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Trudeau willing to make tough decisions to achieve his agenda, but former Grit party leader Dion treated ‘disrespectfully,’ say Dion supporters

By Abbas Rana      

'It appears that having past cabinet experience is a liability in the Trudeau government,' said one former cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured at last week's swearing-in ceremony, booted former Foreign Affairs minister Stéphane Dion from cabinet last week. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau injected new energy into his government when he shuffled his cabinet last week in an effort to deal with upcoming U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration, but some insiders say the prime minister treated former federal party leader Stéphane Dion “disrespectfully” by giving him the boot from cabinet and offering him a diplomatic appointment.

“He has not been treated respectfully,” a friend of Mr. Dion’s said in an interview with The Hill Times last week and who requested anonymity. At the time of the interview, the 21-year veteran of the Liberal caucus, who was first elected in 1996, who was still considering his future plans.

In Tuesday’s cabinet shuffle, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) acted decisively when he dropped Mr. Dion (Saint-Laurent, Que.) from his cabinet. Mr. Trudeau offered Mr. Dion the job of ambassador to the EU and Germany, but Mr. Dion was still mulling it over last week. Mr. Trudeau also dropped Immigration minister John McCallum from cabinet and appointed him ambassador to China.

In Mr. Dion’s place, the prime minster appointed former International Trade minister and Russian hardliner Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) the new Foreign Affairs minister who will also oversee the Canada-U.S. trade file, which includes thorny issues such as the ongoing softwood lumber dispute, the possible renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the future of NATO, and bilateral trade.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, appointed former International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, centre, as the new Foreign Affairs Minister last week. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

As of deadline on Thursday, Mr. Dion had not accepted or declined Mr. Trudeau’s diplomatic job offer. But, after being dumped from cabinet, he was considering resigning his seat as an MP, and issued a three-paragraph statement about his departure from the cabinet.

“For one year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave me the honour of being his minister of Foreign Affairs,” wrote Mr. Dion and issued his statement during the cabinet swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 10. “As is his privilege, he has just entrusted this great responsibility to another person. I wish Chrystia the best of luck.

“On Jan. 25, 1996, I entered politics at the request of prime minister Jean Chrétien. I was envisaging a brief parenthesis in my life. It has been, in fact, an incredible adventure. For this, I am indebted to the prime ministers and Liberal leaders who placed their confidence in me, to my colleagues in Parliament, to the public servants who supported me with competence and professionalism, to the members of the Liberal Party of Canada, to my political teams who, in Ottawa as in Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, placed their talents and their enthusiasm at my service. With all my heart, I thank the voters of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville who, a full eight times, placed their confidence in me and gave me the honour of representing them in the House of Commons. Of course, I could not have accomplished anything without all the sacrifices made by Janine and Jeanne. I thank them for all their love.

“Over the last twenty-one years, I have devoted myself to my riding, to my fellow citizens, to Québec, to all of Canada, to the role that we must play in the world, and to the Liberal Party of Canada.  Now, I shall deploy my efforts outside active politics.  I have enjoyed political life, especially when I was able to make a difference to benefit my fellow citizens.  I emerge full of energy…renewable!  But politics is not the only way to serve one’s country.  Fortunately!”

In the Jan. 10 shuffle, Mr. Trudeau made significant changes to the cabinet in which he appointed Liberal MP François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.) the minister of International Trade; Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen (York South-Weston, Ont.) minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; and Liberal MP Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) minister of Democratic Institutions. In the shuffle, Mr. Trudeau also dropped Employment, Workforce Development and Labour minister MaryAnn Mihychuk (Kildonan-St. Paul, Man.) from cabinet. As well, he promoted former Status of Women minister Patricia Hajdu (Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont.) to Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, and named former Democratic Institutions minister Maryam Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) the new Status of Women Minster.

Former Status of Women minister Patricia Hajdu has now been promoted to the position of Labour Minister. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright 

Liberal sources told The Hill Times last week’s shuffle further showed that Mr. Trudeau is ready to make extremely tough decisions to achieve his government’s agenda, comparing the move to boot out two loyal veteran politicians to kicking out all the Liberal Senators from the national caucus in January 2014.

“This shows he’s willing to take hard decisions to achieve his government’s agenda,” a Liberal source said.

Rookie Liberal MP Karina Gould, centre, pictured with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General David Johnston has been appointed as the new Minister of Democratic Institutions.

Supporters of Mr. Dion said that Mr. Trudeau should have left it up to the former party leader to decide if he wants to stay or leave politics.

Meanwhile, one former cabinet colleague in the Jean Chrétien government said it appears that having past cabinet experience is a “liability” in the current Liberal government.

“When you’ve got people of experience like that [Mr. Don] in there, who are always willing to question and willing to stand up to people [in the Trudeau government], they don’t want that. When people have been around a long time, they want to take you on. They want people who say, ‘Yes,’ and take the file and run,” said the former cabinet colleague who did not want to be identified. “I don’t think they want people who resist, they just want people who salute and go. And people who’ve been around don’t necessarily do that. It appears that having past cabinet experience is a liability [in the Trudeau government].”

One former Liberal MP told The Hill Times that he was disappointed with the way Mr. Dion was dumped from cabinet. He said he was planning on doing on-the-record media interviews to express his displeasure after the former Foreign Affairs minister finalized his future plans. The source said the former party leader deserved more respect and should not have been treated “disrespectfully” by the prime minister.

“They [Mr. Trudeau and his advisers] just decided that’s what they were going to do and they did it,” the former MP said. “Normally, you’d sit somebody down, you’d have this conversation as to why you’re going to do a certain thing. The fact that he [Mr. Dion] did not agree or hasn’t publicly agreed to me signals that it was done in a spur of the moment.”

The source said that one complicating factor in the diplomatic job offer for Mr. Dion is that Ms. Freeland would be his boss.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion, pictured in this file photo at the National Press Theatre. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.), in an interview with The Hill Times, disagreed that Mr. Dion had been treated “disrespectfully.” He said the cabinet shuffle was done because of the election of Mr. Trump as the president to proactively deal with any potential future trade issues with Canada’s largest trading partner and also to fine-tune the cabinet that was put in place about 14 months ago.

“I believe the prime minister has really done a fantastic job at making sure that we continue to move forward on whether it’s the international or national policy decisions that need to be made and he’s now well over a year in the prime minister’s chair and one would expect him to make some changes to bring in some new faces,” said Mr. Lamoureux.

First elected in a 1996 byelection after the 1995 referendum on Quebec secession that separatists lost by a razor-thin margin, Mr. Dion has won every subsequent federal election since. He served as Intergovernmental Affairs minister in Mr. Chrétien’s cabinet and Environment minister in Paul Martin’s cabinet. In 2006, Mr. Dion was elected as party leader but stepped down after the party lost the 2008 federal election.

While Intergovernmental Affairs minister, Mr. Dion, a staunch federalist, was the Chrétien government’s point man to address the separatist threat. Under his leadership, Parliament passed Canada’s Clarity Act which established clear rules and conditions regarding any future attempt to separate Quebec from Canada. While respected as an intellectual heavyweight that loves the “cut and thrust of arguments,” some Liberals describe him as “stubborn” and “hard to work with.”

It’s believed this is the first time that a former federal party leader has been dumped from a cabinet.

A former Liberal MP who supported Mr. Dion in his 2006 leadership election, in an interview with The Hill Times, said he agreed with Mr. Trudeau’s decision to shuffle the former party leader out of cabinet. The former MP argued that with Mr. Trump taking over the reins of government on Jan. 20, the Canada-U.S. trade relationship that involves billions of dollars in bilateral trade every day would require someone at Global Affairs Canada, who is less concerned about winning arguments and more pragmatic in resolving trade irritants and diplomatic issues between the two countries.

“You need somebody who is not so intent on winning arguments but moving files,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity so that he could speak his mind.

“The relationship with the U.S. will continue to be critical. Dion as an intellectual would’ve not been able to engage the Americans productively. He would’ve just thought they were just a bunch of fucking idiots and it would not have been good.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Trudeau started his cross-country tour on Thursday to meet with Canadians in town hall meetings. Opposition parties, however, claimed the prime minister was touring the country in order to fend off the controversies over his cash-for-access political fundraisers and his family vacation at the private Bahamian Island owned by the Aga Khan.

Mr. Lamoureux said it’s the opposition parties’ job to oppose the government. He said Mr. Trudeau, as party leader, has always advised his caucus to stay connected with their constituents and as prime minister of the country, he is reaching out to as many Canadians as he can.

“He’s doing exactly what it is he talked about to us and he’s very consistent in doing that,” said Mr. Lamoureux. “Opposition parties will be opposition parties and they will look at ways trying to portray the prime minister in a negative fashion. Best I can tell from the riding I represent is that their tactics are not working.”

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