Dealing with provinces will test Freeland’s talents

In the game of dominoes that is behind the making of Justin Trudeau’s second term cabinet, Chrystia Freeland’s shift from the global scene to the domestic stage is the defining move.

Her appointment as deputy prime minister solidifies her first place in the Liberal line of succession to Trudeau. But her lead position on the federal-provincial front also puts her in the line of fire in ways her previous stint at Foreign Affairs did not.

Between now and the next election, a hail of provincial bullets will be headed her way, and not only from the Prairie provinces.

Some of those bullets could do more harm to her political future than anything the Donald Trump White House has shot her way over the course of the recent NAFTA renegotiation. (Freeland retains responsibility for Canada-U.S. relations.)

In contrast with the trade file, Freeland will not be able to count on the tacit support of a Canadian political class ready to set aside some of its differences to present a united front to its North American partners.

The cool-headedness under fire that she demonstrated in her dealings with an unpredictable American administration earned her the number two spot in Trudeau’s government.

She will indeed need a cool head if she is to build on what has so far been a political success story.

Since the election, much of the focus has been on Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the vocal discontent of many of those provinces’ voters with the re-election of the Liberals.

But the challenges Freeland is tasked with in her new intergovernmental affairs brief extend beyond the alienation of Western Canada or the climate change issue.

By any other name, Freeland is Trudeau’s unity minister.

The last time the role was as central to the agenda of a federal government really goes back to the post-referendum era in the mid-1990s and Stephane Dion’s appointment as Jean Chretien’s Quebec point man.

If anything, Freeland’s mission could be more complex than Dion’s post-referendum mandate – and potentially lonelier.

With the country on the brink of a breakup after the 1995 referendum, the consensus was that turning the pro-secession tide in Quebec had to be job one.

And while there were variations in the preferred approach of the other federal parties and the various provincial governments to the task of keeping Canada together, the federalist opposition leaders and the premiers were generally supportive of Dion’s efforts.

In the current federal-provincial dynamics, Freeland cannot bank on the same capital of cross-partisan sympathy, nor will she have the luxury of focusing her efforts on just one region. There is more than one fire to extinguish.

Among the top concerns is the divide between Quebec and Alberta. As the conversation between the two provinces becomes more adversarial, the divide is becoming deeper.

According to an Abacus poll published earlier this week, the percentage of Quebecers who would have Alberta separate from Canada is higher than the proportion of Albertans who would actually opt to leave.

Quebec’s current government may not aspire to separation, but neither does it see Trudeau’s brand of federalism as appealing. From immigration to minority rights, Francois Legault’s government is determined to walk to the sound of its own drummer.

For all the rave reviews of her performance as foreign affairs minister, Freeland lacks both a political network and a large audience in Quebec.

And that goes some way to explain why Trudeau reversed his oft-stated reluctance to appoint a Quebec lieutenant. Montreal MP Pablo Rodriguez will add that role to his duties as government House leader.

Then there is Ontario and a relationship with Doug Ford’s government that a federal Liberal campaign spent bashing the Tory premier did much to exacerbate.

If Trudeau is to advance a national pharmacare program – a plan upon which the support of the NDP for his minority government is largely contingent – Freeland will have to find ways to mend fences with the government of Canada’s largest province.

At the best of times, the intergovernmental brief is one of the least rewarding federal portfolios.

In a federation as diverse as Canada, inter-regional and federal-provincial irritants tend to be the norm, not the exception.

Success – inasmuch as it is attainable – usually comes in modest increments, with the credit primarily going to the prime minister.

In her new role, Freeland’s status as Trudeau’s presumed heir apparent will not be an asset. That status might as well be a target painted on her ministerial back.

From a partisan perspective, it is not in the interest of the opposition parties, regardless of their ideological perspective, to help the Liberals showcase a strong successor-in-waiting in their party’s window.

On that score, the prime minister may have hit two birds with one stone.

He has dispatched his most impressive general to his government’s most challenging battlefield.

In the process, he has given a rising star whose aura already overshadows his own in some Liberal quarters what could still become a kamikaze mission.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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