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The Top 100: The politicians with the power, both on and off the Hill

By Ally Foster      
Ralph Goodale, minister of Public Safety, is one of the most influential politicians. One insider described him as, 'Goodale: the get-stuff-done guy.' P&I photograph by Jake Wright

The 2017 list of politicians wielding power, sway, and voices that carry weight around decision-making tables includes predominantly cabinet ministers, as usual.

However, there are fewer opposition members and more provincial politicians and big city mayors than rankings of years past. The reason for this change can be partially attributed to the fact that the opposition parties are currently forced to focus their efforts within, as they work to rebuild their ranks in time to rally for the 2019 federal election.

Interim Leader of the Conservative Party, Rona Ambrose. (P&I photograph by Jake Wright)

One opposition member who has maintained relentless pressure on Justin Trudeau and his majority government while her party prepares for a leadership vote is Conservative MP Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Official Opposition. Much to the chagrin of supporters who hoped the rules would change to allow the interim leader to run for permanent leadership, Ambrose will be passing the torch in May, when the party elects a new boss.

But those who work on the Hill say Ambrose has flourished in the role, making a name for herself as someone to be reckoned with. Ambrose has been a strong performer in Question Period, observers of varying political stripes say, and has kept the party looking respectable throughout a congested and divisive leadership race. She has been accessible to media, and well-versed on policy. Those who work on the Hill say Trudeau and his inner circle respect her, and agree that the bar has been set high for whoever takes the wheel this spring.

Trudeau and his team have entered the second-quarter of their mandate, and while the PMO and cabinet used the first year
to set up—and tear down after almost a decade of Conservative rule—there’s a long list of promises waiting to be fulfilled.

One of the most significant commitments Canadians and pundits alike are going to be monitoring with keen eyes is the economy, and a major tool being examined to bolster the lackluster coffers is energy. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr worked closely with Trudeau in reviewing and approving two major pipeline projects in November, while rejecting a third. Now, Carr will
be tasked with assisting in the review of TransCanada Corp.’s Energy East pipeline, restructuring the National Energy
Board, and working with the new U.S. administration on a possible Keystone XL pipeline approval.

Political observers say Carr has been a strong player, walking a tightrope between bolstering the economy and creating jobs, while at the same time, working well with Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna to ensure Canada’s climate commitments are being respected.

One insider says McKenna has a “thankless” job on the tough climate change file, with some critics calling on her to do more to protect the environment, while others demand the economy and natural resource development be prioritized. To make things more difficult, McKenna must now navigate North American environmental strategy with the new Donald Trump administration, facing uncertainty about how Trump—a climate change-denier—will proceed with global climate action, like the Paris Climate Agreement.

Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, will also be working with McKenna. Together, they are to improve marine safety, and have worked on forming a moratorium on oil tankers off B.C.’s north coast. Garneau, who was Canada’s first astronaut in space before stepping into politics, is known to be a steady-hand and a hard-worker. One senior official in Transport Canada, who has worked closely with Garneau said he’s “an exceptional communicator, is perfectly bilingual, and understands the importance of speaking plainly and directly.”

Garneau is quick to catch on to new technology, insiders say, and is keen to get involved within his department. “He reads everything,” said the official from Transport Canada. “He understands his portfolio really well.”

For his part, Garneau told The Hill Times in a December interview that he has great staff, and genuinely loves his job. Garneau also said that he will be focusing on tabling legislation in the spring concerning freight rail, and how to create a policy that will address both the railways themselves, as well as people who use the infrastructure to ship valuable resources like grain, potash, and lumber.

“It’s a big piece of legislation—it’s a very important one—and I want to get it right,” he said. Other commitments include bringing better transportation infrastructure to the North, increasing the cap on foreign ownership of Canadian airlines, better coastal protections, and reductions in transportation emissions.

One of the other few seasoned political veterans in cabinet, Ralph Goodale, will also play a large role this coming year as minister of Public Safety. Those who have worked with him say he’s “solid, steady, and competent,” and that his maturity and experience are major assets to the relatively raw Liberal Party. One insider described him as, “Goodale: the get-stuff-done guy.” It’s said that Goodale is selective in terms of choosing to speak up or assert his opinions, which means that when he does, the PMO listens.

In the Public Safety portfolio, Goodale has introduced legislation to increase and facilitate the use of safe injection sites,
and has navigated the controversial issue of Canada’s intelligence agency accessing and retaining personal information of Canadians who are not necessarily under surveillance.

Going forward, he will continue working to review Canada’s cyber security strategy and infrastructure; will provide support in the move to legalize and regulate marijuana; and has promised to amend aspects of Bill C-51, the previous government’s controversial national security legislation, among other priorities.

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. (P&I photograph by Sam Garcia)

Other strong-performing cabinet ministers who survived the January cabinet shuffle include Carolyn Bennett, Jean- Yves Duclos, and Judy Foote. Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, will remain influential as the Trudeau government prioritizes improving relations with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Canadians—a commitment it was criticized for lagging on towards the end of its first year in power.

Bennett, who was first-elected to the House of Commons in 1997, worked for many years as a family physician and is said to have strong, respectful relationships with indigenous groups she has worked with in her current portfolio.

The government launched a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in the summer, and created a national council for reconciliation, which is tasked with implementing the 94 recommendations that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

Bennett will be sitting at the table with Trudeau when he holds annual meetings with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit leaders to discuss shared priorities. Incarceration rates, better access to education and health care, soaring suicide rates amongst indigenous youth, improved housing, indigenous language protections, and environmental concerns will be some of the big topics on the agenda.

Meanwhile, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Duclos also has a lot of complex social justice and development issues on his plate, especially since taking two files—employment insurance, and expanding intergovernmental
agreements that support skills training—from Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk in August, when she was still minister of minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour.

While Duclos, formerly the director of the economics department at Laval University, was a rookie to politics when he was elected in Quebec City in the 2015 general election, insiders say he has been a hard-worker and a reliable minister that has gained the trust and respect of the inner circle. One insider also said Duclos, who specialized in social welfare and public policy as an academic, put together one of the best political staffs of any minister on the Hill.

In his first year, Duclos introduced the Canada Child Benefit and made changes to employment insurance. Coming up, Duclos will be creating a new national strategy on poverty reduction, a plan for affordable, higher-quality child care, improvements to parental leave, a social finance strategy, and more affordable housing.

And, while Public Services Minister Foote survived a shuffle around the cabinet table, she has had a difficult year— inheriting the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system and the overall merger of the Canadian government’s IT networks, email systems, and data centres.

At its height, the issues with the Phoenix system caused problems with the paycheques of more than 80,000 public servants, causing some to go months without pay. Foote must oversee the cleanup of that mess, while eventually implementing the rest of the consolidation through Shared Services. Foote also has major government building renovations on her horizon, like the makeover of the iconic Centre Block, which is slated to begin in 2018.

As these ministers navigate the hurdles of their own portfolios, they will also likely provide support to some of the green Cabinet’s newest faces.

In the Jan. 10 ministerial makeover, Trudeau promoted several rookie MPs to high-level positions, including Karina Gould. The 29-year- old—who is taking over as the minister of Democratic Institutions—is now the youngest cabinet minister. The MP for Burlington, Ont. was the sacrificial lamb to had to deliver the news to Canadians that the Liberal government would no longer be pursuing electoral reform. Instead, she will work on protecting Canada’s voting system from cyber threats, and implementing other changes to the Canada Elections Act through Bill C-33, which was introduced in November.

Ahmed Hussen, the new minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship. (P&I photograph by Jake Wright)

Meanwhile, another new face around the cabinet table is Ahmed Hussen, a Somali refugee who came to Canada when he was 16, and is now Canada’s new minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship. The rookie MP is known to be a social activist and a strong communicator. After coming to Canada from war-torn Mogadishu, Hussen became a lawyer, specializing in criminal defence, human rights, and immigration and refugee law.

“I am extremely proud of our country’s history as a place of asylum, a place that opens its doors and hearts to new immigrants and refugees, and I’m especially proud today to be the minister in charge of that file,” Hussen told reporters on Parliament Hill the day of his swearing-in. In December 2016, then-minister on the file, John McCallum, told CBC that a priority for 2017 would be to bring more refugees to Canada from Africa, after focusing largely on Syrian refugees in 2016.

“Some people feel like Africa has been shortchanged in terms of how long it takes to do things, in terms of receiving refugees, so we have to work harder on Africa,” he told CBC.

The Canadian government has also vowed to bring more skilled immigrants and international students to Canada, increase family reunification, and modify the appeal process for refugee claimants.

Outside of cabinet—or even caucus— are a string of politicians that political pundits say have more power and influence than before: big city mayors and premiers. The Harper government was more hands- off when it came to municipal affairs,
one insider says, adding that the Trudeau government is much more collaborative, and wants to build a closer relationship with premiers and mayors across the country.

Some of the most active and high-profile mayors, insiders say, are Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, Gregor Robertson, mayor of Vancouver, and Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary.

Robertson and Trudeau’s friendship was dubbed a ‘bromance’ when Trudeau visited Vancouver in December 2015, after first taking the helm in Ottawa. “It’s so refreshing to have a partner in Ottawa that treats cities with respect and recognizes we are so vital to the country’s success,” Robertson was quoted as saying to the media during the visit. “His priorities are the priorities of the people here in Vancouver.”

But that ‘bromance’ was also rumoured to come to an end with Trudeau’s approval of the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, which Robertson had vehemently lobbied against and has since expressed disappointment and frustration in seeing green-lighted.

As Trudeau aims to maintain a tone of climate awareness and promises of environmental protection, he will need to bring Robertson back on his good side to convince the west coast—and in particular, indigenous groups—that future plans won’t damage their lands or waters.

Meanwhile, Calgary mayor Nenshi publicly criticized Robertson for his stance on the pipeline projects, defending proposals when they were still under federal review, hoping the oil sands would once again pump life into Alberta’s anemic economy.

Nenshi and Trudeau met at the end of the year, and discussed the current financial state of the city, which was once a hub of economic success in Canada, and which now needs a boost in diversified sectors like clean technology and new infrastructure to help it be more innovative and competitive. Nenshi is also looking for federal backing, or at least an indication of support, for a possible bid by the city to host the 2026 Olympics.

Another ally in Trudeau’s support for select pipelines is Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who was in Ottawa with Trudeau when he announced the approval for the Kinder Morgan expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project.

Shortly after hearing the news, Notley publicly lent support for Trudeau’s call for carbon tax, a move that has caused a great deal of controversy in the province, and harsh words against the NDP premier. Notley must work to pacify a population of Albertans who have faced tough economic and employment realities with the oil crash, while staying in the good books of a federal government aiming to phase-out fossil fuels.

One premier who was on the top 25 list of influential players in previous years is Kathleen Wynne, who some insiders
say has since fallen out of favour with the feds as she falls out of favour with her province. Wynne, who political insiders
say is smart and genuinely dedicated to the position, has experienced a steady decline in the polls. A recent Forum Research Poll found only a 13-per-cent approval rating for Wynne—the lowest number the market research firm has ever record for a sitting premier.

After more than a decade of control in Ontario, the provincial Liberals may very well lose the 2018 election. And while Wynne and Trudeau have enjoyed a friendly relationship in the past, Liberal insiders say he is likely trying to distance himself from the wild card, in the hopes that her poor public opinion doesn’t rub off on him.

Despite the skyrocketing hydro bills and the cries of outrage from the middle class as a result, Ontario’s economy is recovering well, and is still the largest in the country. This means that until at least 2018—or before, if she resigns, which she is adamant she will not do—Wynne is still the chief of Canada’s economic heavyweight, and therefore, a perhaps unwanted Liberal ally amongst the premiers.

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