During a typical presidential workday (if such a day can be said to exist in the current White House) how many Diet Cokes does Donald Trump reportedly quaff? Early in 2017, when Theresa May was still presiding over a parliamentary majority, how many points did the British prime minister lay out in her master plan for an advantageous British exit from the European Union?
The Trumpian ingestion of the aspartame-laden cola was estimated by the New York Times at a dozen cans a day. And May presented a 12-point scheme, back in January, for a “smooth, orderly” departure from the European experiment. In fact, Brexit remains decidedly disorderly, and voters demoted May’s Conservative from majority to minority status in a June election.
But let’s not allow the delusions and dietary choices prevailing in the anglosphere’s major capitals to distract us further here. (Nor will we fixate on the 12 confirmed test firings by North Korea in 2017 of medium-range, intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.) No, the duodecimal fixation of this space is, as in years past, limited to picking just one story per month to wrap a bow around what Canadian federal politics was in 2017.
JANUARY: We noted that a cabinet shuffle moves policies as well as players
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started the year with a cabinet shuffle that signalled a great deal about the months ahead. The big winner was Chrystia Freeland, promoted from trade to global affairs, but retaining—in an unusual twist—authority over Canada-U.S. trade. That meant Freeland would try to salvage something from the NAFTA renegotiation foisted on Canada and Mexico by Trump. There were other notable moves in this shuffle, but none that would resonate through the year like Freeland’s rise.
FEBRUARY: We speculated on what a White House handshake said about Canada-U.S. relations
Visiting the Trump White House for the first time, Trudeau deftly fended off one of the president’s weird handshakes. The meetings were better than cordial. But the real news, emerging then and evolving through the year, was the Trudeau government’s extraordinary outreach to U.S. political forces beyond Trump and his circle. The aim was to build allies for NAFTA, should the protectionist president ultimately scrap the deal.
MARCH: We wondered what Canada is all about as desperate border-crossers kept coming
Refugees had been crossing the windswept border from Minnesota to Manitoba even in winter’s worst weather, but with spring coming, the government braced for increased numbers. Crossings at other lonely stretches of border, including hot spots in British Columbia and Quebec, continued through the year. Were Canadians susceptible to the anti-refugee anxieties that partly fuelled Trump and Brexit? How would Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen respond? These issues are still very alive at year-end.
APRIL: We puzzled over a marijuana liberalization law packaged as a get-tough policy
Trudeau’s very first big policy commitment as Liberal leader was to legalize and regulation marijuana. He always presented it, though, counterintuitively: his approach would somehow make it harder for young people to get weed. When Liberal legislation was finally released, the policy was clarified, but that paradox remained. (In fact, Trudeau’s view is at odds with the perspective of Canadian teenagers.) Still, the new law is a landmark, and the year closed with a deal with provinces on splitting the proceeds of a pot tax.
MAY: We were surprised when a slow-but-steady campaign prevailed in the Tory leadership
Coming into the final phase of the federal Conservative leadership race, Maxime Bernier was the frontrunner. Would the party really choose a free-market maverick who was against farm marketing boards and the universal health care status quo? Actually, no. After Bernier flopped at the final campaign event, Andrew Scheer prevailed. Saskatchewan MP ran a disciplined, low-key leadership bid, pitching a low-risk platform. Bernier might have been a lightning rod for criticism. Scheer must find a way to generate energy.
JUNE: We took note of how an old pro delivers the political goods with minimal fuss
Back when he was in opposition, Trudeau took a lot of heat from the left for refusing to reject all elements of Stephen Harper’s anti-terrorism law, know as Bill C-51. Instead of vowing to scrap it all, Trudeau said a Liberal government would adapt it. And so, just before summer, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale delivered Bill C-59. Despite our experts calling it “the biggest overhaul in Canadian security” since 1984, it created no controversy. In a cabinet that often faltered in 2017, Goodale—its most seasoned veteran—delivered quietly.
JULY: We were too busy summering to properly notice the fuse being lit for a tax-reform explosion
Few beyond the policy-wonk community were immediately agitated when Finance Minister Bill Morneau released details of a promised move against rich Canadians who use small businesses to reduce their tax burden. The rest of us soon caught up. Morneau’s proposals should have been saleable, but his weak communications skills hampered him. Then the debate was compounded by controversy about his personal financial affairs. Among its many elements, the debate allowed Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre to paint Liberals as out-of-touch elitists.
AUGUST: We see from Trudeau’s reassigning of a key talent that Indigenous files need work
Just as Trudeau put Freeland on a tough file back in January, his August shuffle assigned Jane Philpott, his widely admired health minister, to a new portfolio, Indigenous services. It was the ultimate political acknowledgment that 2017 was a year of turmoil on Indigenous issues—especially at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Trudeau later talked about it at the UN. And Philpott posted at least some progress before another year of First Nations discontent ended.
SEPTEMBER: We felt the usual school’s-back vibe of the House fall sitting with unusual intensity
When MPs return from their summer break, there’s always a bit of a back-to-class feel on Parliament Hill. But this year’s resumption of sitting was especially invigorating. The Tories had a new leader, and the NDP was about to pick one of its own. The prolonged honeymoon enjoyed by Trudeau’s Liberals after their 2015 election win finally seemed to have ended. Polls showed the government sagging. Morneau made himself a target. The prevailing sense in federal politics was of a truly new chapter opening.
OCTOBER: We hadn’t expected the NDP leadership voting to wrap up quite so quickly
Jagmeet Singh’s first-ballot victory in the contest to succeed Tom Mulcair as New Democratic Party leader caught many by surprise. The Ontario MPP far outstripped veteran federal MP Charlie Angus, who ran second, to become the first person of colour to lead a federal party. The fact that he took only one ballot to win made Singh briefly seem like a formidable new political star. But he seemed to fade from view in the final months of 2017, aside from a few stumbles. Still, his youth and flare could still make him a fascinating foil for Trudeau.
NOVEMBER: We were reminded of the Supreme Court of Canada’s reassuring place in our political life
Trudeau’s appointment of of Sheilah Martin, an Alberta judge, to the top court set in motion an historic transition. Martin would fill the vacancy left by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s retirement on Dec. 15; McLachlin would be replaced as chief justice by Richard Wagner. True, there was controversy over Trudeau’s decision to name Martin rather than an Indigenous judge. Overall, though, the emphasis on centrist harmony and public outreach that McLachlin long fostered on the court felt likely to continue.
DECEMBER: We hear the Prime Minister, not for the first time, unable to find the right tone
If there’s a dominant factor in this political era of federal politics, it’s Trudeau’s gift for connecting. He can talk. He looks terrific. But if 2017 offered his rivals solace, it was his off moments. Like when he bristled at reporters wanting to hear from Morneau, not him, at a news conference. Or, just before Christmas, when he responded rather stiffly to an ethics watchdog’s finding he broke rules by taking a trip to the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island. Sometimes politics happens in big strides; sometime in small missteps.
If there is a phrase that sums up the Canadian political mood in 2017, it might be, “Well, at least…” Those words often prefaced a remark contrasting contemporary Ottawa with Washington. It was a distinct change from the continental comparison at play for previous editions of this yearly 12-chapter diversion. If you care to look back, here they are from 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010. Or, better still, crack that book you were given. Or bundle up and take a walk. Or steal a nap.