Quebecers will occupy some of the most prominent positions in the new Liberal cabinet, including foreign affairs and justice — but environmentalists in the province say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caved to pressure from Western Canada by giving a minor post to one of their key allies.
Environmental activist Steven Guilbeault, who won a downtown Montreal riding last month, was given the heritage portfolio instead of environment.
As head of the environmental lobby group Équiterre, Guilbeault was a vocal opponent of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The Trudeau government bought the pipeline project in 2018 to ensure the expansion continued despite widespread opposition.
Its support for the expansion likely will be a central part of Liberal outreach to Saskatchewan and Alberta, where opposition to Trudeau’s environmental policies runs high.
“The first symbolic gesture of this government is to hide an ecologist at heritage because they’re afraid of bothering Alberta,” said Karel Mayrand, who heads the Quebec section of the David Suzuki Foundation.
“What bothers us is the idea that, in order to appease the West, you can’t put competent people in the right positions.”
The principle of cabinet solidarity means Guilbeault won’t be able to publicly disagree with any of the government’s policy decisions — a freedom available to backbenchers, even though it’s seldom used.
“It’s a cold and odious political move,” André Bélisle, who heads the environmental lobby group l’Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique, wrote on his Facebook page.
“His candidacy was used to save the Liberal vote in Quebec by playing the green card. It’s disappointing, but oil and gas weigh more in the balance for a minority government that wants to hold onto power.”
Big Quebec contingent at the cabinet table
While Quebec environmentalists are disappointed, Quebec itself now has a very sizeable presence at the federal cabinet table.
Of the 36 cabinet positions appointed by Trudeau, 10 are held by Quebecers. The province has more seats in cabinet than any other province except Ontario.
Several Quebecers also earned big promotions. Notable among them are François-Philippe Champagne — who takes over at foreign affairs — and Marc Miller, who was given Indigenous services, his first-ever cabinet portfolio.
“Many Quebec MPs find themselves with important responsibilities and that’s good news,” Premier François Legault said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
Trudeau also restored the cabinet position of “Quebec lieutenant” — a role Montreal MP Pablo Rodriguez will juggle along with his new job as House leader.
In his first term, Trudeau — hoping to avoid the conflicts it created in the past — broke with the long-standing tradition of reserving a cabinet post for Quebec-specific issues.
But the party’s mediocre performance in Quebec in the last election may have prompted the prime minister to rethink his opposition to the position.
The Liberals lost five seats in Quebec, going from 40 to 35, while the Bloc Québécois re-emerged as a political force, increasing its seat total from 10 to 32.
A number of Quebec MPs, including Rodriguez, publicly encouraged Trudeau following the election to consider appointing a minister tasked with selling the government’s agenda in the province.
The move to restore the Quebec lieutenant position drew immediate praise from the Quebec government.
“We’ll see how it’s used, but it’s excellent news to hear there will be someone dedicated to Quebec’s priorities,” Sonia LeBel, Quebec’s minister responsible for Canadian relations, said Wednesday.