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‘Because it’s 2015’: A recalibration of power for women in cabinet

Justin Trudeau led an equal number of men and women up the driveway to Rideau Hall. That short walk took 147 years.


 
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (second from left) wearing dark glasses, arrives with members of his new cabinet for swearing in ceremonies at Government House in Ottawa, July 6, 1968. Saturday.  Left to right are: James Richardson, minister without portfolio,  D.C. Jamieson, (partly hidden), minister without portfolio,  Trudeau,  Justice Minister John Turner,  Jean Marchand, Forestry Minister, and  Gerard Pelletier, State Secretary. Ten years after his death, and more than four decades after it was taken, the photo of Pierre Trudeau striding up the drive at Rideau Hall - flanked by his dark-suited cabinet-to-be - still packs a blast of movie-star, hipster cool. (Doug Ball/CP)

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (second from left) wearing dark glasses, arrives with members of his new cabinet for swearing in ceremonies at Government House in Ottawa, July 6, 1968. (Doug Ball/CP

This morning, a famous photo of Pierre Elliott Trudeau arriving at Rideau Hall in 1968 to be sworn in as prime minister made the rounds on Twitter. The black and white picture, showing the future PM in shades and surrounded by six of his cabinet ministers, all white men, exuded a cool retro Reservoir Dogs vibe. Exactly how retro would be thrown into stark relief when Justin Trudeau arrived to walk the same path. Forty-seven years later, against a vibrant autumnal tableaux, Pierre Trudeau’s eldest boy would be flanked by women and men—diverse in ethnicity and background—in equal number.

That carefully constructed technicolour image captures a historic day for Canada, one that sees the country finally enter the 21st century. Fifty-seven years after Ellen Fairclough was appointed minister of citizenship and immigration by John Diefenbaker (making her a lone female minister until Lester Pearson appointed Judy LaMarsh to his cabinet in 1963), Trudeau’s campaign pledge to bring gender parity to cabinet was realized, with 15 women and 15 men sworn in. Canada finally has a cabinet that represents it in terms of male-female demographics, one that brings much-needed diversity to national decision-making. The considerable accomplishments of the women appointed today finally rendered moot the quaint bellyaching over the end of “meritocracy” as a criteria for cabinet inclusion, a chorus properly pilloried in a satiric piece in The Beaverton: “50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet.”

Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland gets a kiss from her son Ivan as she take part in swearing in ceremonies at Rideau Hall Wednesday Nov.4, 2015 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland gets a kiss from her son Ivan as she take part in swearing in ceremonies at Rideau Hall Wednesday Nov.4, 2015 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The 31-member cabinet appears to signal a recalibration of power. During the federal election, Maclean’s assessed female representation in cabinet historically in terms of power positions, ranking the top 20 (Finance held top spot). Applying that benchmark to the new Trudeau cabinet, women hold two of five positions in the top five portfolios, and two of five positions thereafter in the other three quadrants. A few cabinet traditions were not overturned on Wednesday: Finance and Agriculture remain posts historically held only by men. But we did see Justice, a portfolio held by only two women (Kim Campbell and Anne McLellan) since Confederation, given to Jody Wilson-Raybould, a high-profile First Nations leader and former Crown prosecutor respected for her ability to build consensus.

Today’s unveiling also suggests a refocusing of priorities. If semantics signal change, a seismic shift was registered in the newly named Environment and Climate Change portfolio, which enshrines the reality of global warming. Choosing not to repeat history and go with Stéphane Dion (now minister of foreign affairs), Trudeau picked rookie Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, a lawyer with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics and an impressive background that includes experience in international trade and social justice initiatives. The cabinet also now boasts a new Science portfolio held by Kirsty Duncan (this in addition to Innovation, Science and Economic Development, held by Navdeep Bains). Duncan, who represents Etobicoke North, holds a Ph.D. in geography, sat on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, and has been an outspoken critic of the degradation of scientific research in Canada with government libraries shuttered and government scientists muzzled.

Canada's new Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie  - RTX1URQJ

Canada’s new Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie – RTX1URQJ

A scientist assigned Science and a former Crown attorney assigned Justice are part of a larger theme of a twinning of the personal with the political. The Health portfolio, which has diminished in clout over the past decade (Maclean’s ranked it 14th), was given to Jane Philpott, MP for Markham–Stouffville, the first physician to oversee the ministry since it was renamed in 1996. Philpott’s appointment suggests a revivification of the portfolio. The former doctor gets rave reviews from former colleagues who praise her ability to mobilize—and achieve results. She founded “Give a Day” for AIDS which convinced doctors to donate a day of wages and is also recognized for her focus on both global and community health initiatives. And Carla Qualtrough, a lawyer known for her work in human rights and inequity among marginalized groups, became the first legally blind cabinet minister, presiding over Sports and Persons with Disabilities.

Yet Trudeau’s 10 cabinet committees, made up of smaller groups of ministers and understood to be where the true power lies, didn’t quite achieve gender parity. The 10-member “Agenda and Results” committee, the government’s management board chaired by the Prime Minister, includes three women. Women chair three committees and serve as vice-chair of six. In an interesting twist, Stéphane Dion chairs the environment, climate change and energy committee, while Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna sits as a member. Then again, Dion has years of experience to impart and McKenna is on a steep learning curve.

Related: Get to know Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet 

McKenna is one of several female cabinet appointees about to be thrust into the spotlight—McKenna at the Paris climate conference this month; Carolyn Bennett, new minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, must act on the long-ignored missing and murdered Indigenous women file. And Chrystia Freeland, the former high-profile financial journalist recruited by Trudeau’s team in 2013, now minister of international trade, will be at the forefront of co-ordinating Canada’s response to the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, a negotiation that promises to be contentious.

Today, however, on such a sunny, emotion-filled day in Ottawa, such future political quagmires are abstractions. Today the new Prime Minister of Canada actually scrummed with media, some who still didn’t seem to understand the concept of equal female representation. “Why is having a gender-balanced cabinet important to you?” one asked. “Because it’s 2015,” Trudeau answered, before shrugging dismissively. He didn’t have to say “You imbecile.” It was implied.

The Trudeau cabinet

Our gallery introduces you to the new government’s ministry.


 

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