Playing the Jane Philpott card: Trudeau shuffles the deck

Justin Trudeau looks to one of his most capable cabinet ministers to deliver on Indigenous affairs, one of the government's thorniest files

Health Minister Jane Philpott to testifies about the federal government’s controversial bill on assisted dyingl before the entire Senate in Ottawa, Wednesday, June 1, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Three guiding principles of the evolving Justin Trudeau style of cabinet shuffling:

• This Prime Minister sees no point in waiting forever before delivering the sort of complete cabinet overhaul that always ends up looking like an apology for the previous ministry. Trudeau is turning into a fan of mid-sized shuffles that fix the worst problems and target new opportunities, all while moving a fairly small number of bodies.

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• When you’re really good in this government, you get moved. This is the second smallish shuffle in a year; the first was designed to maximize the capabilities of Chrystia Freeland, who was already the most important trade minister since John Crosbie and would now be lead minister in a Trump-responsive foreign-policy apparatus. Monday’s shuffle mainly rewards Jane Philpott, who has been a superb health minister, with new headaches in a newly created portfolio as Minister of Indigenous Services.

• Nobody has tenure and nobody is barred. Cabinet sometimes looks, to backbenchers, like an exclusive club they have no hope of entering. And too often it has been taken by incumbents as a membership they can never screw up. This boss demotes: Kent Hehr takes a clear step down, although I presume the PMO will heartily dismiss the notion. And Trudeau keeps promoting near-unknowns to key roles. I have never known Ginette Petitpas Taylor to do more than enthusiastically recite her briefing notes, and now she’s Canada’s minister of health, in the middle of an opioid crisis. Maybe it’s a genius move! We’ll soon find out.

Let’s focus on Philpott. Thirteen months, ago I wrote about the breadth of her engagement and her ability to deliver results. Not all of her successes were high-profile: early on, for instance, she chaired a temporary cabinet committee in charge of getting 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. Later she got the government’s assisted-dying legislation through the Commons and Senate. She has rapidly overhauled the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, instituting changes the country’s medical researchers have mostly applauded.

Big challenges still lay ahead, I wrote last year, including negotiations with the provinces over health funding. In December those talks looked like a fiasco as the provinces walked out rather than accept Philpott’s offer of (frankly not very much) targeted money for mental-health programs. But then the provinces started signing one-off bilateral deals with Philpott to take what she’d offered. Two months ago the last holdout, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, said he’d cheerfully wait “forever” before signing with Philpott; forever turned out to mean seven more weeks.

On to her new job. The division of Indigenous Affairs into two departments with two ministers leaves a lot to digest, and a lot will depend on how it’s carried out. It suggests the Prime Minister is not content with progress on the file to date, and has chosen to (almost literally) double down rather than giving up. It’s based on recommendations from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, whose 4,000-page report was published during Jean Chrétien’s first mandate. That report has gathered dust for 20 years, but the division Trudeau delivered today was indeed one of its recommendations.

Nor is it clear that Philpott’s is the hardest task of the two. Carolyn Bennett leads a new department of Crown-Indigenous Relations designed to “guide the Government’s forward-looking and transformative work to create a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples… and to develop a framework to advance a recognition of rights approach that will last well beyond this government.” What’s the upper limit on something like that? Guaranteed Indigenous representation on the Supreme Court, or in Parliament? Federal transfers to self-governing Indigenous communities on the model of transfers to provinces? I don’t know, I’m spit-balling, but Bennett sure doesn’t seem to have a mandate to think small.

Philpott’s concerns are more day-to-day. She has been thinking about them for a long time. She delivered an update on her thinking in her keynote address to last week’s annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association in Quebec City.

“Of all the challenges that confront me as federal health minister, the most daunting is the need to address deplorable gaps in health outcomes faced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada,” she said. “By a host of measures,” it is easy to see Indigenous communities “have suffered from both negligence and systemic discrimination when it comes to healthcare.”

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal says that discrimination continues under the Trudeau government, and has issued three compliance orders concerning child and family services on reserves. Philpott’s response was to take the tribunal to court. A matter of “clarity,” she said.

There is no thornier mess of issues facing the Trudeau government than its relations with Indigenous populations. Faced with mixed results at best, the Prime Minister has decided to up his game. Philpott is just about his most formidable player. To say the least, success isn’t guaranteed, but her new assignment is the biggest news of a surprisingly big shuffle.