How Anita Anand became the Trudeau government’s all-round fixer

Sexual misconduct in the military. A war in Ukraine. Canada’s global reputation at stake. It’s a good thing Anand knows how to solve problems.
by SHANNON PROUDFOOT photography by gary ogle
Defence Minister Anita Anand, a relative newcomer to federal politics, has already handled two of the Trudeau cabinet’s toughest assignments.(Photography by Gary Ogle)

June 7, 2022

In press conferences, Anita Anand presents like the law professor she was for more than two decades: crisp, careful, occasionally prone to using obscure words that her staff are not above mocking. But the minister of national defence arrives at those press conferences like an ice cream truck approaching from the next block. She is usually travelling at a purposeful scurry with a clutch of young staffers in tow, and you can track how close she is by the music blasting from the phone in her hand. In mid-April, at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, the song of choice is Take My Breath by the Weeknd; before that, it was Higher Love by Kygo and Whitney Houston. The job can be heavy, and the music lightens things up.

Anand has made her first visit to Trenton, about 170 kilometres east of Toronto, to announce the imminent deployment of 100 military personnel to Poland to provide humanitarian help to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian onslaught. She spends the half-hour before the announcement preparing with her staff in the “green room”—a cinder-block meeting space containing the kind of indestructible furniture you might find in a university dorm, with grocery-store pastries and neon-hued Easter-egg napkins arrayed on the tables. Anand hunches over a printout of her remarks, making changes on the fly while questioning her staff: has the Russian invasion been going for months or weeks? Is assister or aider a better French verb here? Who’s providing spiritual support to the refugees? The department’s speechwriters have by now figured out that she likes listing things in threes and hacks out any rhetorical preamble. “Tell them they’re right!” she crows to her staff. “Tell them: exactly, no fluff.”

When she’s had her way with the speech, she and her team rehearse media questions. Her press secretary, Daniel Minden, does an eerily perfect imitation of the default journalist tone of a snotty teenager who’s just caught you sneaking into the house drunk. In response, Anand rhymes off the talking points and line items from the week-old budget that she’s still committing to memory. “Follow-up! Follow-up! Hard follow-up!” she says. Anand is one of a very few in this government with an instinct for transparency and normal human communication, but that’s not the gear in use at the moment.

Then they’re out of time. “Should we have a little song here?” she asks, then cranks up Take My Breath before heading across the tarmac to the TV cameras.

Anand, shown here with her parents and cousins in the backyard of her childhood home, grew up in Kentville, Nova Scotia. She appears third from left, seated next to her father. 
Anand, shown here with her parents and cousins in the backyard of her childhood home, grew up in Kentville, Nova Scotia. She appears third from left, seated next to her father.

It’s easy to forget now that she’s a senior minister, but Anand is still a newcomer who’s only been in federal politics for three years. She is no stranger to holding a cabinet portfolio that suddenly bursts into flames. She was procurement minister when the pandemic arrived, and that file—normally important but dull—turned into a frantic global shopping spree for protective equipment, rapid tests and vaccines. Looming over her job as defence minister is no less than the existential global threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s unhinged savagery in Ukraine and its upending of the post-Cold War world order. As Anand told a conference of defence experts in early May, with lawyerly circumspection, “We do live in a world at the present time that appears to be growing darker.”

Canada has long been accused—by former U.S. president Donald Trump and more lucid observers—of complacent mooching on defence. We are geographically fortunate. Defence and the military don’t excite the Canadian public, so there’s no political sugar high to be had from prioritizing them. And the world’s toughest big brother lives right below us, affording a sense of smugness that surely no one will mess with us. Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska succinctly laid out the criticism in May when he told a congressional hearing, “We still have NATO allies—Canada one—who just freeload.”

Now, the world is threatened by a marauding Russian bear, in a conflict whose worst possible escalation is nuclear war. The least appalling outcome is the horror that is already known: thousands of Ukrainian civilians dead, thousands more raped or forcibly relocated, millions displaced. It’s become clear that the peaceful global balance was never as stable or certain as we blithely assumed it to be.

Canada’s response to all of this sits on Anand’s desk, plunked on top of the file that was supposed to be the thorniest aspect of her portfolio: reforming and renewing a Canadian Armed Forces jolted by widespread allegations of sexual misconduct over the last few years. 

Even on a good day, when there isn’t war raging in Europe and a morale crisis within, defence is unlike any other cabinet job. The minister sits atop two separate hierarchies: the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, a sprawling institution with its own education, health-care, housing and justice systems. The budgets are huge, the process of buying anything notoriously slow and the potential for political bombshells large, on top of an intimidating military culture that is usually foreign to the minister. “It’s not a job that anybody ever wants,” says Guy Thibault, former vice-chief of the defence staff and chair of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. 

Right now, though, the job is Anand’s to do. She comes to it with a deep belief in doing the best you can, not to seek out a prize, but because there is virtue in good work. It’s a belief rooted in her Hindu faith and instilled in her by her late mother, and those values reside in her as deeply as her mother’s voice still resonates in her head. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is nearing his 10th year as Liberal leader, and his party its seventh in power. Succession planning is inevitable, and Anand is one of the obvious possible leadership contenders. Her move to defence reads as a clear statement of trust from Trudeau that she can navigate this post under urgent circumstances as well as she did the last one. It could also end up being a poisoned chalice handed over with a smile of gratitude and apology. In cabinet, there is a fine line between a difficult but important task and an impossible and thankless one. Anand’s success in this job—and Canada’s reputation and safety in a world gone dark—might rest on that knife’s edge. 

In the early 1960s, Anand’s mother and father, Saroj Daulat Ram and Sundaram Vivek Anand—an anaesthetist and general surgeon—were living in Nigeria with their preschool-aged daughter, Gita, when Sundaram travelled to investigate the possibility of immigrating to Canada or the United States. The first place he landed was Halifax. He rented a car, drove to Nova Scotia’s bucolic Annapolis Valley and discovered the right place for his family. They settled in Kentville, a picturesque town of 6,000, where Anita was born in 1967 and her sister Sonia in 1968. They were one of the few South Asian families around at the time, and with no relatives in Canada, they grew up knit tightly to each other and their hometown. “We were definitely distinct,” Anand says. “But by the same token, we were one of the community.”

The Anand kids were always “Gita and the girls,” with Gita six years older and Anita and Sonia 16 months apart. When their parents worked long hours, they would go next door to the Clevelands’ house, where Anita’s best friend, Debbie, lived. If it was dinnertime and their parents weren’t home yet, they simply stayed for supper. 

One day, when Sonia and Anita were about four and five years old, Ram drove them to the military base in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, where they watched Pierre Elliot Trudeau disembark from a helicopter. Trudeau noticed Ram’s sari immediately and came over, bowing to her with the Indian greeting of namaste. On the way home in the car, as the family lore goes, their mother told them, “You girls need to serve your country. Your country needs you.”

Ram devoured news, politics and the biographies and speeches of great leaders from Roosevelt to Gandhi and all the Canadian prime ministers. “She didn’t necessarily use the word ‘leadership,’ but she wanted us to strive,” Anand says. If she got 99 on a test, Ram’s response was, “Why not 100?” If they were discussing her career prospects after law school, her mother would float the idea of the Supreme Court. It never felt like a burden to Anand, only loving ambition. Her mother died of cancer in 2014. “Even when she was really sick, she would say, ‘Just keep going. Just keep going,’ ” Anand recalls. Here, her voice shifts, and she punctuates the exhortation with one delicately folded fist. And for a moment, it’s clear her mother is right there in the room. “That’s kind of inside of me, in a way that a mother’s voice is,” she says. 

Ram’s daughters did indeed strive: Gita became a labour lawyer and Sonia a vascular specialist and professor of medicine. Anita, meanwhile, completed degrees at Queen’s University and the University of Oxford before returning to the East Coast to get her Canadian law degree at Dalhousie University in 1992. She articled at the Toronto office of Torys, the prominent corporate firm, arriving with a bunch of theoretical courses under her belt, while her fellow articling students had all taken corporate commercial law, securities and insolvency. The learning curve felt vertical to her. 

At a firm lunch one day, she met John Knowlton, another of the articling students. She told him she was having car trouble, and Knowlton said the estimate she’d gotten from one garage was too high. He found a better quote, and then he just kept helping: moving her into her sister’s basement, driving her home from late nights at the office. They started dating around the time they did their bar admission courses. Anand was called to the bar in 1994 and got hired back at Torys, and she and Knowlton married the following year. 

She loved practising corporate law, but knew academia was where she belonged, because writing and teaching lit her up in a way the idea of making partner did not. Anand took a leave from Torys for her master of laws at the University of Toronto, and the following year, went on maternity leave with her first child, a son. There followed stints teaching at the University of Western Ontario and Queen’s, as well as a sabbatical year as a Fulbright Scholar and visiting lecturer in law and economics at Yale Law School. In between, she and Knowlton had three more children, including a set of twins, winding up with a son and three daughters within five years of each other in age. 

In 2006, she returned to U of T, serving as associate dean of law and later as the J.R. Kimber Chair in Investor Protection and Corporate Governance. Her fellowships, awards, cross-appointments and publications fill a 19-page CV. At this point, with Anand’s academic career in full swing, she and Knowlton settled in Oakville, where they built an archetypal upper middle-class life. Their kids took piano lessons and played hockey. Knowlton coached their teams.

The idea Anand’s mother had planted of serving her country by running for office surfaced in her mind from time to time, but it ran up against her sense that politics was a very difficult life. She was approached more than once to run—she won’t say by whom—and kept saying no. After two decades as a professor, though, she began to feel like she’d given all she could to academia and was ready for a new challenge. By late 2018, she had an application to join the bench of the Ontario Superior Court ready to go on her desk. She never sent it, and the next time someone asked about politics, she didn’t say no. Anand loved being a professor, and it was hard to contemplate leaving that behind, but that notion of service instilled in her family had a deep pull, and she felt like she had something to contribute in politics.

She first kicked tires on a couple of ridings nearby, because Oakville didn’t seem to be up for grabs; everyone assumed that John Oliver, the MP first elected in the Liberal wave in 2015, would run again. But in the lead-up to the fall 2019 election, he announced he was leaving politics. Suddenly Oakville was open, though Anand would have to beat Kevin Flynn, a former provincial MPP and better-known local commodity, to get the nomination. 

Oakville sits southwest of Toronto and is still technically a “town” even though its population exceeds 200,000. It is whiter and wealthier than the GTA average, and inevitably described as a “leafy enclave” when anyone writes about it. “Many people told me that a visible minority woman could not get elected in Oakville,” Anand says. 

But when Oakville Liberals gathered at a local banquet hall that June to vote, Anand emerged as the nominee. The general election was in mid-October, so that summer and fall were a blur of maps, driveways and doors to be knocked. Because Anand is a talker, canvassing became a delicate ballet, as aides tried to move her along at the doors while the rest of the team was waiting halfway down the street. She ended up beating the Conservative candidate by seven percentage points. 

Soon after the election, she was summoned to a meeting with some of the transition team advising the second-term Trudeau government. They wanted to know about any skeletons lurking in closets, so she knew they were vetting her for something. A week later, she pulled into a parking garage at Toronto Pearson International Airport in her husband’s pickup truck, a coat thrown hastily over the dishevelled clothes she’d been wearing at home when her son called to say his car battery had died. They’d connected the jumper cables and she was sitting in the truck, with her son hollering at her to start the engine, when her phone rang with a call from the PMO switchboard. First she screamed, then she answered. They told her to be in Ottawa to meet with the Prime Minister the next morning. 

Anand walked into the room a jangle of nerves; she had met Trudeau a few times, but didn’t know him in any real way. When he told her he wanted her to be the minister of public services and procurement, she gathered herself and responded, “I would be so honoured,” just as she’d rehearsed in case she was rattled in the moment. “On my way out I shed a little tear,” she says. “And then I had to go find out what public services and procurement was.”

The portfolio is the supply closet of government, responsible for buying fighter jets, navy ships and software like the cursed Phoenix pay system for federal employees. The only spotlight that usually shines on the file is the glare of an expensive, headline-making screw-up. On the day they were sworn in, one of Anand’s cabinet colleagues soothingly assured her that she wouldn’t have to do press conferences and no one would even know her name while she learned how to be a rookie MP and cabinet minister at once. Not even close. By the time they were reading their oaths at Rideau Hall in November of 2019, the first cases of COVID-19 were almost certainly circulating in China.

Months later, when the full scope of the pandemic was becoming apparent, and the federal government started doing regular COVID updates, Anand would watch her cabinet colleagues speak alongside Trudeau every day. The first time she joined them in front of the cameras to talk about the desperate global scavenger hunt for personal protective equipment, it had an out-of-body quality. “There was a part of me that was watching the press conference,” she says. Knowlton was on an elevator one day when his wife suddenly appeared on the little wall screen unfurling the news of the day. “It was weird, quite frankly, at the beginning, just seeing her face all over the place,” he says. 

The next phase was trying to reserve vaccines, instantly the most precious commodity on earth, for a country with no domestic vaccine manufacturing. There was no way to know which one would cross the clinical-trial finish line first and which would fail, so the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, a panel of experts advising the government, told Anand that Canada’s best plan was to hedge its bets and sign contracts with all seven of the leading candidates. She and her team did that within about six weeks in the late summer of 2020. To Anand, it seems like people forgot the intensity of that task once it became accepted fact that Canada had signed a raft of vaccine contracts. “We were competing with the leading countries, many of whom had domestic production capabilities,” she says. “I just was a dog with a bone: We. Are. Going. To. Do. This.” At first, Anand brushes aside the emotional toll and says it was simply her job. But then she concedes, in a voice that gets smaller with each word, “It was very stressful. Very, very stressful.”

Pfizer was the first vaccine approved by Health Canada in mid-December 2020, and the first shipment was due to arrive on Canadian soil a few days later. Standing on the tarmac in the early winter darkness at Hamilton International Airport, Anand was overwhelmed by how much it had taken to get the little glass vials on that plane, and the many ways in which it might not have happened. “I was moved to tears,” she says simply. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.” She was with her father when he got his vaccine from local paramedics visiting his seniors’ residence. In that moment, she was exactly like every other Canadian floating with relief once they knew their parent or loved one at risk was finally a little safer.

Canada’s inoculation campaign, however, got off to a slow start. Other countries zoomed ahead in vaccinating their citizens, and every delay or smaller-than-expected shipment to Canada became the screaming headline of the day. This was exacerbated by Anand’s refusal to discuss what was in the contracts; she said they contained confidentiality clauses and violating them would jeopardize Canada’s negotiating position. The closest thing to a price tag eventually made public was a $9-billion budget figure for vaccines and COVID treatments, the majority of which was for vaccines. Through the winter and spring, there was a pervasive sense among the public and media, fuelled by the grinding anxiety of the moment, that Canadians were screwed and the federal government simply wouldn’t admit it.

Then the vaccine deliveries evened out and eventually piled up, and by late summer, pretty much any Canadian who wanted it had been double-vaccinated. What had once looked like a fumble of catastrophic proportions ended with Canada having one of the most vaccinated populations in the world.

Anand has made an early impression within the military as a quick study who is willing to make difficult decisions without hesitation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Anand has made an early impression within the military as a quick study who is willing to make difficult decisions without hesitation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau called a snap election in August of 2021, and this time around, Anand didn’t need to introduce herself when she knocked on the doors of Oakville in order to win re-election. Afterward, the usual cabinet punditry revved up, and the consensus was that Anand was the obvious choice to become minister of national defence, given her successful handling of the tricky vaccine file and the fact that defence was in its own state of crisis. Over the previous year, a series of sexual misconduct allegations had surfaced in the Canadian Armed Forces, or CAF, that were so widespread and reached so far up the hierarchy that they rocked the military and the public’s perception of the institution. The previous defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, became involved when the military ombudsman reported that he tried to alert him to sexual misconduct allegations against the chief of the defence staff, Jonathan Vance, and Sajjan refused to hear the information. 

Anand started preparing in case the predictions about her new assignment were right. She read the landmark reports by former Supreme Court justices Marie Deschamps and Morris Fish examining sexual misconduct and the military justice system, and wrote up a list of questions for her deputy minister if it turned out the job was hers. When she was indeed sworn in as minister of national defence, some Oakville Liberals joked that the Prime Minister had rewarded her deft handling of one tough job by giving her an even harder one. “I think Minister Anand just caught a little bit of the tiger by the tail,” says Thibault, the former vice-chief of the defence staff. 

Then Putin attacked Ukraine, and the tiger turned out to have two heads. It was General Wayne Eyre, the chief of the defence staff, who called Anand in the middle of the night on February 24 to tell her the invasion had begun. Canada’s intelligence had been pointing to this outcome for months, and Anand had been expecting the call, but she was devastated nonetheless. They agreed to talk again first thing in the morning about expanding Canada’s support for Ukraine. The global balance that had allowed Canada the luxury of its complacency on defence imploded. It was replaced by urgent pressure to increase military spending, provide adequate help to Ukraine and for Canada to pull its weight alongside its NATO allies.

In the 2017 budget, the Trudeau government announced it would increase defence spending from $18.9 billion to $32.7 billion by 2026–27, which amounted to a 70 per cent bump over 10 years. But in the run-up to the 2022 budget, there were heightened expectations of another substantial boost given the profound global instability. Anand said she presented “aggressive options” to cabinet, including one that would have exceeded the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence. The parliamentary budget officer has estimated that Canada would need to spend at least $20 billion more annually to reach the NATO benchmark.

Senior military leadership developed several scenarios for increased spending, but what the new budget ultimately contained—
$8 billion over five years—was lower than even their least ambitious option. All of this is complicated by the fact that the defence department routinely underspends the budget it does have because of torturously slow procurement.

In response to pressure to step up defence spending, Anand has emphasized Canada’s broader support for Ukraine, including weapons, armoured vehicles and training for 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers who denied Putin the quick victory he expected. But Andrew Leslie, a former commander of the Canadian Army who was a Liberal MP from 2015 until 2019, sees the Trudeau government as fundamentally “self-absorbed,” fixated on social programs and lacking any interest in foreign affairs or the defence sphere. He thinks in terms of big-picture numbers and the potential for collateral damage: the government spent hundreds of billions on the pandemic, which killed 38,000 Canadians. Yet they are, in his estimation, reluctant to spend big on a Canadian military suffering from years of equipment neglect, low morale and sluggish decision-making—right when Canada and the world at large are facing an existential threat of escalation with Putin that could wipe out everyone. “If you’re not going to spend lots of money on defence now, when would you?” he asks. “And the answer is the Liberal government doesn’t want to.” 

Back at Trenton, in her hastily arranged visit before the Easter long weekend, Anand announces the deployment of armed forces members to Poland before touring the two hulking, matte-grey military planes that were parked on the tarmac at a perfect angle for the TV cameras. The larger of the planes, a Globemaster, can carry a tank or three Griffon helicopters in its enormous belly. Anand climbs the ramp leading to the gaping maw of the aircraft, working her way along a receiving line of CAF personnel, asking about everyone’s job and background. She gets excited when she hears one guy is from Oakville, and jokes that the soldiers’ stories about their military careers and deployments are so good, it’s almost like they were planted. “Ma’am, I found out I was going to be here with you this morning about a half an hour before, so they were not planted,” one soldier deadpans. “You found out only a little later than me,” she shoots back. The commander of the base, Colonel Ryan Deming, thanks Anand for throwing him under the bus, and everyone cracks up. 

A mechanical lift sits just outside the rear of the plane, its 15-metre platform loaded with plastic-wrapped pallets containing meal packs bound for Ukraine. Anand is giddily transfixed by them: she’s been reciting in interviews for months that Canada is sending 400,000 meal packs, and now here they are, waiting to be fed to the Globemaster and carried across the Atlantic. 

So far, Anand has made a good impression within the CAF and among defence experts. She’s perceived as thoughtful; she takes briefs well, asks smart questions and can quickly drill down to the essence of an issue. It’s easy to sit on files at defence, because it’s a big, cumbersome machine where many of the gears can’t grind into motion until the minister gives the word. It requires a person willing to make a call rather than dithering about media coverage, polls and political calculations. 

Anand has demonstrated an early willingness to do so. When she was sworn in, another former Supreme Court justice, Louise Arbour, was deep into a year-long review on sexual misconduct, and had already recommended to Sajjan that criminal cases be transferred to civilian authorities rather than continuing to let the military police itself. As defence minister, Sajjan was viewed as detached, overly deferential to the chief of the defence staff and prone to hoping issues would go away rather than dealing with them. A week into the job, Anand announced she was accepting Arbour’s recommendations immediately.

Anand attended the University of Oxford before returning to Canada and building a career as a lawyer and academic.
Anand attended the University of Oxford before returning to Canada and building a career as a lawyer and academic.

Anand still misses hashing out intricate concepts with academic colleagues. That may be why she is more open by default than other prominent members of a government that has made a maddening art of centralized control and message management. The hitch comes when Anand talks about her current portfolio. On the topic of defence, she frequently slips into talking-point mode, suddenly less frank or willing to acknowledge uncertainty or conflict, falling back on a canned phrase or fact. The shift is stark, as though someone rolled down metal shutters over a storefront. When it happens, it feels disappointing, like a tiny betrayal in an otherwise real conversation with an intelligent and dialled-in person.

Asked how she’ll define success in this file, she says she wants to put structures in place that will outlast her and—straight from the talking-point songbook—make sure CAF members are protected and respected every day when they put on the uniform in service of this country. “In addition to that, I hope to ensure that we do reach tangible results relating to minimizing, to the extent possible, all forms of discrimination in the Canadian Armed Forces,” she says.

It’s hard to tell whether Anand’s internal switch flips to talking-point mode because she’s treading carefully around a live file, or because it occurs to her that defence might present a very difficult set of problems to solve in this darker world. There are moments when she does a pretty good imitation of the most frustrating tendencies of this government, but many more where she sounds capable of the thoughtful honesty that could undo some of it.

When she wanders in conversation, she comes back again and again to academia. She gets both fired up and starry-eyed talking about her research, or the joy of gathering with academic colleagues, tossing someone’s draft paper on the table between them and then working through a careful critique without accusing anyone of being a terrible human being. Politics does not offer that. Sometimes she feels nostalgic for her past life. 

The Justin Trudeau era has been an exceptionally fortunate one for the Liberal Party of Canada, and they know it. Even when their apparently Teflon leader seemed certain to lose—even when he deserved to—somehow they kept winning. But the reign of Trudeau fils cannot last forever, even if Liberals seem offended by the very idea, no matter how delicately you bring it up.

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is such an obvious frontrunner to succeed Trudeau that it seems unsophisticated to mention her. Mélanie Joly’s promotion to foreign minister was reputed to be about giving a range of potential leadership candidates solid footing. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos would be a cerebral, understated option for a government that could do with more of both. Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne is clever, genial and ambitious; it would be a surprise if he didn’t throw his dapper hat into the ring. 

It’s impossible, though, to round up the potential contenders without putting Anand on that list. She was highly regarded enough to go straight into cabinet as a rookie MP, and while procurement was an accidentally critical file, she got the job done in the crucible of a generational crisis. Now, she’s in charge of a file that was always going to be an uphill climb but has been elevated to emergency status by world events. Inquire directly about any eventual leadership ambitions, though, and she offers the expected response about being honoured to have the trust of the Prime Minister and solely focused on her job. Frankly, “Smart, well-intentioned person does decent job in tough spot” is a strange and vaguely unseemly type of political story. Journalists who cover politics are not often in the business of good-news stories, and the people we write about generally don’t inspire them. So this makes me feel as odd to write as it might make you feel to read.

Canadian politics at the moment seems built to reward two very different types: the bomb-throwing disrupter who carves a cult of personality in their own likeness, or the human talking point who runs from anything resembling a normal thought or sentence. Anand is not wired to be either of those. Is there a path for someone like that to ascend, even if someone exactly like that seems needed? 

Then there is the question more than one person bluntly asked Anand when she decided to leave academia and pursue politics. Why would you abandon a dignified, successful career as a law professor to volunteer for this sideshow?

To some extent, the answer is a very simple one: because that’s what her mother told her to do, in a voice she can still hear.

This article appears in print in the July 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy issues of the magazine here.