Look, I don’t wanna be a party-pooper. I don’t wanna piss on anyone’s parade. It’s really wonderful to see so many people being so enthusiastic about federal politics, so inspired by the notion of real meaningful change, and I wish that I could join in on the enthusiasm and excitement.
But I can’t, because as earnestly felt as the swell of goodwill towards the new Trudeau government is, it’s misplaced.
Now first of all, to be clear: it’s obviously fantastic that Trudeau appointed the most ethnically diverse cabinet in Canadian history, as well as the first to feature an equal number of female and male ministers. And I don’t have any patience for those crypto-racist/patriarchal arguments about how cabinet positions ought to be doled out on the basis of merit and not arbitrary quotas. “Merit” is such a fuzzy term, easily defined to mean just about whatever the user wants it to mean, and in a white-cis-hetero-patriarchal-colonizer society, merit has traditionally been almost exclusively an attribute of white cis heterosexual men. (Surprise, surprise.) There’s definitely a place for quotas in an inherently unequal society, because a lot of people who are entirely capable of doing big and important jobs aren’t ever able to try because of systemic oppression.
In fact, good on Justin Trudeau for setting a strong precedent by appointing a gender-balanced cabinet. It will now be incredibly difficult, politically speaking, for any of his successors to go back to male-dominated cabinets of the past.
But representation by members of diverse communities does not inherently mean that the concerns of those communities will be addressed. A lot has been made about the appointment of rookie MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous lawyer and regional chief, as Minister of Justice. And don’t get me wrong – it’s awesome than an Indigenous woman is in a position to do so much to address the injustices that have been heaped upon Indigenous communities by Canadian governments since before this nation was founded, and I sincerely hope that she is able to do just that.
Issues like the ridiculously disproportionate incarceration rate for Indigenous folks, the implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the establishment of meaningful nation-to-nation relations using the treaties as a framework, and of course a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, would fall at least partially under Wilson-Raybould’s purview.
All of which is very exciting – but I can’t help feeling cynical. I’ve seen this movie before – a member of a marginalized and oppressed community achieves a position of power in which they can make some meaningful change, and then…they don’t.
The most direct parallel I can think of is Eric Holder, the first black Attorney-General of the United States. Appointed by Barack Obama in 2009, Holder was in a fantastic position to deal with the systemic injustices facing the black community in the United States. For instance, he had before him a mountain of evidence indicating that banks were unfairly and disproportionately making subprime loans to black and Hispanic borrowers in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008, but he didn’t act on it. He refused to reverse the government’s disastrous War on Drugs policies which have led to the incarceration of one out of every fifteen black men in the United States (one-third of black men will go to prison at some point in their lives), and instead doubled down on pursuing petty drug crime. As a wave of unspeakable police brutality captured the attention of the nation, Holder came down not on the side of the young black victims, but on the side of the police departments that were militarized under his watch.
Or take the example of Rona Ambrose, the Conservative Party’s new interim leader. As Minister for the Status of Women, she voted to reopen the debate over whether or not abortion should be legal. Her successor in the position, Kellie Leitch, openly declared herself to be pro-life.
My point here isn’t that Wilson-Raybould is doomed to be a disappointment, merely that her status as an Indigenous woman doesn’t ipso facto mean she’s going to use her position to further causes which are important to Indigenous folks, and history teaches us that we ought to be skeptical.
But going beyond speculation, there’s good reason to be concerned by Trudeau’s cabinet picks. As I’ve been saying since election day, Trudeau’s “real change” is going to be mostly a change in tone, and the cabinet roll-out was way more about tone than substance. In fact, on substantive policy questions, this new cabinet looks like it’ll be pretty problematic.
Take, for instance, new Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion. As Liberal leader, Dion had a reputation for being an environmentalist, a reputation which he pissed all over yesterday when he made clear that the new government was strongly in favour of building the contentious Keystone XL pipeline.
That announcement was ill-timed, or maybe Barack Obama has some reason to want to undermine Trudeau’s new government; either way, it looks like poor judgement, as less than twenty-four hours later, the U.S. government announced that they will not be approving Keystone. And the Globe’s lede was telling:
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is disappointed but respects U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project, a major change of tone from Ottawa under a new government that is trying to remove the controverisal petroleum initiative as an irritant in Canada-U.S. relations. [my bold]
There’s that tone word again. And make no mistake, the tone and the approach are all that’s changed under Trudeau when it comes to pipeline policies. His government is just as strongly in favour of pipeline construction and the export of filthy atmosphere-destroying carbon-bomb tar sands oil, and just as willing to lobby the U.S. government to approve those pipelines. They’re just approaching it in a more friendly, less antagonistically naggy sort of way.
Contrast the hype surrounding the addition of “and Climate Change” to the Minister of the Environment’s job title with the new government’s firm commitment to being a better dealmaker for the oil and pipeline industry. When it comes to tone, it’s a breath of fresh air to see climate change recognized as a pressing issue deserving of discussion at the highest levels, but when it comes to substance, we don’t actually see any real change – just the change in tone.
Or consider Chrystia Freeland, the new Minister of International Trade. Freeland yesterday reiterated the Liberals’ pledge of allowing a free and open debate in Parliament about the clusterfuck of a corporate giveaway best known as the TPP, but also made clear where her party stands:
The new trade minister said the Liberals are strong supporters of foreign trade.
“We believe in trade, we understand that Canada is a trading nation. We are the 11 sized economy in the world, the prosperity of the middle-class, which is a central part of our agenda, depends very much on Canada being fully plugged-into the global economy,” Ms. Freeland said.
Never mind that the TPP isn’t primarily about trade, and never mind that close observers of the deal were horrified upon the recent release of its full text to discover that it’s even more of a horrorshow than the worst alarmists had imagined. (See also here and here). Freeland seems intent on selling the TPP in much the same way as outgoing Conservative Trade Minister Ed Fast did – by emphasizing that this is a big deal involving a lot of powerful nations and Canada can’t afford to miss out, while ignoring the substance of the criticisms levelled against it. Remind me again where that “real change” is when it comes to this monstrous sell-out of national sovereignty?
Tasked with implementing one of the Liberals’ most ambiguous campaign promises, their pledge to “fix” C-51, is Liberal old boy Ralph Goodale, the new Minister of Public Safety. Goodale, an MP on and off since the early 1970s, said today that dealing with C-51 is one of his top priorities – but the Liberal Party has remained frustratingly vague about exactly what they’re going to do with the damn bill, as I wrote about earlier this week. And they’ve given absolutely no indication that they intend to do much more than futz around the edges of the bill and put in some window dressing like a “sunset clause”.
Goodale says that they’ve mapped out the kinds of changes that they want to make in order to make the law constitutional, but declines to get specific, choosing instead to dip into the hopey-changey rhetoric that has characterized this government’s early days:
“The previous government was challenged many times in court on their legislation not being compliant with the Charter and they lost a great many of those challenges. We’ll be looking to our new, dynamic, exciting minister of justice and attorney general to make sure that Liberal standards vis a vis the charter are much higher than our predecessors.” [my bold]
Shorter Goodale: “Look over there!” In the absence of any firm denunciations of the most problematic aspects of this bill, including the empowering of CSIS to actively break laws without oversight, it’s hard to believe that the Liberals are serious about taking meaningful action here. They have the goodwill and the support to do so, and it would be consistent with the tone they’re striking. The only reason for them not to do it would be if they didn’t want to, and given their rhetoric on the issue up until now, it pretty much seems like they don’t.
And, as Medium so astutely points out, while it’s fantastic to see such a diverse range of appointments, it’s striking that the two single most powerful cabinet positions, Finance and Treasury, went to Bill Morneau and Scott Brison, two white men with Bay Street credentials, of whom one is a multi-millionaire and the other is a former leadership candidate for the Tories:
There’s a lot of talk about what kind of message this diverse cabinet sends to Canadians about new eras and new ways of doing things.
There’s another message that is unspoken, but can also be heard quite clearly: talented young MPs, women and people of colour can be the face of a new Canadian government, but conservative white men will hold onto the purse strings, thank you very much.
Even some of the more minor cabinet postings give me cause for concern. The newly-elected MP for my hometown of Peterborough, Maryam Monsef, has such an inspiring story. She and her family were refugees from Afghanistan, and now she’s one of the youngest cabinet ministers in Canadian history. She ran a hell of a campaign, apparently knocking on 70 000 doors, and I’m certainly not questioning her place at the cabinet table. But the fact that she was given the position of Minister of Democratic Institutions is a little disquieting, considering how much heavy lifting that job is going to require of the rookie MP. Even Monsef seemed puzzled by the appointment:
Monsef didn’t ask for the democratic institutions portfolio and seemed surprised to be given it. In an interview, she spoke more passionately about women’s issues, pay equity and violence against women than she did about changing the way senators are appointed or reforming the electoral system.
Reforming the electoral system is going to be a hugely difficult endeavour, as is reforming the Senate in a way that helps the institution regain credibility. The fact that Trudeau is entrusting this position to a rookie MP with no connections on Parliament Hill doesn’t bode well for the success of either process.
But for me, one of the most worrying aspects of the recent swell of Trudeaumania is how much goodwill the Trudeau government now has. People are going to be patient and forgiving with Trudeau in a way they never were with Stephen Harper. And as we’ve seen, the Liberals’ policies are in many critical aspects nearly identical to the Conservatives’; the biggest difference so far, as Trudeau himself predicted, is a difference of tone.
Most new governments have a honeymoon period, and Trudeau seems to be trying to set himself up for a good long one. But as for me, I can’t wait until the honeymoon ends and we as a nation can get back to complaining bitterly about our Prime Minister.
If that makes me a party-pooper, so be it.