New Canadian Media

by Susan Delacourt in Ottawa

The best person to explain the big new-year changes to the federal cabinet’s makeup might well be someone who doesn’t even live here: outgoing U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden.

During a visit to Canada a month ago, Biden told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada needs to step up, internationally — comments that were widely interpreted as a gesture of passing the liberal torch from soon-to-be ex-president Barack Obama.

“The world is going to spend a lot of time looking to you, Mr. Prime Minister. Vive le Canada, because we need you very, very badly,” Biden said in remarks at a dinner during his visit to Ottawa.

While we don’t know how much the world was watching events at Rideau Hall on Tuesday, it is abundantly clear that Trudeau has set his sights on the world. As he told reporters after the shuffle, he needs to take into account a “shift in global context.”

In fact, it’s difficult to remember a Canadian cabinet shuffle so internationally focused — one that set so many parts in motion outside Canada’s borders, especially during a time of tumultuous, global change. Among the changes we learned about Tuesday:

  • A new minister to handle the looming challenges to Canada posed by Donald Trump’s incoming administration — Chrystia Freeland, now Global Affairs minister.
  • A new ambassador to China — former immigration minister John McCallum. This isn’t about a minister being put out to pasture: McCallum is being asked to represent Canada in a nation of immense interest to the current government. Faced with trade threats from a U.S. president vowing to make America great again (possibly at other countries’ expense,) Canada has been seeking to expand trade with China.
  • A new minister of international trade, François-Philippe Champagne.
  • A new minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship: Ahmed Hussen.

The departing Global Affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, was rumoured to be considering a diplomatic post, possibly in Europe, but at the time of Tuesday’s press conference the former Liberal leader was saying only that he was leaving active politics and considering his next move. My best bet is that this is a difficult conversation still in progress (which probably accounted for the unusual uncertainty about the timing of the shuffle ceremony itself at Rideau Hall).

The speculation about Europe as a landing spot for Dion, however, underlines just how much Trudeau and his team are thinking about what’s going on in the world these days. The Brexit vote to leave the European Union, the refugee crisis, ongoing terrorism threats and the rise of right-wing parties are all large matters of concern to progressive-minded governments.

As Biden said in his Ottawa speech: “I’ve never seen Europe as engaged in as much self-doubt as they are now.”

All prime ministers, sooner or later, become preoccupied with global affairs and their place on the big stage. It’s usually an interest that deepens with tenure, and their increasing confidence in rubbing shoulders with other world leaders.

With a comfortable majority, Trudeau doesn’t need to be worried about his government falling on a vote in the Commons while he’s abroad, as Stephen Harper was during his first two minority governments.

Trudeau, however, seemed to arrive in office with an intense interest in international affairs; he gave some of his first interviews to foreign media and has spent a lot of time commuting to the United States and other summits around the world. His critics have portrayed this as a lack of interest in his own country, accusing Trudeau of being too busy to even attend question period and thinking himself too important to spend his vacations in Canada.

Granted, it is a luxury Trudeau can afford. With a comfortable majority, Trudeau doesn’t need to be worried about his government falling on a vote in the Commons while he’s abroad, as Stephen Harper was during his first two minority governments.

Not all of this shuffle was outward-looking. Shuffles can be very useful in maintaining government discipline — dangling a few promotions as examples to other ambitious, cabinet wannabes in the backbench, and doling out demotions as a warning to others performing under-par. To borrow from that old Liberal campaign slogan from 2015, shuffles are all about hope and hard work — dispensing it (hope) or enforcing it (hard work).

On that score, this shuffle did deliver. While Trudeau’s office was putting out nice words about Dion and his contribution to the government in a press release, nobody watching the PM’s press conference had any doubts that the PMO had decided the former professor and Liberal leader wasn’t the right man to handle what’s coming with Trump and other big events on the world stage.

Other casualties: Maryam Monsef, now the Status of Women minister, was punted from the Democratic Reform post to which she was proving herself unsuited (to say the least). MaryAnn Mihychuk was ejected altogether from her job as minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour.

Trudeau wasn’t doing this shuffle with home-grown concerns at front of mind, or even his prospects for the next election. The election that seems to be front of mind for Trudeau right now is the recent one in the United States.

Big promotions were handed out to Patty Hadju, moving from Status of Women to Mihychuk’s old job, and to new ministers Champagne and Hussen. Other MPs will be wondering what they did right — which is exactly what the PMO wants them to be thinking about.

Note, though, that the domestic posts in this week’s shuffle were almost afterthoughts. Trudeau wasn’t doing this shuffle with home-grown concerns at front of mind, or even his prospects for the next election (those changes will come closer to 2019, we can assume).

The election that seems to be front of mind for Trudeau right now is the recent one in the United States — the one that gave Canada, and now Freeland, a President Trump to deal with. And if we’re looking for deeper read of the shuffle’s international focus, Biden’s remarks to the PM may be as good any.

“The progress is going to be made,” Biden said, “but it’s going to take men like you, Mr. Prime Minister, who understand it has to fit within the context of a liberal economic order, a liberal international order, where there’s basic rules of the road.”

Don’t be surprised if words along these lines are in the mandate letters for many of the new ministers.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.


Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca 

Published in Politics

by Susan Delacourt in Ottawa

It might be an awkward time to remind Conservatives of this, but the current government has two different standards for when one can wear a niqab — one for citizenship ceremonies, one for voting.

It is definitely not OK — “offensive” even — for people to wear face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, Conservatives swiftly declared after an important court ruling cleared the way for that practice this week.

Voting, apparently, is a different matter. Despite all of their condemnations of veiled voting several years ago — and all the other sweeping changes in the 2014 Fair Elections Act making it tougher to vote — somehow Conservatives never did get around to banning face coverings at the ballot box.

That’s right. The same face coverings that are “offensive” in citizenship ceremonies are allowed in the voting booth, according to the Conservative government’s own laws … or lack of them.

So Zunera Ishaq, the 29-year-old woman who went to Federal Court to win the right to cover her face during a citizenship ceremony, didn’t have to go to court for the same right at the voting booth. She already had that right, as soon as she had Canadian citizenship.

Odder still, in Ishaq’s court case, a lawyer for the Justice Department testified that it was never the government’s intention to make it mandatory for women to remove face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

Elections Canada has a procedure in place for any voters who want to cast a ballot while wearing face coverings on Oct. 19. Here’s how it described that procedure in an advisory sent out late last year after the Fair Elections Act became law:

If an elector wearing a face covering comes to vote, the deputy returning officer will ask the elector to show their face. If the elector agrees to remove their face covering, the election officer will follow regular voting procedures. Election officers have been instructed to exercise respect and sensitivity in following this administrative procedure. If the elector does not wish to remove their face covering, the deputy returning officer will advise the elector that they must provide two pieces of authorized identification, one proving their identity and the other proving their identity and address, and then take an oath attesting to their eligibility to vote. If the elector agrees to provide the identification and take the oath, the election officer will follow regular voting procedures.

It’s not like the government forgot to ban veiled voting in the Fair Elections Act. When a Commons committee was reviewing the bill in early 2014, Bloc MP André Bellavance specifically asked why the prohibition wasn’t in the bill. Two cabinet ministers, Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre, said they were open to amendments on that score.

The amendments never materialized.

Odder still, in Ishaq’s court case, a lawyer for the Justice Department testified that it was never the government’s intention to make it mandatory for women to remove face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

What we have here is a textbook case of saying one thing and doing another in politics. The ‘saying’ part is for all the wrong reasons — the ‘doing’ part is for the right ones.

Sending dog-whistle signals

I suspect the Conservative government realized several years ago that it was legally impossible to ban veiled voting. Two attempts were made between 2007 and 2011. Both quietly died on the order paper.

Here’s why: It would amount to singling out certain members of the population for restricted rights. We do allow people to vote in Canada without showing their face at the ballot box — through proxies, or mail-in special ballots. How do you write a law that says some people don’t need to show their faces, but others do?

[T]he Conservatives took the path of blustering about niqabs and sending dog-whistle signals to people uncomfortable or fearful about Muslims. Bad statesmanship. Easy politics, though.

Moreover, a special law to prohibit the niqab would stomp all over Canadians’ rights to religious expression. That’s probably why the Justice Department lawyer felt he had to point out the non-mandatory aspect of the legislation in Federal Court.

Rather than explain this to Canadians, though, the Conservatives took the path of blustering about niqabs and sending dog-whistle signals to people uncomfortable or fearful about Muslims. Bad statesmanship. Easy politics, though.

We saw that earlier this year, as well, when the Conservatives sent out a fundraising e-mail asking supporters to sign up if they agreed that it was “offensive” to wear a niqab or a hijab at citizenship ceremonies. The e-mail left little doubt that the Conservatives were whipping up these sentiments for reasons of purest electoral politics.

The note was signed by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and stirred up some controversy with his interchangeable use of ‘niqab’ and ‘hijab’; one is generally associated with full-face coverings, while the other, the hijab, is commonly used to describe a head covering.

To make things even more confusing, not all Conservatives have been using the word “offensive” when it comes to garments of religious expression. Kenney, for instance, said on Twitter in 2013: “A child is no less Canadian because she or he wears a kippa, turban, cross, or hijab to school.” Kenney sent out that missive in the midst of the Quebec debate over the wearing of religious symbols in public.

There’s still a month left in this election and it’s entirely possible that one of the eleventh-hour Conservative campaign promises will revolve around banning veiled voting — again. It would fit well with this week’s bluster on citizenship ceremonies.

This time we might ask them: Why did the last two attempts quietly die? Are they serious this time, or is this just another attempt to whip up some good old-fashioned intolerance?

What’s really being veiled here by all this talk about the niqab?


Susan Delacourt is one of Canada’s best-known political journalists. Over her long career she has worked at some of the top newsrooms in the country, from the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail to the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post. She is a frequent political panelist on CBC Radio and CTV. Author of four books, her latest — Shopping For Votes — was a finalist for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Canadian non-fiction in 2014. She teaches classes in journalism and political communication at Carleton University.

Published in partnership with iPolitics.ca.

Published in Commentary

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