The Lincoln Big Stop restaurant, just outside New Brunswick’s capital city of Fredericton, is not the type of place anyone would ordinarily associate with political intrigue.
But last Saturday, sharp-eyed breakfast patrons might have been treated to a sneak preview of some major political drama unfolding on the national scene.
At a table in the roadside truck stop sat Dominic LeBlanc, who serves as intergovernmental affairs minister and chief political point man for Justin Trudeau. Across from him sat Jenica Atwin, the Green party member of Parliament for Fredericton since 2019.
It wasn’t their first conversation. For nearly a month, the two had been talking back and forth, ever since LeBlanc had heard through the New Brunswick political grapevine – including sources close to the MP’s family – that Atwin wasn’t all that happy in the Green party.
LeBlanc seized the moment, quickly setting up a meeting with the rookie MP, who had worked in education before entering politics. In normal times, the two might have already been acquainted, given how everyone seems to know each other in New Brunswick’s tight political circle. Atwin’s father, Bob Powell, is the mayor of Oromocto and LeBlanc grew up as the son of longtime minister and governor
general Romeo LeBlanc.
But LeBlanc’s two-year bout with serious cancer diagnoses and then the pandemic meant he hadn’t been out as much on the political trail when Atwin was making the breakthrough for the Greens in 2019.
It didn’t take LeBlanc long to get down to business at this first meeting with her. He asked Atwin in the course of this initial, 90-minute encounter if she’d be interested in joining the Liberals. “I asked her to consider what she could do for Fredericton inside the government caucus,” LeBlanc said.
Atwin didn’t say yes right away, but she didn’t say no either, so the conversations continued by phone throughout the end of May and early June.
LeBlanc kept Trudeau in the loop and the political significance of adding a Green MP to the red team wasn’t lost on either of them. Greens have been making steady progress as a political force in the Maritime provinces, holding three seats in the New Brunswick legislature and official opposition status in Prince Edward Island.
In LeBlanc’s own riding of Beausejour, Greens came second to him in 2019.
But Atwin’s floor-crossing could have an impact beyond the East Coast too, LeBlanc noted.
During their many conversations, he said, Atwin told him that she’d been quietly able to work across party lines with several Liberal MPs and ministers from around the GTA. One MP in particular, Nate Erskine-Smith from Beaches-East York, had made an impact on Atwin because he hasn’t always automatically voted with his party, LeBlanc said.
That’s allowed, LeBlanc reportedly assured her.
While this latest floor-crossing doesn’t have the dramatic, immediate impact of the big 2005 defection of Belinda Stronach to the Liberal benches – a move that probably extended the life of Paul Martinís government – LeBlanc says it is an important marker as an election looms.
The latest guesses revolve around a sooner-rather-than-later scenario. The big defection announcement on Thursday actually fed into election fever; regarded as a sign the Liberals are getting their campaign act together.
Just one week ago, Trudeau was talking at a Ryerson University democracy forum about how he hoped to frame the next election as a choice on how to “build back better” after the pandemic has abated. The prime minister clearly wants to put Liberals and “progressives” on one side of that ballot-box choice, Conservatives on the other.
A Green-turned-Liberal MP in the ranks will help in Toronto, LeBlanc said, where the Green party is hoping once again to make a mark whenever the next election comes along. Annamie Paul, the Green party leader deserted by Atwin in this week’s defection, has already said she will be running again in Toronto Centre.
Atwin’s move to the government benches, said LeBlanc, tells potential Green voters in the GTA and beyond that Liberals “are a viable progressive choice.”
Trudeau has already said that his government’s climate plan will be at the centre of the build-back-better platform, too. Greens, at the moment, look to be in a bit of disarray.
The very same day that Trudeau spoke at Ryerson last week, he also finally had a phone conversation with Atwin. That may explain why the prime minister appeared to be in such good spirits at that event; he knew that Liberal ranks were going to be expanding by one significant MP this week.
The next day, LeBlanc and Atwin met at the Lincoln Big Stop to seal the deal. They managed to keep the news under wraps until hours before the big announcement on Thursday, when this newspaper caught wind of the looming defection.
LeBlanc isn’t saying whether he’s working on other deals right now to boost Liberal ranks before the election, whenever that is. But on Thursday, when he called to talk to me about how he’d engineered the crossover, LeBlanc was driving around New Brunswick in a convertible – with a big smile on his face.
Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.