet, with 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women holding positions, excluding the PM.

There are now women at Global Affairs, Finance and Treasury Board. As well, Anita Anand has taken over the scandal-plagued Defence department, which the prime minister says needs a “culture change,” and Karina Gould has assumed responsibility for the major social program portfolio of Families, Children and Social Development.

Never before have women held so much power in Ottawa. Now, let’s see what they do with it.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...