Now for the hard part: The road ahead for eight cabinet ministers

Meet eight Liberal ministers with the toughest jobs in government: delivering on an electorate’s sky-high hopes



To see them strolling up the Rideau Hall driveway in the sunshine to be sworn in, you’d never have guessed what awaited them. The 30 MPs Justin Trudeau chose for his first cabinet were all smiles that day last week, but for at least some—especially the eight we’ve chosen to introduce here—there would be no grace period to ease into their new jobs. Instead, a combination of uncommonly ambitious Liberal campaign promises and unrelenting real-world pressures are forcing them to learn on the fly.

Success is far from assured. The veterans in the group must realize that already. They include familiar figures like Ralph Goodale, the former finance minister, who must now, in the Public Safety portfolio, find a way to amend the Tory anti-terrorism law sufficiently to satisfy critics who say it undermined civil rights, but not so much that he activates latent fears that Liberals are soft on security.

There’s also John McCallum, the former defence minister, now assigned to Citizenship, Refugees and Immigration, who must try to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by year-end—a Trudeau commitment some refugee experts see as all but impossible to responsibly fulfill. Another veteran MP, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, has to deliver not only an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, but also somehow fix seemingly intractable deficiencies with on-reserve schooling, housing and water quality.

The political rookies in the group may be less acutely aware of the looming prospect of falling short of sky-high voter expectations—or failing outright. It’s probably lucky they don’t have time to ponder the pitfalls. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has plunged directly into a swirl of international talks, in preparation for a UN climate change summit in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, for which the Liberals came to power without proposing anything approaching clear Canadian emissions-reduction targets. Finance Minister Bill Morneau may have a stellar reputation on Bay Street, but his blue-chip business background won’t necessarily count for much if a stubbornly sluggish economy undermines any goodwill generated by modest Liberal tax cuts.

Of course, politics isn’t all policy; the personas of the new cabinet ministers potentially matter just as much. For instance, Morneau hails from corporate Canada, but also arrives in Ottawa as a longtime volunteer advocate for homeless youth in downtown Toronto. He might find a lot to talk about with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, given her professional experience as a prosecutor in Vancouver’s drug-ravaged Downtown Eastside. Chance crosscurrents like their shared passions are the intangibles of cabinet politics that can shape government priorities, behind the scenes, in unpredictable ways.

Trudeau has vowed to let his ministers chart their own courses to a degree that outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper didn’t permit. “This is going to be a period of slight adjustment for a number of people in the political world in Canada, because government by cabinet is back,” Trudeau says. Yet his top advisers are also reportedly setting up so-called “delivery systems”—a concept borrowed from the Labour government of former British prime minister Tony Blair— to make sure departments don’t stray from implementing Trudeau’s priorities.

So striking the balance between the new Prime Minister’s authority and his cabinet ministers’ autonomy remains a work in progress. They won an election together, but running the country is another matter. The late Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, famously observed that politicians campaign in poetry, but must govern in prose. In the long campaign of 2015, Trudeau supplied such stirring poetry, verbal and visual, that his party was swept into power on a wave of uncommonly high hopes.

The eight ministers you’ll meet here, and their 24 cabinet colleagues, must now deliver the prose—legislation drafted and passed, targets set and met, programs designed and implemented. Unlike the sunlit path they walked down together on the day they were sworn in, cheering crowds won’t always line the testing road ahead.

The profiles:

Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains in front of the Canada Door's in the House of Commons Foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 9, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains in front of the Canada Door’s in the House of Commons Foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 9, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)


The first time that Ontario’s Navdeep Bains ran for Parliament, in 2004, he was a 26-year-old accountant. He recruited a bunch of kids from around Mississauga and Brampton to help him. One was a tall, skinny 18-year-old named Raj Grewal.

“His mom used to bake homemade muffins,” Grewal recalled the other day. “The first couple of weeks, we just went for the muffins. We didn’t care about Navdeep Bains.”

Bains won his seat in that election and the two after it. He lost in 2011. When he rode the Trudeau wave back to Parliament this October, he had a lot of company: a handful of Liberal MPs from Brampton and Mississauga, newly elected this year, learned politics by campaigning for Bains. One was the skinny kid who liked muffins: Raj Grewal, the new MP for Brampton East.

“He takes the time to teach. He takes the time to mentor, to really give good advice,” Grewal said of Bains, the Trudeau cabinet’s new minister of innovation, science and economic development. “He’s also got the natural ability, which can’t be taught, to measure the temperature in a room and react accordingly.”

Which may help explain why, when Bains spoke to Maclean’s six days after taking over one of the most complex portfolios in government, he was almost comically cautious. His portfolio could get hot quickly. He’s not going to fan any flames.

Did he push to be appointed to Industry, as his portfolio used to be called before Trudeau’s transition team got creative? “For me, it’s just a great opportunity to be a strong voice,” he replied evenly. “I understand that I’m going to be the main minister that represents Canadian business at the cabinet table and I’m going to take that responsibility very seriously.”

Bains has inherited one short-term hot potato. The Quebec government is investing $1.3 billion in Bombardier’s CSeries jet. They want the feds to pony up the same amount. The Trudeau government is damned if they do (they’d come off as old-fashioned corporate subsidizers) and damned if they don’t (they’d be accused of not caring about Quebec’s demands). Bains treats this question with what will quickly become his trademark caution. “As you know, it’s still early stages. As the Prime Minister said, no doors are closed. We’re looking at all our options.”

But it’s a longer-term challenge that will preoccupy Bains for months or years. That’s the lackadaisical performance of Canadian businesses in performing research and applying new ideas. Boosting business productivity has been a headache for industry ministers for 30 years, and as he discussed the challenge, Bains opened up a little.

“Canadians are not good at taking new ideas from the labs to the marketplace and commercializing them,” Bains said. “Businesses in Canada have really under-invested in R&D, especially when we compare ourselves to the United States.”

Somewhere in Bains’s piles of briefing books is a still-unreleased 2015 report on Canada’s science, technology and innovation performance from a handpicked government advisory council. The Harper government delayed the report’s release until after the election. It’s not hard to guess why: the same panel’s 2013 report used the word “decline” 47 times, up from 24 uses in 2011. Canada grew steadily worse at bringing new ideas to market during the Harper years. Turning that trend around will take all of Bains’s considerable skill.

— By Paul Wells

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Canada's new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)


After the 2011 election turned to historic disaster for the Liberal Party of Canada, there were fewer Liberal MPs than there had ever been. Most MPs could have their pick of parliamentary critic positions. Bob Rae, the party’s interim leader, asked Carolyn Bennett which file she wanted. She asked to be the critic on Aboriginal affairs.

Four years later, Justin Trudeau has asked her to assume the same responsibility in government. “It’s daunting,” the new Indigenous and northern affairs minister told Maclean’s, “but it’s totally exhilarating.”

But never so exhilarating that it stops being daunting. The practical tasks facing Bennett are formidable: to fix on-reserve education, water treatment and housing—and to set up an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, after years of refusal from the Harper government. But in the weeks before this year’s election campaign, Justin Trudeau explicitly raised the stakes by promising a symbolic element to his policy that went beyond the practical challenges.

“We must complete the unfinished work of Confederation,” Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations in July. “Canada needs a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Aboriginal communities.”

Every new federal government comes to the intractable problems of Canada’s First Nations with hopes of a fresh start. First they change the name of the department. Under Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien it was Indian Affairs. Under Stephen Harper, Aboriginal Affairs. Under Trudeau, it’s Indigenous Affairs. Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says he sees that as a positive sign.

“It ties into the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” which the Harper government found problematic, Bellegarde said. “That in itself is a strong statement.” Bellegarde is also an unabashed admirer of Bennett: “She has the experience. She knows the files. She’s been a very active and a very effective critic.”

In fact, Bellegarde said his worry is not so much that Bennett will get off to a rocky start with First Nations as that she might lack the clout to get things done in the Trudeau government. “She has to gain the trust and support of her colleagues around the cabinet table,” he said, “starting with the finance minister.”

If anything, Bennett herself is even more sweeping in her ambition. “This file has to be in every minister’s portfolio, but also not only every province, territory, and the mayors, but every Canadian.”

While everyone else on that list stands by, Bill Morneau, the finance minister, will be hearing from her. On education, drinking water and housing, she said more federal investment is needed. “This is about Third World conditions that Canadians find unacceptable. There are many communities without any running water in their homes, and we’ve gotta get this done.”

On murdered and missing women, Bennett plans a “pre-inquiry engagement” with families and community leaders to ensure the inquiry has the right mandate and scope. There is no way the consultation will lead to a decision to cancel an inquiry, she said; the inquiry was an election commitment and it will happen.

The symbolism of Canada’s relationship with First Nations is hard enough to address. The policy pitfalls are a whole other set of headaches. Changing both at once will be the biggest challenge in Bennett’s long career in politics. “Nobody thinks this is easy,” she said, “but it’s so imperative for the way we go forward in Canada.”

— By Paul Wells

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Minister of Finance William Morneau leaves the foyer after speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill after being sworn in earlier in the day, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Minister of Finance William Morneau leaves the foyer after speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill after being sworn in earlier in the day, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)


If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s priorities can be ranked by what his new government vows to act on first, then cutting middle-income taxes is at the very top of the list. Pushing through that high-profile campaign promise when the House resumes sitting early next month is a job that falls to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, the rookie Toronto MP who only recently cut ties to his family’s business, Canada’s largest private pension-management company.

If his Bay Street credentials bring to mind a certain sort of millionaire tycoon style, those who have worked closely with Morneau say he doesn’t fit the stereotype. “Bill is exactly the opposite,” says Western University public policy professor Mike Moffatt, who served with Morneau on a Liberal economic advisory council. “He’s soft-spoken and he comes across as surprisingly humble.”

Morneau will need to make himself heard, though, to sell the tax cut. Throughout the campaign, Trudeau touted the maximum saving of $1,340 for a two-income family, resulting from the Liberal promise to trim the tax rate to 20.5 per cent, from the current 22 per cent, on income between $44,700 and $89,401 a year. But David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says a Statistics Canada model shows the average tax saving for families making $48,000 to $62,000 turns out to be only $51, while households making $62,000 to $78,000 will save, on average, just $117.

Still, Morneau said in an interview he’s confident Canadians will appreciate the tax cut, especially when the Liberals follow through later by enriching federal benefits for parents, with the introduction of a promised new Canada Child Benefit. “I think that both of [the measures] will have a material impact on Canadians,” he said. And that’s only the start of his work turning the Liberal platform into policy. Morneau must also coordinate with the provinces to quickly implement Trudeau’s promise of a deficit-financed boost in infrastructure spending, and, in a bit less of a hurry, find a way to enhance the Canada Pension Plan.

Some economists argue Trudeau’s vow to raise infrastructure spending by $5 billion a year won’t be enough to change the way Canadians feel about an economy that’s been hit hard by slumping commodity prices. Morneau said the short-term stimulus from the infrastructure boost, while real, will be less important than the longer-term benefits of public works projects, such as improving transit systems and roads to alleviate traffic congestion in big cities.

But finance ministers are usually judged, fairly or not, on the economy’s performance now. As a business leader making the move to that federal hot seat, one of Morneau’s first calls after Trudeau handed him the job last week was to Paul Martin, who made the transition so successfully back in the 1990s. Martin came to be admired for balancing the books as the economy grew rapidly. Morneau’s task—make deficit spending look effective even as the economy is forecast to grow frustratingly slowly—could prove even more difficult.

— John Geddes

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Jody Wilson-Raybould loved working as a Crown prosecutor at Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside courthouse, partly because she had to think on her feet. But she also felt she had the power to help people in real difficulty. In one case, she helped a scared woman get a peace bond to try to keep her partner away. “I saw her that weekend, and she came up to me on the ferry going from Vancouver to Victoria, and she says, ‘You absolutely changed my life,’ ” says Wilson-Raybould, who represents the riding of Vancouver Granville. “You have a critical role to play in impacting people’s lives in substantial ways.”

Wilson-Raybould is the Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, and only the third woman to hold the post. It’s always viewed as one of Parliament Hill’s high-pressure jobs, but rarely have so many hot-button Justice issues piled up at once. Wilson-Raybould faces a Feb. 6 deadline from the Supreme Court of Canada for writing a new law allowing doctor-assisted suicide. Even if the court grants her an extension, reconciling entrenched opposing positions on the ethically fraught issue could prove impossible. On another deeply divisive issue, she’s already talked with her officials about amending the Conservatives’ prostitution law. And then there’s Trudeau promise to legalize marijuana, a high-profile pledge for which Wilson-Raybould notes there’s no timeline for action.

Wilson-Raybould’s impressive resumé suggests a familarity with politically charged challenges: from the Crown office she went on to become a British Columbia treaty commissioner, and then the B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

If you were to ask her father, he might say it’s all falling into place. In 1983, First Nations leader Bill Wilson sat down for constitutional talks with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Wilson told Trudeau that his daughters, Jody and Kory, both wanted to be lawyers. (They both got there.) What’s more, Wilson told the assembled men, his daughters both wanted to be prime minister. The crowd chuckled.

Thirty years later, Justin Trudeau put together the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history, ensuring Wilson-Raybould, 44, plays the public service role instilled at the family’s kitchen table on a national scale.

While her courtroom roots gave her an up-close view of how the justice system can fail, including the overrepresentation of Aboriginals in prison and a revolving door for too many offenders, her cabinet perch gives her corrective power. “There’s a way that we can be smarter about our justice system,” she said, including restorative justice and rehabilitation.

Kory Wilson says the cabinet post reflects her sister’s enormous abilities, to be sure. But it also sends a message. “If you’re one of those minority groups or marginalized groups, it’s incredibly significant to see yourself reflected in the highest leadership of the land.”

— Laura Payton

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Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale in front of the Canada Door's in the House of Commons Foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 9, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)


Justin Trudeau and Ralph Goodale arrived in Ottawa around the same time: Trudeau in 1971 and Goodale in 1973. Trudeau, of course, was the newborn son of the prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. Goodale, at the time, was the 20-something aide to the justice minister, Otto Lang. “Otto was a rationalist who believed you could find right answers to things, if you could just get the process right and just worked hard enough at it,” says David Herle, the Liberal strategist who got his start in politics working for Goodale 30 years ago. “That love for the detail of policy was passed on to Ralph.”

Goodale has gone on to spend nine years (and counting) as a minister himself and learned other lessons as well. “One of the things that I would add to the Lang approach is you also have to have an important measure of flexibility,” says Goodale, now the public safety minister. “Even if you look at a problem and have examined all the facts, got all the input you could possibly get and come to a certain conclusion, there will be other people who don’t see it that way. And you have to be flexible enough to accommodate that.”

After working in Lang’s office, Goodale was elected to the House of Commons from Saskatchewan in 1974. Though he lost in 1979 (and in 1980 and 1988), he returned in 1993 and was appointed minister of agriculture. In subsequent years he served as minister of natural resources, public works and finance. While the Liberals were eventually relegated to opposition, Goodale remained on the front bench, serving as House leader under Stéphane Dion and then deputy leader to Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Justin Trudeau. “Ralph Goodale,” says Ignatieff, “is the very definition of ‘a safe pair of hands.’ ”

Possibly all of what Goodale has learned about being a minister will be tested by C-51, the Conservative government’s contentious anti-terror act, which the Liberals have promised to substantially amend. The bill bedevilled the Liberals in the last Parliament as they attempted to split the difference between the Conservatives and the New Democrats, and it now looms as one of the first serious tests of the new government.

Handling C-51 will require a great deal of care, and perhaps not only as a matter of policy and politics. “We need to take a step back and worry about good process,” says Craig Forcese, the University of Ottawa professor who emerged as one of the foremost critics of C-51. “Because one of the key lessons of C-51 is lousy process equals lousy result.” Goodale could, for instance, seek to send the bill directly to a committee of MPs before debate in the House, a move that would give the committee wider scope to consider and amend the legislation.

Concerns about process might go double for a government that came to office with promises of a new approach. “You have to make sure you’ve got the facts and the details and the logic. You’ve really got to know the detail and understand clearly where you want to go,” Goodale says. “But having then done your homework, then making sure you’ve listened to everybody else’s point of view. And on this one, especially. This has to be an inclusive process. If it’s arbitrary, we’ve figured it out and here it is, we’re handing it down from on high, that’s not going to work.”

— Aaron Wherry

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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks to reporters in the foyer on Parliament Hill after being sworn in earlier in the day, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Catherine McKenna speaks to reporters in the foyer on Parliament Hill after being sworn in earlier in the day, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)


Three days after being named Canada’s minister of the environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna was on a plane heading to Paris to start prepping for major international talks. About to get snowed under by briefings and meetings, McKenna made sure to work in time with her top adviser, Marlo Raynolds.“I took my chief of staff out for a run so we could talk,” McKenna said. “I made him get up early even though he was really jetlagged.”

The former competitive swimmer is now into a marathon of preparations for the Paris Climate Conference, also known as COP 21, at the end of November. It’s not unlike the campaign marathon McKenna undertook more than a year ago in the slim hope she could become the member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre. The incumbent, New Democrat Paul Dewar, was both respected and well-liked for his work in the community, as well as his thoughtfulness on foreign affairs, his critic portfolio in Parliament. On that front his upstart competitor was a good match: McKenna earned her master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics, worked in Indonesia and East Timor and co-founded Canadian Lawyers Abroad, an NGO that connects lawyers and students with human rights projects outside Canada (it has since been rebranded as Level, with projects to increase access to justice for Indigenous Canadians).

To win Ottawa Centre, McKenna says she and her team knocked on more than 100,000 doors in the year and a half between her nomination as the Liberal candidate and her surprise win on Oct. 19. But this new challenge may be even bigger than giant-killing: not just learning the intricacies of a science-heavy policy file, but preparing for the Paris talks, which themselves are the culmination of four years of negotiations.

The aim of the Paris talks is to stop the global temperature from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. “Obviously we want to be more ambitious than that,” McKenna says. “So the idea is that there would be national commitments and we would work to exceed the commitments in a regular time frame.” That sounds forceful, but she avoids even hinting at what Canada’s targets might be, and notes, “Much of this is in the jurisdiction of the provinces.” Those at the talks will have to balance a range of competing interests, as some countries worry about being literally washed away by rising oceans while others won’t want to give up the economic prosperity that comes with industrial production. Environmentalists hoping for a clean break from Conservative inaction on the file won’t be satisfied with anything short of bold steps from the Liberals.

Aside from navigating international negotiations, the new environment minister will have to deal with criticism of the last Liberal government, of which she wasn’t a part, who made plenty of promises on the same global stage, then promptly ignored them.

But friends say McKenna (who is married to Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore) is well-suited to the challenges of her complicated ministry.

“She’s a combination of energetic, cool under pressure, smart, positive. It’s just a great series of qualities,” said Ottawa city councillor Toby Nussbaum, who has known McKenna for about 10 years.

Salima Ebrahim, who took over from McKenna as executive director of the public policy organization Banff Forum, spent four months working with her during their transition. “She aims to try and ensure that as many people are on board with the decision as possible but isn’t afraid to make the hard decision at the end,” Ebrahim said.“Catherine stands her ground and yet she does it in a way that’s really respectful.” Lawyer Yasmin Shaker, who was McKenna’s roommate in London, suggests wanting to save the world comes naturally to her. “She helps everybody. That’s something that you don’t fake, it’s just the way you are.”

—Laura Payton

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Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees John McCallum in front of the Canada Door's in the House of Commons Foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 9, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees John McCallum in front of the Canada Door’s in the House of Commons Foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 9, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)


For all the excitement about the young politicians vaulted to prominence in Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet, the Prime Minister handed a senior citizen the task with the hardest deadline—somehow making good on the Liberal promise to bring 25,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Canada by the end of this year. “I’m honoured and delighted the Prime Minister decided there was room for some old guys like me,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum.

Many observers were surprised that McCallum was assigned this particular portfolio. He’s best known as a former Royal Bank of Canada chief economist, which led to speculation Trudeau might give him an economic portfolio. But McCallum also served as Liberal immigration critic before the election, and Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says he showed a very early interest in the Syrian refugee crisis when it began four years ago. “He wanted us to get into very detailed suggestions on how to address the issue,” Dench recalls.

Doing his homework on the mounting humanitarian crisis back then has to be coming in handy now. McCallum knows what he’s up against. But he hasn’t backed away from Trudeau’s campaign commitment, even though it would entail ramping up the number of government-assisted Syrian refugees coming to Canada from 11 a week over the past two months to 3,100 a week for the next two months. In an interview, McCallum said he will not cut corners when it comes to health and security screening of potential refugees. “We’re adhering to the deadline,” he said, “but we’re determined to do it in a way that satisfies those concerns.”

Earlier this week, McCallum announced that a high-level cabinet committee has been struck to focus on the refugee goal, chaired by Health Minister Jane Philpott, a physician who fought for refugee health services before jumping into politics. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is another key committee member, since the Canadian Forces are likely to be called on to transport refugees, from some combination of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and perhaps house them temporarily on Canadian military bases.

If the refugee challenge is unrivalled as the most urgent file on McCallum’s desk, it’s far from the only high-profile Liberal campaign promise he must make good on. Among other pressing priorities, he lists restoring health services the Conservatives had denied to some refugees, cutting processing times for immigrants with family members already in Canada, and revoking the controversial Tory policy that allowed Ottawa to strip Canadian citizenship from dual nationals convicted of serious offences, including terrorism.

For a politician trained as an economist, pushing through this raft of measures so closely tied up with questions of Canadian identity might seem like an unlikely assignment. But McCallum is no number-crunching technocrat. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt more patriotic as a Canadian,” he said in an interview on election night, “because it’s obvious now that Canadians want Justin Trudeau’s Canada, which is also my Canada—a Canada of openness, welcoming newcomers, valuing diversity.” In hindsight, it sounds almost like he guessed the job Trudeau had in mind for him, and didn’t even mind if parts of it looked implausibly ambitious.

— John Geddes

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Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, right, takes part in a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, November 5, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, right, takes part in a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, November 5, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)


Maryam Monsef’s story was remarkable enough before she was appointed minister of democratic institutions and bestowed the lifetime title of “honourable.” She arrived in Canada as an 11-year-old refugee, leaving Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with her mother and two sisters. In being elected to represent Peterborough–Kawartha, she became the first Afghan-born MP in Parliament’s history and she is now the first Muslim Canadian to have a seat at the federal cabinet table (and also, at 31, the youngest member of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet).

“People don’t forget Maryam when they meet her,” says Lynn Zimmer, executive director of the YWCA in Peterborough, where Monsef served as a board member for four years. “She leaves a strong impression. You go away and think, ‘What an amazing young woman, she’s going to go places.’ And not in an ego-driven way either. Just, she has a sense of responsibility and she wants to make a difference.”

A prominent activist in Peterborough, she worked with various community organizations and, in 2010, she co-founded the Red Pashmina campaign which has raised $150,000 for women in Afghanistan. She boldly ran for mayor at 29—and nearly won, finishing a close second to incumbent Daryl Bennett. She won the Liberal nomination in May, narrowly edging out a former city councillor to represent the Liberals in an important bellwether riding. She is described as a quick study who is not afraid to ask questions and who puts an emphasis on process: she consulted with more than 100 people before choosing to run for mayor. “Listening to Canadians, I think it’s a hallmark of [Prime Minister Trudeau’s] leadership style and it reflects mine,” she says.

All of which could serve her well in the nuanced world of democratic reform. Befitting the theme of change, the Liberals have a substantial agenda for reform. In addition to a number of parliamentary changes, the Liberals are promising two major moves: a new process for appointing senators and a new method of voting to elect MPs. The former could fundamentally reorient the Senate as a deliberative body. The latter—even if the Liberals settle on something like a ranked ballot—will at least revive pitched arguments about the efficacy of the federal electoral system.

“I don’t take any of this for granted,” she says. “I know what an incredible privilege this is. I know that the democratic institutions that we are fortunate to have here in Canada. There are many places in the world where people are sacrificing so much and struggling so much to have what we have here. And perhaps having experienced the alternatives in another part of the world will also be helpful to me in this portfolio.”

— Aaron Wherry

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