Power List

Why Justin Trudeau is No. 1 on the 2021 Maclean's Power List

Paul Wells: Dismiss the Prime Minister if you like, but the fact is that in the past year he had (and used) power on a scale nobody in the country could match

Who had more power in Canada in 2020, and was less inhibited about wielding it, than Justin Trudeau? Nobody. Nobody else comes close. Dismiss the Prime Minister if you like, knock his brains, his choices, his often demonstrably shaky adherence to principle. But in 2020, the central fact of Justin Trudeau’s place in the nation’s life was that he had and used power on a scale nobody in the country could match.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. First, Trudeau works in Ottawa. No provincial or municipal government, and no organization outside government, had anything close to the clout the federal government enjoyed in 2020. Second, Trudeau leads a minority government, which should have made him more unsure and tentative—as it seemed, in the first weeks after the 2019 election, that it would. But in Parliament, Trudeau has kept his opponents consistently on the back foot. Finally, he leads a party that has historically been divided into factions. But no Liberal leader in Trudeau’s lifetime has led a Liberal party as unified as today’s.

THE POWER LIST: See the full ranking of 50 Canadians

In good times, when a society and an economy are healthy, the selling pays for the buying and most people can earn some kind of livelihood. Amid the COVID-19 conflagration, all of that collapsed. Somebody had to cover the difference between what people had and what they needed, to keep people home, safe and still within sight of a return to normalcy, maybe in 2021. Who was going to do that? Most businesses couldn’t; business was ground zero of the shock. Families couldn’t; household debt was already near the red line. Provincial governments couldn’t; taken together, they came into 2020 with less fiscal room than Ottawa. Only the feds had room to move. And Trudeau has used it. Total federal spending doubled in a year, which has never happened outside wartime. Cheques from Ottawa became the lifeline for households, businesses—and even provincial governments.

An activist government in Ottawa usually awakens powerful resistance in one provincial capital or another. But the likeliest suspects—the conservative premiers of Quebec, Ontario and Alberta—kind of had their hands full. Stephen Harper used to avoid meeting the premiers as a group. Trudeau wasn’t a huge fan of having them over either, at first. But this year he hosted calls with them most weeks. More than 20 first-ministerial Zoom calls by year’s end—because he had nothing to fear from this group. Who could make him deliver what he didn’t want to? If one of them walked out, would the boycott make any difference?

In Parliament, the Liberals’ minority-government status should have had Trudeau on the defensive. But for most of the year, Andrew Scheer, whose Conservatives had won more votes than the Liberals, was being ushered to the exit by his own party. And Erin O’Toole, the new guy, quickly made it clear he’d rather avoid an election. So here, too, Trudeau had the upper hand. It made him almost cavalier in his willingness to play hardball, proroguing Parliament to shut down the WE Charity controversy, filibustering committees when the House came back, finally threatening an election on slim pretext.

The last minority Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin, spent a year and a half trying to avoid an election. This one uses the threat of an election to chase the other parties away. That tells you all you need to know about the pecking order in Parliament.

The final locus of Trudeau’s tactical advantage in 2020 was the Liberal party itself. Every modern Liberal leader has had an internal rival. Jean Chrétien had Paul Martin, John Turner had Chrétien, Pierre Trudeau had Turner. Each was an obvious successor who proclaimed loyalty but who telegraphed opposition and critique. That model never really held for Justin Trudeau, and it collapsed definitively on the day in 2019 when Jane Philpott resigned from cabinet. That act of defiance ended her political career. Chrystia Freeland watched and learned. Since then, she has advanced in the party, not by highlighting disagreement, but by making her loyalty to Trudeau ever clearer. When he gets into trouble over his judgment, as he reliably does every few months, Freeland makes a show of declaring her support for him. It’s a bit weird. But it’s easier to understand once you realize she’s not transferring her credibility to Trudeau, she’s recharging her credibility within the party by standing at his side. And it’s all one party, to an extent that probably weakens the Liberals as a forum for reconciling differences on big questions, but that strengthens the PM’s internal influence. There are no more “business Liberals,” no active Quebec or Western or Bay Street wing of the party that makes a show of putting up with the leader for now but maybe not forever. There are no Liberals now but Trudeau Liberals.

And finally, it’s become clear that Justin Trudeau is the brains of the operation. It used to be fashionable to believe he was Oz the Great and Terrible, a photogenic puppet, and that behind the curtain Gerald Butts and Katie Telford were pulling the levers. But Butts left, and these days he’s just another ex-staffer. Meanwhile, the government’s choices are Trudeau’s choices. There’s no sense that he’s been brought along, patiently and patronizingly, by a younger, hipper team. If he stops liking someone, they don’t last. Just ask Bill Morneau. If Trudeau doesn’t like a file, it lies ignored. This government is simply never going to buy a big piece of military equipment or pay attention to criminal justice, sorry not sorry. Its attention on international issues falters because his does. It has no interest in taxing to match spending because he doesn’t believe deficits are a problem, arithmetic or electoral. The government’s strengths are Trudeau’s strengths. Its weaknesses—lacklustre performance in Parliament, a jargon-infested communications style that masks more than it informs—are his weaknesses.

This utter dominance of the political landscape was, in large measure, a product of the coronavirus catastrophe and the fiscal health Trudeau inherited from his predecessors and hadn’t yet squandered. There’s more accident than strategy in it. It can’t last. But in 2020, this was Justin Trudeau’s country. The rest of us were just living in it.

The Power List

50 Canadians who are breaking ground, leading the debate and shaping how we think and live

Few moments have challenged our understanding of power as profoundly as the one we’re in. Remember the two or three years before “COVID-19” entered the global lexicon? Root-and-branch change was all around. Social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter were on the march. Technology had overthrown mainstays of business and the media, and new players were in ascent. Cornerstones of liberal democracy—rule of law; trust in institutions; the very notion of truth—had come under siege.

The pandemic has a way of erasing short-term memory. But of course, those forces of change go on. COVID, meanwhile, has flipped orders of power yet again. Seemingly overnight, hard-headed populists like Doug Ford were deferring to public health officials, while formerly obscure scientists persuaded us to reconfigure our lives. Apostles of fiscal rectitude stood down, giving way to believers in activist government and applause for debt-funded spending sprees that months earlier would have sent the economic hawks into paroxysms.

What, then, is influence in 2021? Who is advancing big ideas and shaping perceptions? Who is really leading Canada through its greatest upheaval since the Second World War? Why them?


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These questions do not yield to algorithms, or to pat assumptions about power that begin with wealth and status. Any definition of power today must account for, say, the impact of Elliot Page, the Oscar-nominated actor who came out as trans; or that of Joyce Echaquan, the Indigenous woman from Quebec whose dying act was to livestream the cruel and offhanded insults of hospital staff who should have been saving her life. Echaquan’s voice, still heard, unleashed a wave of raw and righteous outrage, waking the country to systemic racism in health care and beyond.

For the purposes of the 2021 Maclean’s Power List (below), we canvassed the landscape for Canadians with qualities we think represent power in a time of transformative change. By dint of their actions, words or character, they force us to watch, listen and learn. They are moving the needle in their chosen fields, and in many cases the wider world. Importantly, they are good-faith actors. History may judge them wrong, but they act in the belief that doing so will result in a better world.

You may notice therefore a shortage of power brokers in the conventional mould—bank CEOs, cabinet ministers, scions, high-powered lobbyists. For this list, warming a seat in the establishment doesn’t cut it. Nor does preserving the status quo. Nor, certainly, does exercising power for the mere sake of disruption. (Peddlers of conspiracy and disinformation could be thought of as influential; you will not find them in this ranking.)

Given the foregoing, you may also arch a brow at the Prime Minister’s position at the top—this white, male avatar of dynastic politics who too often acts as if Canada’s highest elected office is his birthright. Consider it a matter of timing. Or, if you prefer, a tie. Tobias Lütke, No. 2, might be the most underrated titan in the country’s corporate history, the co-founder and CEO of a new-era upstart whose valuation is now greater than any Canadian company’s. During the pandemic, Shopify became a lifeline for businesses big and small, across Canada and around the globe.

But in our view, the conditions created by the public health crisis nudge Justin Trudeau ahead by a nose: it draws the spotlight, whose glare he doesn’t fear; its economic fallout has freed him to spray unheard of sums of money across the country. Meanwhile, the departure of personalities from his government and inner circle has by default made him an undisputed locus of power, and through it all he has successfully navigated the shoals of minority government. For better or worse, in varying degrees, we are all in his hands.

Whether Trudeau’s good fortune will outlast the pandemic, securing his place not only in our ranking but among Canadian PMs of enduring legacy, is an open question. For him, as for all of us, the ground is shifting.

(Courtesy of Adam Scotti/PMO)

Who had more power in Canada in 2020, and was less inhibited about wielding it, than Justin Trudeau? Nobody. Nobody else comes close. Dismiss the Prime Minister if you like, knock his brains, his choices, his often demonstrably shaky adherence to principle. But in 2020, the central fact of Justin Trudeau’s place in the nation’s life was that he had and used power on a scale nobody in the country could match.

Paul Wells explains why.

(Courtesy of Shopify)

Lütke co-founded and now leads Shopify, the highest-valued company in the country, whose strength and influence only grew during the pandemic. The 15-year-old Ottawa-based software company lets merchants easily set up online stores with just a few clicks, and over the last year has powered the digital transitions of tens of thousands of desperate Main Street retailers across Canada, dramatically reshaping the country’s retail landscape.

Jason Kirby explains why Lütke is No. 2 on The Power List.

Did she contemplate, in those final moments, that the gut-wrenching footage would spark a national outrage? That her memory would be honoured in nationwide vigils, the circumstances around her death decried with widespread protest?

Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven from the community of Manawan, died not long after her Facebook live-stream. It showed staff at a Joliette, Que., hospital insulting her—swearing she’d be better off dead—as she begged for help. In the video, Echaquan expressed in Atikamekw that she worried about over-medication and being given drugs she was allergic to. But the cause of her death is not publicly known. A coroner’s inquest is under way, with hearings expected in 2021.

With her final act, Echaquan galvanized calls for governments to address systemic inequalities that have cost countless Indigenous lives. Her voice is driving a national conversation about racism in health care that was long overdue. She is still being heard, loud and clear.
Marie-Danielle Smith

Most scandals don’t bring down governments, but every watchdog investigation is a potential land mine for the Prime Minister’s team. Dion, the ethics commissioner, can do more than most to cut short the Justin Trudeau era. He wrote a scathing report on the SNC-Lavalin affair that upended horse-race polls for months. He’s working up another, this time on Trudeau’s lapses in the midst of the summertime WE Charity foofaraw, and could hand Erin O’Toole all the ammunition he needs to send the PM packing.
Nick Taylor-Vaisey

Through the frustrating, grief-stricken and seemingly interminable months of the pandemic, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more complete bit of advice than the “Be kind, be calm and be safe” mantra that Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s chief medical officer of health, usually offers at the end of her briefings. Henry gave B.C.ers information and invited them to join each other in protecting everyone instead of dropping the hammer. She’s been the personification of reassuring leadership­—though she didn’t brush aside her own emotion on the press conference dais on the rare occasions when the tears welled up—and became a beloved figure who inspired fan T-shirts and a pair of eponymous designer shoes. Henry’s province did not emerge from the second wave as relatively unscathed as it did from the first. But Henry’s calm, cool—and kind—public health leadership should ensure she’s in the conversation for a national role in the future.
Shannon Proudfoot

(Courtesy of Chrystia Freeland)

Her meteoric popularity and indistinct “minister of everything” reputation gives off the sheen of a hyper-competent saviour-in-waiting. At some important juncture, Chrystia Freeland will be the one to swoop in and fix the big-L Liberal project. Ottawa is sure of it.

If, despite this aura of promise, the former journalist hasn’t made her permanent mark on Canada’s politics—aside from heading a formidable Trump-era effort to renegotiate NAFTA—now is surely the time. She has, more than anyone else in the Liberal stratosphere, the Prime Minister’s trust and the ears of his senior staff.

But the cult of personality that made Freeland a political darling has become a hindrance. She must not only manage a pandemic economic crisis and ballooning debt during a minority mandate, a precarious position for any finance minister, but also do so under the weight of heavily inflated expectations.

Freeland may have careful footing, hardened instincts and friends in high places, but the floor is lava. As she navigates a fine line between supporting her boss’s legacy and protecting her own potential, every step will matter.
Marie-Danielle Smith

(Photograph by Jennifer Roberts)

In pro wrestling, it’s known as the face turn: when the “heel” whom fans love to boo suddenly becomes their favourite. By casting aside partisanship to handle the pandemic, Doug Ford shot from the lowest approval rating among premiers to second-highest. (He’s since slipped.) He sympathizes with small business owners, yet slams anti-maskers and has talks with Chrystia Freeland that the Liberal federal finance minister calls “therapy sessions.” Where’s the Toronto councillor who once took a morning off to watch his brother arm-wrestle Hulk Hogan?
Aaron Hutchins

As the concept of defunding police gained traction following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops, Sandy Hudson was the person the Canadian media reached out to. Hudson co-founded the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, which made headlines in 2016 for stopping the city’s Pride parade in the middle of the summer heat. Less publicized, but of even greater impact, was the organization’s role in cancelling a program that placed police officers in Toronto’s public schools. Three years later, everyone from Google to Pet­Smart has come out in public support of Black Lives Matter. The systemic racism of Canadian institutions, from corporate boards to the media, is the focus of a public reckoning. And Hudson has emerged as not just an activist, but a thought leader, making an urgent case for policy measures that will effect true change.
Claire Brownell

(Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The plain-spoken, hard-working, blue-collar-to-the-core head of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, has had a big year. He kicked it off last January by getting arrested at a blockade over a pension dispute at Regina’s Co-op oil refinery. He went on to score huge wins at Auto Talks 2020. Jerry Dias helped secure billions in corporate and government funding to bring new contracts, some involving electric vehicles, to Big Three auto plants in Ontario—notably the recently idled GM facility in Oshawa, which will now make pickups. Dias sees these deals as not just good for his members, but also for the country, stimulating investment in the green economy across a range of industries. COVID-19 has changed the way we think about work: we realize the warehouse, food service and manufacturing employees we used to refer to as “low-skilled” are in fact “essential.” Dias aims to harness that realization to help unions reclaim power after decades of eroding membership.
Claire Brownell

It’s a political truism that inflates the importance of Canada’s largest metropolis and enrages everyone else: as goes the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), so goes a federal election. When a party strings together victories in places like Oakville, Mississauga, Newmarket and Ajax, there’s a good chance it’ll win government. Stephen Harper pulled off the feat in 2011, three years after winning a paltry six GTA ridings and being confined to minority rule. Next time around, he nabbed four times as many and got his majority, but the Tories have failed miserably there ever since. In 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals won all but three GTA seats on the way to their own majority. This is likely an election year, so we can once again expect to see pollsters and politicians tripping over each other to figure out what voters at the centre of the universe—fickle, demanding and accustomed to blandishment—want from their leaders.
Nick Taylor-Vaisey

Coated in Teflon and facing weak opposition, Quebec Premier François Legault has enjoyed majority support since his 2018 election—and throughout the pandemic, despite the province’s country-wide lead in virus cases and deaths.

The wily politician has the vibe of a wise uncle from whom you might seek career advice: authoritative, straight-talking, reassuring. He is business royalty, having co-founded aviation giant Air Transat in the ’80s. He is a familiar face, having vaulted straight into Lucien Bouchard’s cabinet in 1998, overseeing education and, briefly, health. Ever the entrepreneur, he co-founded a new political party in 2011, the Coalition Avenir Québec, and has been its only leader.

A majority of Quebecers (and large minorities of Canadians elsewhere) support Legault’s secularism law, which forbids public-facing civil servants from wearing “religious symbols” like turbans and hijabs. Beefed-up language laws are next on the agenda. As other leaders tiptoe around these issues, Legault will be unapologetic.
Marie-Danielle Smith

(Photograph by Sylvie Li)

As qualifications go for chief public health officer during a pandemic, specializations in infectious diseases, immunization and global health security—not to mention a co-writing credit on a report on preparing Canada’s health-care system for a pandemic—are as good as we could ask. No playbook could prepare Theresa Tam for the real thing, but she has calmly and persistently made the case for the simple yet life-altering changes needed to forestall all-out catastrophe. Her early pleas to stay home, practise physical distancing, wash hands and stay off cruise ships (remember those?) helped head off a worst-case scenario during the first wave. Criticism lingers over her evolving stance on mask-wearing and early resistance to strict travel bans, but greater concerns lie ahead: with lockdown fatigue growing amid the second wave, Tam must do her part to ensure Canadians get vaccinated in a sprawling, multi-jurisdictional rollout that can bring this nightmare to an end.
Aaron Hutchins

Starting a new job is intimidating at the best of times, but Tiff Macklem may have taken on the most anxiety-inducing new role of 2020. The federal government appointed him Bank of Canada governor in May, in the thick of the first lockdown that closed businesses across the country and put a record number of Canadians out of work. It’s Macklem’s second shot at the top central bank job after he was passed over for Stephen Poloz in 2013, when Mark Carney left to become governor of the Bank of England. Under Macklem’s leadership, the central bank has stimulated the economy by purchasing government bonds, and has pledged to keep interest rates low—behind-the-scenes measures that are staving off investor panic and total economic meltdown. Expect Macklem to pursue his interest in putting the economy to work fighting climate change as the recovery unfolds.
Claire Brownell

On any given Sunday, more than a million of Quebec’s 8.5 million people are watching Guy Lepage. Yet English Canadians need reminding every few years of Lepage’s impact as host of Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle. He typically interviews celebrities, intellectuals and otherwise influential French Canadians in a group setting—often over a glass of wine to lighten the mood. But Lepage also lands his share of “gets,” such as Omar Khadr’s first major sit-down interview after Khadr’s war crimes sentence expired.

Facing Lepage is obligatory for federal leaders hoping to make inroads with Quebec voters, though none has replicated the success of the late Jack Layton, whose 2011 appearance spurred the NDP’s Orange Wave. Still, whether it’s Jagmeet Singh stating his party wouldn’t take Quebec’s religious-symbol law to court (despite his personal opposition to Bill 21) or Andrew Scheer admitting he smoked pot in his younger days, Lepage gives everyone something to talk about.
Aaron Hutchins

Are you an institution, individual or corporation keen to prove how seriously you treat controversy? Nothing’s more supreme than an ex-Supreme. Retired top-court justices have recently served (and been hired by) public and private interests, providing reports, advice or a patina of credibility. Last year, Michel Bastarache delivered an assessment of the RCMP’s toxic culture, and counselled Rideau Hall amid viceregal turmoil. Thomas Cromwell advised MP Jody Wilson-Raybould during 2019’s SNC-Lavalin affair, which drew in three other former justices. As scandal engulfed the WE Charity, it pointed to the late Peter Cory’s three-paragraph letter on its governance from 2010. Most U.S. Supreme Court justices die before they retire. Canadian justices leave the bench at 75 and then enjoy active careers. In 2021, we can anticipate Morris Fish’s review of the military justice system and a more potent page-turner by former chief justice Beverley McLachlin: the thriller follow-up to her first bestselling novel.
Jason Markusoff

(Courtesy of Kingsdale Advisors)

The adage “If you can see it, you can be it” is supposed to explain why underrepresented groups need to see faces like theirs in positions of influence so they know that they belong there, too. But, as Wes Hall explains it, broadening who sits at the top is just as much about retraining the rest of society to confront deeply ingrained anti-Black systemic racism.

“When I walk into a boardroom and I’m treated like I’m a mail boy, or another low-level employee, the people in that room are not used to seeing people like me in that context,” says the executive chairman and founder of Toronto-based Kingsdale Advisors. “So when they’re seeing more people like me in certain contexts, then it becomes acceptable.”

Read the rest of Shannon Proudfoot’s profile of Wes Hall here.

When Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities nine days after the RCMP arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, they vanished into a justice system controlled by an authoritarian regime that flouts the rule of law even as it claims the opposite. As Canadians demanded justice, tough-on-China experts who knew the lay of the land were thrust into the spotlight. David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, took a rock-ribbed stand against a suggested Meng-for-Michaels prisoner exchange—and gained a devoted following for doing so. Mulroney carried the credibility of an insider and the candour of an outsider. Journalists called constantly. Parliamentarians quoted him. The Canada-China fight might be resolved only when powerful interests in Washington and Beijing strike a deal. But Mulroney’s insistence that Canada never surrender strengthened public demand for values-based foreign policy and will empower ardent China skeptics for years to come.
Nick Taylor-Vaisey

The keys to 24 Sussex—er, Rideau Cottage—could be O’Toole’s this year with the right combination of Liberal bungling and Conservative coalition-building. The Ontario-based Tory leader is courting both Canada-first nationalists and the unionized lunch-bucket crowd, among whom there is some overlap. Still to come: a credible policy on climate change. If he can do all that and keep his party base intact (disdain for Trudeau remains a great unifying force), then more power to him. Much more.
Jason Markusoff

(Photograph by Jenny Hueston)

COVID-19 has battered Canada’s manufacturing sector, but it hasn’t knocked Linda Hasenfratz down. The chief executive of the Guelph, Ont.-based automotive parts manufacturer Linamar got funding from the provincial government in September to roll ventilator parts off its assembly lines, working with medical technology manufacturer Thornhill Medical to help it increase its ventilator production. Hasenfratz is known for being a big-picture thinker: she has a 100-year plan for her business and was diversifying the global company into medical device manufacturing long before the pandemic hit. In the midst of a horrific economic downturn, Linamar still doubled its third-quarter dividend to 12 cents per share and has hired back 94 per cent of its workforce. In early December, the province named her one of nine members of a panel that will oversee distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. If Hasenfratz can put her skills in logistics, supply chain management and planning to the task of getting the vaccine in Canadians’ arms, we may all share the benefits.
Claire Brownell

It was all anyone could talk about, at the time. In early 2020, the RCMP arrested Indigenous protesters for disrupting construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia. In solidarity, people across the country demonstrated on city streets and built rail blockades, calling international attention to their cause.

Under the glare of that spotlight, the traditional leaders of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, led by Chief Woos, saw an opportunity. With pressure mounting on governments to resolve the impasse, the chiefs, with whom protesters had been aligned, came to an agreement with the B.C. and federal governments that would pave the way for title negotiations. A chance at genuine self-governance. A legal stake in the land.

The agreement didn’t mention the pipeline, and some chiefs elected under the band council system have called the process into question. Still, this will prove an important litmus test. With Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in a position to rewrite what a modern nation-to-nation relationship means, the spotlight is still theirs.
Marie-Danielle Smith

(Courtesy of Farah Nosh/Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson)

When two Haida men crossed from Alaska to B.C. by boat—without checking in with the Canada Border Services Agency—to attend the 2018 All Native Basketball Tournament, the duo faced a deportation order that could have barred them from Canada for life. Enter Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson (whose Haida name is Gid7ahl-Gudsllaay Lalaxaaygans), general counsel for the Haida Nation and principal lawyer at Surrey, B.C.-based White Raven Law. She argued the duo should be able to travel freely within Haida territory. The men were soon out of jail, agreeing to exclusion orders that meant they couldn’t return to Canada for one year.

Williams-Davidson, meanwhile, had raised a new and potentially important legal issue—something she does often. Born and raised in Haida Gwaii, she represented her nation before the Supreme Court of Canada arguing for protection of old-growth forest; the result was the 2004 landmark ruling that established the Government of Canada’s duty to consult Indigenous peoples over actions that could affect their Indigenous rights. More recently, Williams-Davidson is seeking a declaration of Indigenous title to Haida Gwaii, including—in what could be a first in Canada—the ocean waters surrounding it.
Aaron Hutchins

The honourable member for Calgary-Nose Hill is the official Opposition’s resident pot-stirrer. By turns cheerfully acerbic, theatrically indignant and perfectly cutting, she holds forth on Twitter and holds the government’s feet to the flame with tactics ranging from surgical to troll-adjacent. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole named Michelle Rempel Garner his health critic in September, making her the chief cross-examiner of the government’s efforts on COVID-19 in the House of Commons, a role that is unlikely to diminish in prominence any time soon.
Shannon Proudfoot

In the early days of Canada’s first wave of COVID-19, Michael Sabia wrote a newspaper op-ed predicting the pandemic would test the government’s ability to restart the economy once the crisis starts to fade. His judgment—and his talents—are about to be put to the test: the day after Health Canada approved its first COVID-19 vaccine, Sabia was introduced as the country’s new deputy finance minister. Most recently chair of the board for the Canada Infrastructure Bank, launched in 2017 by the Liberal government as an arm’s-length Crown corporation to dispatch federal funds for infrastructure projects, Sabia previously spent decades at or near the helms of corporate and financial institutions, repositioning the likes of CN Rail, Bell Canada and Caisse de dépôt for the future. What new ideas he brings to the table is an open question: he’s reportedly been advising the government for years. But if Trudeau leaves a lasting legacy of post-COVID reconstruction, it will bear Sabia’s imprint.
Aaron Hutchins

Hospitals and universities across Toronto bear the names of former Northland Power chief executive James Temerty and his wife, Louise. There’s the Temerty Centre for Therapeutic Brain Intervention at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. And thanks to a $250-million donation announced in late September, the University of Toronto’s medicine department is now the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. The couple, who got started in business by expanding ComputerLand retail stores into a Canada-wide chain, are putting their wealth to work mainly in the country’s health-care sector. The University of Toronto gift will fund research into machine learning in medicine, support Indigenous education and pay for a new home for the faculty, to be called—you guessed it—the James and Louise Temerty Building. The gift was the largest in Canadian history, but in a release announcing it, James Temerty described it as simply “doing our part.”
Claire Brownell

Alberta’s clout in Confederation has declined in step with oil prices, and its premier’s laissez-faire approach to pandemic management has dented his popularity. But Jason Kenney remains a lion of Canadian conservatism’s many movements—fiscal, social and pro-fossil fuel—who is determined to use the remaining two years of his mandate to strengthen the Alberta of his mind’s eye. Kenney’s influence on like-minded leaders in the rest of Canada should not be underestimated: he was an early and prominent endorser of Erin O’Toole’s leadership, and will no doubt wade into a federal election in hope of toppling Trudeau. Meanwhile, Canada’s path to its climate-change goals runs through Kenney, because it requires action in his province. He can either coax resource companies along as they seek to modernize in a changing world, or, with his posturing against Ottawa, become a boulder in the river: securely in place, and impeding the current.
Jason Markusoff

Epidemiologists have laid out the coronavirus stakes with stark facts and clear warnings. David Fisman does it with a Simpsons GIF, or an image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The Harvard-educated professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health is the most colourful and forceful voice demanding swift action to slow the virus’s spread, while fearlessly confronting decision-makers. He’s called for the resignation of Ontario’s equivocating chief health officer, David Williams. When François Legault suggested his province looked relatively good based on a Fisman tweet about an Ontario excess-mortality study, the doctor urged the Quebec premier—en français—not to compare apples to oranges. With fellow Dalla Lana epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite, Fisman developed early simulations predicting how quickly COVID could spread, and he accurately called the timing and severity of the second wave.
Jason Markusoff

(Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan First Nation and doctor of social work, has championed the rights of Indigenous kids for decades. She serves as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, whose litigation against Canada has secured hundreds of thousands of services for First Nations youth. Its landmark victory at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 ordered the federal government to immediately end discriminatory practices, recognize some 165,000 First Nation children’s right to access federal support on par with their non-Indigenous peers and compensate children shortchanged by a two-tier system.

Read the full profile by Marie-Danielle Smith.

(Photograph by Jalani Morgan)

Akim Aliu’s hockey legacy will be much greater than his seven career games in the NHL. First, his tweet about a Calgary Flames head coach using the N-word multiple times to describe Aliu’s dressing-room music gave a glimpse of the blatant racism that has festered in hockey. Then, his essay for the Players’ Tribune titled “Hockey is not for everyone” revealed how the problem wasn’t one bad coach, but rather a system that affords racists—fans, players, coaches—a place in the sport he loves. In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Aliu joined other current and former professional hockey players of colour to found the Hockey Diversity Alliance. But the organization soon cut ties with the NHL, citing the league’s lack of measurable commitments to eradicate systemic racism in the sport. The NHL insists it is committed to diversity in hockey. Aliu has the platform—and the resolve—to hold it accountable.
Aaron Hutchins

(Caitlin Cronenberg /Trunk Archive)

When Elliot Page came out as trans in an Instagram post, his community rejoiced. Trans people typically make the news because they’re being discriminated against or killed, and while the Oscar-nominated star of Juno and the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy nodded to that grim reality in his coming-out post, it was mostly filled with light. “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive,” the Nova Scotian actor wrote. Trans people have gained visibility in recent years, but gains have been met with backlash, and the community has long bemoaned the fact that Caitlyn Jenner, a lifelong Republican, was its highest-profile representative. Having someone like Page to look up to—happy, outspoken, successful—is a gift to trans and cis people alike.
Claire Brownell

(Photograph by Erik Putz)

For the first year and a half that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were imprisoned in China in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou, the people who loved them remained completely—strategically—quiet and hidden from view. Since she broke her silence in June, Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, has become the chief spokesperson for the families. But behind the scenes, she had been Kovrig’s most dedicated advocate all along. The couple is separated, but Kovrig is, as Nadjibulla says, “my person,” and so she has leveraged the broad contacts and strategic thinking cultivated during her career in international relations to work to try to secure his release. The case of Canada’s two Michaels does not appear to have any easy or elegant solution at the ready, but Nadjibulla is unwavering and formidable in what has become her full-time fight.
Shannon Proudfoot

(Photograph by Erik Putz)

She is the first Black Canadian and the first Jewish woman elected permanent leader of a federal party. She is a daughter of immigrants, a long-time Torontonian with a Princeton education. She speaks four languages, including fluent French. Annamie Paul figures her identity and credentials will draw curious new eyeballs to the Green cause. At least, she hopes so. “I would say that electing me is an immediate conversation starter.”

Paul’s politics are a continuation of Elizabeth May’s legacy rather than a departure from it. She has taken to her new job with gusto, flooding reporters’ inboxes after a narrower-than-expected by-election loss. But fewer than 24,000 people voted in a leadership election she won on the eighth ballot. With support for her party hovering around six per cent nationally, polling predicts an uphill battle once the decidedly muted honeymoon is over. Paul might just be up for that.
Marie-Danielle Smith

(Photograph by Luis Mora)

What started as a fill-in internship assignment turned into a 20-year CBC career as movie and pop culture critic, and eventually stints as director of film programs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and on many cultural boards. Of being an Indigenous trailblazer, Wente has said, “The only reason being first matters is so you can open doors wide enough for numbers two to infinity to come through.” Now that he’s chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, Wente will be doing a lot of that.
Shannon Proudfoot

(Photograph by Justin Maxon)

Palihapitiya, a billionaire venture capitalist born in Sri Lanka and raised in Ottawa, has a lot of negative feedback for capitalism in its current form. He’s called his venture capitalist peers “soulless milquetoast,” and told attendees at a San Francisco event that any founder whose start-up fails because of spending too much money on fancy offices and snacks is “a f--king moron.” They may not always like what he has to say, but when Palihapitiya talks, people listen—perhaps because he uses market forces to put his massive wealth to work for the betterment of society. And he has nothing but praise for Canada, particularly when it comes to its social safety net and his alma mater, the University of Waterloo.

Read Claire Brownell’s profile about Palihapitiya, his fund Social Capital, and why he ranks on our Power List.

The Senate is losing Canada’s foremost expert on Indigenous law, but he is far from retiring. Manitoba’s first-ever Indigenous judge, Murray Sinclair sat on the bench for 28 years before serving as chief commissioner to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission’s study of the residential schools system and its wide-ranging calls to action, released in 2015, have loomed large over Canadian politics ever since. “We have described for you a mountain,” Sinclair said in a speech, then. “We have shown you the way to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

Sinclair was appointed to the Senate in 2016 but announced his departure in the fall to focus on mentoring a new generation of Indigenous lawyers in Manitoba, and to finish writing a memoir, Who We Are, slated for 2022. Expect an admonishment of Canadian mountain-climbing efforts therein, and wisdom for the journey up.
Marie-Danielle Smith

(Photograph by Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

Over two horrifying days last April, 22 people in Nova Scotia were killed in a shooting spree that left communities in ruins and troubling questions about how the RCMP responded. The families of the victims demanded answers while governments in Ottawa and Halifax dithered for months on calling a public inquiry to get to the bottom of the Mounties’ conduct in those fateful hours. Finally, in October, three appointed commissioners started their work.

The results of their inquiry could be monumental for a national police force struggling with its underfunded rural policing model, a change-resistant culture and ongoing charges of systemic racism. Michael MacDonald, Leanne J. Fitch and Kim Stanton will face intense pressure to tell uncomfortable truths for the families, and for a police force in need of reform.
Nick Taylor-Vaisey

His New Democratic Party holds the balance of power in a minority Parliament and is the most natural potential ally to the governing Liberals. That bargaining position has led to the achievements Jagmeet Singh’s party is proudest of in a strange and difficult year: an expanded Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), help for students and more paid sick leave. There is still a sense of potential not quite grabbed, though, in both Singh’s leadership and in what should be a receptive moment for Canadians to turn to his party.
Shannon Proudfoot

(Chad Hipolito/CP)

Here’s looking at the first two-term NDP premier in British Columbia’s history. John Horgan’s 2020 snap election paid off, giving his party the highest share of the popular vote in history. It turned out the province’s voters preferred to solidify a stable government during a pandemic roller coaster. Go figure. Horgan’s down-to-earth attitude, his deference (mostly) to beloved public health guru Bonnie Henry and his (so far) disaster-averse handling of B.C.’s stickiest wickets have rewarded him. In early December, his was the highest approval rating at the First Ministers table. Of course, after the victory high comes the hangover. With the free rein of majority government comes heightened accountability. When you’re as undeniably in charge as Horgan is now, it’s hard to blame problems on the other guys. Problems such as, say, the controversial, no-win-scenario Site C hydroelectric dam project. So, here’s looking at him.
Marie-Danielle Smith

(Courtesy of Public Policy Forum)

The Tories in Ottawa feast on scandal, always hunting for the next ethical lapse or spending spree that might knock the Liberals off their game. Sean Speer, a big-ideas machine and former economic adviser to Stephen Harper, takes a longer view. Speer publishes papers at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and serves as director at Ontario 360, a think tank based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. His arguments on economic growth and recovery are credible enough that Liberals have a hard time disagreeing with him. He wrote that no party is speaking to the “forgotten people” of Canada who struggle to shift to an “intangible economy” based on intellectual property and data. Those voters are up for grabs. Will the Conservatives listen to one of their keenest thinkers and build a tent for them?
Nick Taylor-Vaisey

Before she won her Nobel Prize for physics in 2018, Donna Strickland did not have her own Wikipedia page. That now seems a criminal oversight. The University of Waterloo professor was only the third woman to become a Nobel laureate in her field—and the prestigious annual prize has been around since 1901.

She’s since become a role model to girls and women in science, though Strickland didn’t set out to highlight gender bias. At the helm of Waterloo’s Ultrafast Laser Group, where her team works on developing high-intensity laser systems, she’s instead advocated for science itself—including the need for more curiosity-driven research that will lead to the next generation of advancements. Her own Nobel, after all, was the result of curiosity-driven, collaborative research in the 1980s on a technique called “chirped pulse amplification,” which led to breakthroughs in fields such as medical imaging and corrective eye surgery.
Aaron Hutchins

(Courtesy of Bernard Thibodeau/House of Commons)

U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is arguably the savviest left-wing politician on the world stage at the moment, so Leah Gazan being tipped by multiple lefty observers as Canada’s potential answer to AOC is high praise indeed. The rookie New Democrat MP defeated Liberal incumbent Robert-Falcon Ouellette in 2019 to represent Winnipeg Centre, and she describes herself as “a proud socialist” from an activist family. (She is a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation in Saskatchewan, though she’s spent most of her years in Winnipeg.) Before launching a political career, Gazan was a lecturer at the University of Winnipeg and a community organizer involved with Idle No More. She has introduced a motion in the House of Commons to convert the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) into a permanent guaranteed basic income, writing in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “If we are all in this together, then this government must commit to bold actions to ensure we can all survive the pandemic.”
Shannon Proudfoot

(Photograph by Erik Putz)

While traditional newspapers and private broadcasters continue their long spirals of ad-revenue decline and newsroom shrinkage, the good-news stories from the media world tend to be independent (and mostly online) outlets that have sprung up in the last few years. San Grewal saw a large news desert thirsting for dogged, impactful journalistic attention and started Brampton and Mississauga-focused digital news site The Pointer, after Patrick Brown's controversial run for mayor. The Calgary’s The Sprawl and the Halifax Examiner both started as one-person operations that have added stables of paid freelancers. When Maureen Googoo’s Atlantic Indigenous site Ku’ku’kwes News covered last fall’s Mi’kmaw fishing rights tensions, her crowdfunding skyrocketed and her website repeatedly crashed from heavy traffic. As the big guys get little, many of the little ones are getting bigger. Read more about why these indie newsmakers are on our Power List.

Read more by Jason Markusoff about why these indie newsmakers are on our Power List.

(Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

During the crowning moment of Masai Ujiri’s career as a basketball executive, as he tried to join his team on the court for its NBA victory celebration, an Oakland, Calif.-area sheriff’s deputy shoved the Toronto Raptors president twice, not bothering to look at Ujiri’s credentials. Ujiri didn’t blink. He shoved the police officer back, then headed for the floor. When the officer sued for alleged assault, Ujiri didn’t settle. He counter-sued—and the cop’s body camera footage, unearthed months later, provided more than enough evidence for the public to see yet another police officer using unjustified force against a Black man. (The case is still before the courts.) Ujiri is the first to note that his success affords him the privilege and financial resources to fight battles others can’t. The Nigerian-born Canadian is only the second Black executive to win an NBA title. He is personal friends with Barack Obama. The non-profit organization he co-founded in 2003, Giants of Africa, uses basketball as a social development tool for African youth. But his greatest challenge in 2021 may be figuring out how to retool an underperforming Raptors roster fans had expected to compete for another championship.
Aaron Hutchins

You could laugh off astrophysics as an appropriate background for the study of election polling, but you would be wrong. Philippe J. Fournier’s election projection model has its roots in a big bang simulator. His analysis, under the banner of 338Canada, swaps opinion for scientific rigour: “All that matters is hypotheses, and whether you can check those hypotheses.” Since 2018, the Quebec teacher and astrophysicist (and Maclean’s contributing editor) has called seven elections correctly (six provincial, one federal), identifying seat-winners with 90 per cent accuracy. In a likely election year, his data will be all the more essential.
Marie-Danielle Smith

You could argue—rather easily—that there was only one sane, trustworthy voice in the cacophonic shouting match that was the WE Charity scandal. It belonged to Michelle Douglas, the organization’s former board chair, who abruptly resigned after raising concerns (per her testimony) about the financial rationale for pandemic layoffs. There are better reasons to pay attention to Douglas than her injection of candour into a messy, complicated political brawl. Honourably discharged during the military’s “LGBT Purge” in 1989 for being a lesbian, Douglas’s legal fight led to a reversal of the military policy. Her interventions have since supported landmark cases for the community. She is a co-founder of the Rainbow Railroad and secured federal support for an upcoming LGBTQ2+ monument in Ottawa. Even if her name in 2020 is synonymous with lucid parliamentary Q&A, Douglas’s lifetime of advocacy has made an undeniable impact. What will she do next?
Marie-Danielle Smith

Where Justin Trudeau saw a blueprint for “smarter, greener, more inclusive cities,” this open-government advocate saw the conversion of public land into a tech behemoth’s neighbourhood-sized data collection laboratory. Google sister company Sidewalk Labs abandoned its plan last May to create a sensor-strewn “smart city” on Toronto’s lakefront, citing the pandemic’s economic ravages. But it came after three years of steady warnings from activists about Sidewalk’s plans for surveillance and civic control that would create privacy and governance nightmares. Notable critics included BlackBerry founder Jim Balsillie, but the grassroots resistance was led largely by Bianca Wylie, who mixed her backgrounds in IT and civic engagement into advocacy. CityLab called her the “Jane Jacobs of smart cities.” The co-founder of Tech Reset Canada isn’t done: “Forget building back better; we need to build our technology differently,” she wrote in December, as a senior fellow for CIGI, the Balsillie-led think tank.
Jason Markusoff

Teara Fraser is officially a real-world hero. In 2019, less than a decade after she earned her commercial pilot’s licence, she became the first Indigenous woman in Canada ever to run an airline when she launched Richmond, B.C.-based Iskwew Air (iskwew means “woman,” in Cree). In December, DC Comics featured her story in a graphic novel, Wonderful Women of History. Fraser told one interviewer she hopes to “honour the women that I’m alongside by continuing to dismantle systems of oppression and to stand for truth, justice and equality.”
Nick Taylor-Vaisey

(Photograph by Jah Grey)

The lead physician at the transgender care clinic Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines, Ont., is a world-renowned expert, giving talks and educating her peers on providing health care to trans patients. Carys Massarella recently found a new avenue for that advocacy, appearing in two series on Amazon Prime’s OUTtv channel—one that follows her trans patients as she provides medical care during their transitions; another that examines how trans women are redefining beauty standards. Massarella seeks to end the discrimination her patients face in other medical settings. She co-authored a study that found more than one in five transgender Ontarians have avoided emergency-room visits because they think they’ll be treated poorly. Attitudes in medicine are changing, slowly, but access to gender-affirming health care remains spotty across the country. Massarella’s clinic serves as an important and too-rare supportive environment for trans people in Canada.
Claire Brownell

(Photograph by Dimitri Aspinall)

Canada has a racism problem. And while it’s easy to look south of the border, comparing ourselves favourably to a country grappling with police brutality, white supremacy, systemic racism in schools and a disproportionately high number of African-Americans in prisons, Desmond Cole’s tireless work as a journalist and advocate provides an insistent reminder that Canada, too, must confront these injustices. His first book, The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, is a chronicle of 2017, in which he explores deep-rooted anti-Black racial injustices across the country that got too little attention on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. The book also provides insight into Cole’s personal experiences, including his decision to leave a high-profile columnist gig with the Toronto Star—a liberal bastion of the mainstream media—after his boss told Cole his activism ran counter to the paper’s rules on journalism. His propensity to take action shows no sign of waning: only two days after winning the 2020 Toronto Book Award for The Skin We’re In, police in Hamilton arrested Cole while he protested at city hall alongside Defund Hamilton Police demonstrators.
Aaron Hutchins

Natural light and the malleability of wood inform Alfred Waugh’s architecture, as do structures like wigwams and Salish longhouses. So does the culture shock he experienced as an Indigenous student moving from Yellowknife to campuses in the South. Waugh’s curving, sunken-in-earth Indigenous House at the University of Toronto Scarborough will be his latest contribution to post-secondary institutions seeking to better serve Indigenous communities. It follows acclaimed projects at the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria. The president of B.C.-based Formline Architecture leads a new generation of First Nations and Métis designers, who burst onto the international stage at the 2018 Venice Biennale with an exhibit called “Unceded.” In November, Waugh was named lead designer for Saskatoon’s $134-million central library to, as he put it, “bridge the gap between Indigenous ways of knowing and western knowledge...where oral tradition can coexist with the written word.”
Jason Markusoff

When he was prime minister, Brian Mulroney called the well-sourced and determined Robert Fife a “f--king kneecapper.” Last year, Mulroney granted multiple exclusive interviews to the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief, a sign of how the most feared journalist on Parliament Hill is also among its most respected. Fife has covered politics in Ottawa since 1978, when the current PM was a grade-schooler in town. When Stephen Harper was in charge, Fife exposed the Senate expense scandal that ensnared Mike Duffy and cost Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright his job. With Justin Trudeau in power, Fife set much of the 2019 political agenda by helping break news about top aides pressuring Jody Wilson-Raybould in the SNC-Lavalin affair. Lately, he’s shone a light in murky corners of Canada’s fraught relationship with China. It’s hard to think of anyone with more power to shape next year’s Power List than Fife.
Jason Markusoff

Canada

A promise to Michael

Vina Nadjibulla and other family members have been waging a seemingly impossible fight to free her husband from a Chinese prison. After two torturous years, what does Canada owe ‘the two Michaels’?

Michael Kovrig walks at least 7,000 steps a day in laps of his cell, along with doing push-ups and planks and practising yoga and meditation. Among his few possessions are a grey uniform, a bar of soap, two Hello Kitty washcloths and a small set of matching plastic cups and bowls. He can read a limited number of books his family sends, but he is allotted only a few hours each month with a pen and paper to write letters and process his thoughts. The world beyond the prison gates ground to a halt over the last year because of the pandemic, but Kovrig, cut off in his own state of suspended animation, was oblivious to it all.

He has always been disciplined and strong-willed—the kind of person who couldn’t just let it go after 20 minutes when his computer was on the fritz—so the spare, regimented life he has constructed in a Beijing prison cell is not exactly a surprise to those who know him best. But they have been caught off-guard by the sheer grit he’s shown. The tiny flashes of dry wit and glimmering hope that surface in his letters and his conversations with consular officials tell them that he’s still there, somehow.

“He always tells me, ‘I’ve got this day to day. Just get me out,’ ” says Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla.

But after more than two years of imprisonment in China, Kovrig and Michael Spavor—his own family has elected to stay silent, but he is the other half of Canada’s “two Michaels” and facing the same deprivation in a prison cell in Dandong, on the North Korean border—appear no closer to freedom. They were detained by Chinese officials in December 2018, in implicit retaliation for Canada’s arrest nine days earlier of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, and the two men have since been formally arrested and charged with espionage, which means a virtually certain guilty verdict.

Michael Kovrig (Michael Kovrig/Facebook)

The geopolitical threads binding them to their prison cells are deep and tangled, but also implacably simple in their most basic form. Meng is a figure of towering symbolic importance in China; Canada arrested her at the behest of the United States under the terms of the extradition treaty with our closest neighbour; China has made it apparent that the two Michaels don’t go free until Meng does; Canada has a mechanism by which it could end Meng’s extradition at the discretion of the justice minister, but the implications of surrendering to hostage diplomacy could be enormous. A few paths to a tidier resolution remain open, with different degrees of likelihood or potential fallout attached to each, but so far, none of the basic elements have shifted over the last two years.

READ: China kidnapped two Canadians. What will it take to free them?

The intractable nature of the fight to free the men begins with the identity of the prisoner currently ensconced in her Vancouver mansion under house arrest. Meng Wanzhou is the daughter of Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, intertwined with his running of the company for 20 years, says Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “She’s the daughter of the founder, so she is like a princess,” she says. “People know she’s one of the core members of Ren Zhengfei’s inner circle.”

But there is a symbolic as well as a literal dimension to Meng’s identity, says Jonathan Manthorpe, a former foreign correspondent and author of Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada. “They call themselves the Chinese Communist Party, but they look far more like a medieval aristocracy,” he says. “She is important both as a person who comes from within this elite aristocracy, but also as a symbol of what they want China’s future to be as an important corporate entity, a global entity.” And now that Meng is being pursued through the courts by the U.S. on fraud and conspiracy charges, with Canada as a proxy in the extradition process, her legal difficulties have become impossibly freighted. “For the country, she has now been turned into this symbol of the victimization of the nation and also national pride,” says Sun. “She is the symbol of the American unfair persecution of Chinese companies.”

Michael Spavor (Courtesy of www.freemichaelspavor.com)

Michael Spavor (Courtesy of freemichaelspavor.com)

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa has repeatedly insisted that Kovrig and Spavor’s imprisonment is unrelated to Meng, and that Meng’s arrest is an unjust political manoeuvre. “It is entirely out of the U.S. government’s political agenda to suppress Chinese high-tech enterprises,” Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu said in December. “And Canada played a very disgraceful role in this process.” Sun reads the offended posture as both real and strategically feigned. The Chinese genuinely believe their citizen has been treated unfairly and that Canada only did this as a political favour to the U.S., she says, and also that Canada should have said no to the U.S. or found a way to give China a heads-up. “There’s an inescapable situation here: the Chinese Communist Party cares more about the fate of one red princess, Meng Wanzhou, than it does about the relationship with Canada,” says Manthorpe. “They’ve made it very plain that they’re going to go to the wall for Meng Wanzhou.”

RELATED: Huawe’s Meng Wanzhou: The world’s most wanted woman

Because of that immutable fact, behind the news headlines, loud political debates and quiet diplomatic efforts of the last two years, two families have spent more than 760 days fighting a frustrating, difficult battle to win freedom for the two Michaels. The men themselves are at once utterly cut off from everything and everyone, invisible in their lonely purgatory, but also at the very heart of a swirling network of loved ones, government officials and advocates trying to help them and a mortally offended superpower that seems to perceive them as living, breathing chess pieces.

***

Nadjibulla and Kovrig met as graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2001. When they were both working at the United Nations—Kovrig with the Canadian mission and Nadjibulla with the Development Fund for Women—he drew her into the empty General Assembly hall one day, ostensibly to take photos to send to his grandfather, and then proposed. “The General Assembly hall is a place for announcing commitments to the world,” he said at the time. “Our romance has been international, so it seemed appropriate to make the commitment on international territory.”

They have since separated, but he remains, as she describes it, “my person.” Her work with various UN agencies often took her into war zones, and they had an agreement that if anything bad ever happened, he would find a way to get her out. “It was always going to be more about me. I thought I was going to get the better end of that bargain,” Nadjibulla says with a small laugh. “That was definitely a promise we had made to each other many, many years ago, and it’s a promise I am now keeping. And it’s an honour.”

Kovrig (left) and Nadjibulla in New York; he proposed in an empty UN General Assembly hall (Courtesy of Vina Nadjibulla)

Kovrig (left) and Nadjibulla in New York; he proposed in an empty UN General Assembly hall (Courtesy of Vina Nadjibulla)

Nadjibulla has been the public face and voice representing the families of the two men, while working furiously behind the scenes to secure their freedom and ensure they are not forgotten. “He has been the most important person in my life for almost 20 years, and we have been through so much together,” she says. “He is in a fight for his life, and I feel I’m in a position to help, and I will do whatever it takes to fulfill that promise.”

From the outside, the last two years may have looked like torturous stasis, but for Nadjibulla and Kovrig’s sister, Ariana Botha, the time has unfolded in distinct phases. For the first six months after Kovrig and Spavor were detained, there was very little information available to their families while they were in solitary confinement. During those months, it felt to Nadjibulla like Kovrig, who turns 49 in February, could be released at any moment and the whole thing declared a misunderstanding because the men hadn’t been formally arrested. That chapter closed on May 16, 2019. “It felt very hopeful,” she says. “So then the formal arrest was a very hard milestone.”

In those early months, Botha, who lives in Toronto, was sometimes reduced to learning updates about her older brother from the news. “I found myself just obsessively poring over the internet, googling what might show up today,” she says. “And it’s a bit destructive to do things like that.” Each time a potential development arose—an important meeting, some government official raising the issue on the world stage—it buoyed their hopes, but then every one of those “this is it” moments led to nothing, or seemed only to make things worse.

READ: The calm hand of Marc Garneau

Botha’s sons are 10 and 12 years old, and while they possess that beautiful solipsism of childhood, they’re old enough to know their mom is struggling sometimes. They understand the basics of what’s happened to their uncle, but how do you explain a trade war or the machinations of U.S. President Donald Trump when most adults can’t make sense of it? “Then their uncle’s face will flash on the screen and, oh, they’re talking about Michael in the news again,” Botha says. “I see little hints of how it upsets them and bothers them, and how could it not?”

Even for her, there is a surreal split to watching this global news story play out. “It’s a bizarre feeling to have something so huge and so important going on, somebody that you care about and that you love involved in something so complex, and suffering, and feel so helpless and also uninvolved in it,” she says. “I feel like, ‘God, there must be something I can do,’ but I am so powerless in this.”

Nadjibulla has channelled that same impulse—along with the skills she developed as an international affairs specialist—into the full-time job of advocating for Kovrig. She toggles between monitoring high-level geopolitical issues, consulting with an international roster of contacts and experts, keeping tabs on the Canadian government’s work and the extradition proceedings in a Vancouver courtroom, along with handling the quotidian details that might make Kovrig’s life behind bars a little more tolerable: which books to send or how to convince Chinese authorities to allow him more time to write. She is in regular touch with officials from Global Affairs Canada, now-former Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office (now helmed by Marc Garneau) and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I kind of feel like I am wearing glasses that have a telescope and a microscope,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s also probably the most profound mission of my life, the one that actually gives me such a sense of . . . ” She pauses here to search for the right word before continuing. “Purpose. I feel like I’m learning things every day.” Nadjibulla comes across as exceptionally deliberate and cautious, weighing each word and thought before dispatching them into a world where inflaming tensions between global superpowers could make her husband’s everyday life even more difficult. “It has been a heart-expanding experience, hands-down. I feel like my heart keeps growing every day,” she says, for one brief moment losing her composure, before returning to her usual meditative mode.

After the chaotic radio silence of the first six months, a period of relative consolation followed between June 2019 and January 2020, thanks to monthly consular visits. The Canadian embassy in Beijing operated as the family’s proxy eyes, ears and hands, passing letters back and forth and bringing books to Kovrig, relaying verbal messages and offering observations about his physical and emotional condition. In his letters, he would request specific books, including War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft; A Short History of Nearly Everything; World Order by Henry Kissinger; and Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump. He and his family formed a slow-motion book club, in which he would jot down thoughts on one of the books he had read and ask them to read the same one and send their own reflections in their next letter.

READ: The next big threat facing the Trudeau Liberals: China

His family knows they cannot say anything delicate related to his case, so they stick to broader reassurances that everyone at home is healthy so he doesn’t need to worry about them. “I also reassure him that he’s not forgotten, that it’s not just me and the family that are working for him,” Nadjibulla says. “That there’s a growing group of Canadians and people around the world that care, that he needs to continue to stay strong because he will be free, we will come to the other side of this.”

The public glimpses they have offered of Kovrig’s letters are poetic and expansive in tone. In one, he paraphrased the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been harmed.” He signed off, “Rest assured I remain resolute and resilient. You must be relentless. Yours enduringly, Michael.” At another point, he wrote, “If there’s one faint silver lining to this hell, it’s this: trauma carved caverns of psychological pain through my mind. As I strive to heal and recover, I find myself filling those gulfs with a love for you and for life that is vast, deep and more profound and comforting than what I’ve ever experienced before.”

But Botha also sees her family’s dark and sarcastic sense of humour in her brother’s letters: he writes about how he works out daily, but only showers once a week, so he feels pity for his cellmates. “He can write these long, beautiful letters, but that shows us he’s still there, every part of him,” she says

Over the same months that Kovrig and Spavor’s families have been struggling to stay in touch with them and secure their freedom, a through-the-looking-glass parallel world has unfolded in a Vancouver courtroom with Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case.

Extradition occurs in three stages: in the first, Department of Justice officials decide whether to proceed with an extradition hearing if basic requirements are met; the second stage—where Meng’s case currently sits—is the judicial phase involving the hearing before a superior court judge; the third is the ministerial phase, in which the justice minister must decide whether to surrender someone to another country if the court determines the extradition can proceed. That decision must be made by the minister alone, and the justice department says “the government’s practice” is for department officials to handle everything else on a delegated basis up until that point so that the minister can “maintain his objectivity” until he is required to make the final decision.

The public debate over the Canadian federal government’s handling of the Meng-Michaels dilemma—and, on a deeper level, what a government owes its citizens—has fractured into a philosophical divide between principle and pragmatism. The former group believes that for Canada to capitulate to China’s demands and free Meng would amount to a prisoner swap and validate this tactic for China or any other country that may have a future bone to pick. On the other side is the argument that China will do as China does regardless of what puny-tough stances Canada might adopt, and because two people are suffering right now, the government should simply find a way to get them to safety and worry about the possible consequences another day. Through that lens, Justice Minister David Lametti’s capacity to intervene in Meng’s extradition is key to the belief among some critics that the government has a path to get Kovrig and Spavor back home, but is refusing to take it.

The detention centre in Dandong, on the North Korean border, where Spavor is being held (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail/CP)

The detention centre in Dandong, on the North Korean border, where Spavor is being held (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail/CP)

In its public statements over the first year and a half of the case, the federal government repeatedly invoked rule of law and the importance of Canada’s judiciary operating free of political influence in response to questions about whether Lametti would intervene. In response, Nadjibulla, together with former justice minister Allan Rock and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour—both of whom she describes as “supporters”—sought a legal opinion from prominent defence lawyer Brian Greenspan in May 2020. He sent a 10-page memo to the government, arguing that not only could Lametti step in any time he liked, but given the weakness of the case, the fact that Canada does not support the sanctions against Iran that underlie the fraud allegations, and the “political undertone” of the pursuit of Huawei “as part of the American government’s larger trade war with China,” he would be standing on firm ground to do exactly that.

The justice department says that no minister has halted an extradition case before hearings began since the Extradition Act was established in 1999. Of 258 extradition cases from the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year to December 2020, a justice minister stepped in to stop 26 of them after the court decision was rendered, the department says. The government has made it clear, perhaps belatedly, that regardless of what Lametti is permitted to do, in practice, he will not step into the Meng extradition until the final stage.

Meng’s first obvious path to freedom through the courts closed in May 2020, when a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the extradition case could proceed because the charges against her met the standard of “double criminality,” meaning that what she is accused of in the U.S. would also be a crime in Canada. Hearings are expected to last through most of this year, resuming in February, with Meng’s lawyers next presenting arguments about alleged improprieties in her arrest and questioning, contending that the U.S. misled Canada on the strength of its evidence and that the case has been politicized in what amounts to an abuse of process.

Attorney Donald Bayne believes that last approach holds the strongest possibility for Meng’s extradition to be halted by the courts. “This is a good argument with good judicial precedent in Canada, on a very similar fact situation,” he says. Bayne was the lawyer for Ottawa professor Hassan Diab, who was extradited to France in 2014 in relation to a 1980 Paris synagogue bombing and spent three years behind bars before the case fell apart without ever going to trial; he is also a legal adviser to Nadjibulla, and his law partner Ian Carter is part of Meng’s defence team. The precedent Bayne refers to is a unanimous 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that halted the extradition of two men to the U.S. in part because a district attorney warned in a media interview that they would receive harsher sentences and be sexually assaulted in prison if they dragged out the process.

In Meng’s case, her lawyers have pointed to Trump’s comments a few days after her arrest that he “would certainly intervene” if he thought it would help a trade deal with China. Some observers point to that as the moment when Canada had its best justification to halt the extradition, but it’s useful to remember that at the time, Canada was “in the middle of a full crisis” with the U.S., says Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. “They didn’t do that because they knew that Trump would have gone ballistic on the NAFTA negotiations,” he says. “Canada lost its voice on foreign policy issues about that time because they didn’t dare criticize Trump.”

READ: Meng Wanzhou is ready for her close-up

It’s part of what Saint-Jacques calls “the appeasement strategy” of the Trudeau government toward China initially: working back channels, installing Dominic Barton as ambassador, with his deep business ties in the county from his years at McKinsey & Company, and expecting common sense to prevail. Early on, the delicacy of the government’s response to China was such that an official with Global Affairs asked both Saint-Jacques and David Mulroney, the ambassador to China before him, to curb their public comments in hopes that the government could speak with a unified voice; neither was interested in complying. “They had to come to the conclusion at some point that they were going nowhere, and in fact they were a bit naive,” Saint-Jacques says. “It was just recently that this finally sunk in in Ottawa and they have decided to change their tune.”

Saint-Jacques has also been one of the most prominent advocates that Canada not bow to Beijing’s pressure tactics. “If you agree to that, you’re toast, and it can be repeated not only by China but by other countries—Russia or Saudi Arabia—that will see that the Canadians will buckle,” he says. “This is a matter of principle. And that’s why I’m saying we have to get together like-minded countries to oppose this kind of behaviour. These poor two guys are paying a price, but let’s be firm to avoid that other people be faced with the same problem in the future.”

This is not an opinion he wears lightly. Saint-Jacques was ambassador in 2014 when Kevin and Julia Garratt, Canadians who had been living in China for 30 years, were detained and accused of spying. Julia Garratt was released on bail after six months, but her husband spent two years in prison before he was deported and returned to Canada. A younger diplomat was working at the Canadian embassy along with Saint-Jacques throughout the Garratts’ ordeal: Michael Kovrig. “Michael Kovrig, when he was arrested, knew exactly what was going to happen to him,” Saint-Jacques says. “Because he had seen what happened to Kevin Garratt.”

Now retired, the former ambassador tries to walk five kilometres every day, and as he does, he thinks about his former colleague walking a daily circuit in his cell. “I know very well the consequences of what I advocate,” he says of a refusal to give in to China.

***

Only once in the last two years have Kovrig and his family heard each other’s voices. In March 2020, when Kovrig’s father was gravely ill, Chinese authorities allowed a brief phone call. Nadjibulla recites like an incantation the fact that it lasted 16 minutes and 47 seconds, despite the fact that they were allotted 15 minutes.

She was with Botha and her father at the elder Kovrig’s house—they all live in Toronto—and they got only brief advance warning. “It was also on my cellphone, so there was something also very normal about it, to hear his voice on my cellphone,” Nadjibulla says. They had him on speaker phone and Kovrig’s first words were “V, is that you?” He didn’t know the call was happening, but didn’t miss a beat, she says. “The moment that he understood it was us on the phone, he just got into the conversation as if it hadn’t been all those days,” she says. The call was a much more direct way for them to feel out what they always looked for in his letters: was he basically okay, was he still Michael? “To hear his voice,” Botha says. “Bittersweet doesn’t even express it strongly enough.”

In his letters, Nadjibulla could see Kovrig choosing to write “from a place of strength and resilience” for his family’s sake, but she worried about his underlying psychological state. Those worries were dramatically heightened from January 2020 through to the fall, during which time Chinese authorities halted consular visits, ostensibly because of the risks posed by COVID-19. In that time, Kovrig’s family only received a couple of packages of letters from him, and their worries for his well-being have grown in that silence. “There is always a little bit of anxiety: what if he’s given up, what if he’s despairing completely, what if something has changed for him?” Nadjibulla says. “What is that last thing that’s going to be too much?”

There have been occasional creature comforts offered to Kovrig in prison: on Christmas Eve last year, he was given Pizza Hut Hawaiian pizza (he hates that type), on Christmas Day KFC drumsticks and on Chinese New Year, he was offered dumplings. His media diet is severely curtailed—no news or current events—but he was shown Mary Poppins Returns four times and had three screenings of Kung Fu Panda. Now that his imprisonment has stretched on for two years, a big focus for Nadjibulla is trying to find ways to improve his day-to-day living conditions or, at the very least, make sure nothing further is taken away from him.

For the first year and a half, Kovrig’s family remained silent and out of the spotlight in their advocacy efforts. “We were so petrified of doing anything that might harm their situation worse than it already was,” says Botha. In June 2020, several things coalesced at once to push them out of the shadows. On June 19, Kovrig and Spavor were formally charged with spying on national secrets. Nadjibulla felt like so much time and effort had gone into trying to find a resolution, and it still ended with charges in a Chinese justice system with a 99 per cent conviction rate. “The legal process in China can now only end one way, which is a very long sentence—life imprisonment, death, whatever,” she says. “And so the stakes just became very, very high.”

At the same time, it seemed to the family that the urgency of the story was in danger of fading in the public’s mind, and people needed to know who Kovrig was and what all this had been like for him and his family. “It kind of felt like there needed to be an injection of humanity into the conversation,” Nadjibulla says. She made the rounds of select media outlets, offering Canadians for the first time a glimpse of the real people caught in this global tit-for-tat.

At the same moment, the Greenspan legal opinion hit the public radar by way of a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed by 19 boldface political and diplomatic names—including Rock, Arbour, former Foreign Affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s former ambassador to the U.S., Derek Burney, and Robert Fowler, a former diplomat and PMO policy adviser who spent 130 days as a hostage in Niger—urging that Lametti end Meng’s extradition and bring the two Michaels home. “Of course, it does not sit well with anyone to yield to bullying or blackmail,” the letter said. “However, resisting China’s pressure is no guarantee that it will never be applied again in the future.” The whole affair was “making it impossible for your government to define and pursue an effective foreign policy toward China,” the signatories argued.

READ: Inside the Canadian establishment’s fight with Trudeau over China

Unlike the legal opinion, the letter was never meant to go public. The fact that it did was “fatal” to what it was trying to accomplish, because it made the signatories look like they were acting in bad faith rather than trying to start a real discussion with the Prime Minister and his staff, says a person with knowledge of the effort. “It made it impossible for the PM to give any answer except no,” they say. “There wasn’t even scope for discussion after that, it was completely out of the question. It’s a damn shame.”

But in response to the flurry of public debate and media coverage that resulted, Trudeau abruptly offered a very different answer on why his government would not set Meng free in a tacit exchange for the two Michaels. “I respect these distinguished Canadians who put forward that letter, but I deeply disagree with them,” he said. “The reality is releasing Meng Wanzhou to resolve a short-term problem would endanger thousands of Canadians who travel to China and around the world by letting countries know that a government can have political influence over Canada by randomly arresting Canadians.” He understood the “heart-wrenching ordeal” of those two men, Trudeau said, but it was “always” his duty to think about what would keep all Canadians safe. “It is not just the two Michaels who are at question here,” he said. “It is every Canadian who travels to China or anywhere else overseas.”

Asked about these comments in an interview, Nadjibulla begins nodding eagerly before the sentence is even finished. In soliciting that legal opinion, they hoped to “open up the space for a real conversation,” she says, and Trudeau’s response at least accomplished that. “That was the moment where it was no longer about ‘can the government do so within the rule-of-law framework,’ it became about, ‘We shouldn’t.’ That’s a very different conversation,” she says. “We respect that. As the family, it’s very hard to hear, but it’s a line of argument that one can then engage with.”

Ariana Botha (Photograph by Eric Putz)

Botha’s response is more blunt. “I’ll be honest, after the first year, I thought, ‘If I hear “rule of law” one more time, I’m going to scream,’ ” she says. “It’s such an easy, dismissive statement.” She readily owns the fact that she does not have an impartial response to the argument that the most expedient path to her brother’s freedom might endanger others in the future. “This is close to me, and I would like him to imagine that this is his son or his brother or his best friend,” she says of Trudeau. “Would he still make the same decisions, would he still make the same choices? Is his brother expendable and just unfortunate collateral damage in a geopolitical battle?”

It is easy to understand why the people closest to the men in those prison cells land firmly in the pragmatism camp in the debate over how to resolve this. Kovrig’s father, Bennett Kovrig, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, argues that the most obvious way out of this “deadlock” was advanced months ago in that letter. “The Americans would have understood our priorities,” he wrote in response to questions from Maclean’s. “The government responded with a prim reminder that Canada did not negotiate with terrorists . . . Predictably, Beijing took offence, Washington remained largely indifferent, and the two Canadians are in jail to this day.” Now, Ottawa “waits placidly for a face-saving compromise” between the U.S. Department of Justice and Huawei, but it has painted itself into a corner by rejecting the earlier course of action that could have won his son’s freedom, he says.“Having performed admirably given the political constraints, Canada’s diplomats could be becoming uneasy at serving a government that is so neglectful of even their one-time colleague Michael Kovrig,” he wrote.

Nadjibulla points out that she is not arguing for a pragmatic solution 10 days into the whole affair, but after two years of these two men being stuck. She maintains that if there are downsides or dangers to the Canadian government intervening, there should at least be a debate and an attempt to find ways to act while minimizing the fallout. “There are two innocent Canadians in immediate danger, and if we can help them, we must,” says Nadjibulla. “It’s a simple obligation of the government to do so.”

Ask Gar Pardy, a former diplomat and retired director general of consular affairs, about what should be done and you can practically hear him waving a hand in exasperated dismissal over the phone. “All countries do this one way or another,” he says. “Some people try to make large principles involved here, but I mean, this is the way the world is and if you’re not prepared to play that game, then you’ve got to be prepared to sacrifice the lives of your own citizens.” The only real debate is how you massage or obscure the ransom terms you pay, he says, but it’s absurd to think you will stop this sort of thing from happening by taking a firm stand on one individual case. “Something awful is going to happen anyway, but what you do is deal with the problem you have at hand, and that’s the well-being of two Canadians who have been clapped up for two years. Deal with that issue, and if something happens down the road, you deal with it,” he says. “That’s how foreign policy works.”

As long as the two Canadians have been imprisoned, the government has taken great care to note each time another country or multilateral body speaks up on Canada’s behalf. The message is that this is not a Canada-China problem, but a China-and-the world problem. Champagne has emphasized this recently in describing how he believes the two Michaels are seen through international eyes. “Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are not only Canadians, they are citizens of a liberal democracy and we know that arbitrary detention is an issue of great concern for many countries around the world,” the foreign minister said in a statement to Maclean’s. “Our government believes the best approach to common challenges is to act in concert with others in order to have the maximum impact.”

Multiple close observers of this case have all independently used the same word—elegant—to describe a hypothetical path to freedom for the two Michaels that they see as the most advantageous. To Saint-Jacques, the tidy exit could arrive in a B.C. court decision against extraditing Meng, and he does not see that outcome as improbable.

Meng returns to house arrest at her Vancouver mansion after a January 2020 court date (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Meng returns to house arrest at her Vancouver mansion after a January 2020 court date (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

For Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, the elegant solution is a made-in-America one. In his mind, the entire problem started in Washington, and he has a “gut feeling” it will end there, too. He cannot imagine Meng serving a long prison sentence in the U.S., simply because there are too many big political and economic arguments against it, and Houlden suspects that at some point, Washington will simply decide they need to be done with the whole thing. “I think even the United States may have miscalculated how important China viewed Madame Meng,” he says.“That solution is somewhat elegant: they started the problem, they would end it, and we—at great cost to us and our relationship to China—would not have budged.”

That possibility hit the news in December, with reports that U.S. prosecutors were working on a plea deal with Meng, but there has been no further movement in public. However, Sun, the China scholar at Stimson, does not believe China would tolerate an outcome that casts aspersions on Meng. “Any acknowledgement of her wrongdoing will, using the Chinese word, forever nail China on the historical pillar of shame,” she says. “I don’t think that the Chinese will accept that plea deal or that route at all.”

Manthorpe, the book author, initially believed that Canada had to stick by its extradition treaty with the U.S. The balance of global power is changing as the relative authority of the United States is diminished, he argues, and Canada is venturing into a new world on its own in a way it has never been before. “As we try to firm up and establish alliances, we need to be seen as a dependable partner,” he says. “And if we start sort of abrogating our treaty responsibilities when it’s inconvenient or we shuffle aside the rule of law when it doesn’t conform to what seems politically expedient, that diminishes us as a country in the eyes of our allies.”

If the B.C. court decides Meng should not be extradited, he predicts Canada could expect the Michaels home relatively quickly, perhaps after a rote trial. But if that is not the outcome in Vancouver, Manthorpe has come around “very reluctantly” to the idea that Canada should bargain for a swap, with tough terms. He suggests measures like a crackdown on activity of the United Front Department—the intelligence and propaganda arm of the Beijing regime—in Canada and expelling many of the “two-hatted diplomats” who function as espionage agents. “Then it’s just about acceptable,” he says. “But I don’t see that this can be resolved very easily, whatever—it can’t.”

***

After much advocacy, in October 2020, monthly consular visits for the Michaels finally resumed. Embassy staff would normally handle these, but Barton has been conducting them himself, which is intended to signal the importance of these cases to Canada. He physically went to the two detention centres for the visits, even though they are still restricted to video meetings; simply having a set of Canadian eyes on Kovrig, even through the proxy of a computer camera, is a relief for the family. “Really from January to October, nobody had seen Michael,” says Nadjibulla. “It was a big thing for our peace of mind to make sure he looks okay, he’s still healthy.”

She finally received two letters from Kovrig in December—another enormous relief—and the embassy has passed along verbal messages from Kovrig to each of them. In one of her earlier letters, Botha had told her brother that her youngest son, currently obsessed with sushi and anime, dreams of going to Japan, and she thought that was a trip he should take with his uncle. “In the last visit, Michael had relayed, ‘Ariana, tell Kai that I will take him on a trip to Japan that will blow his mind, and it will be up to his parents to decide if they want to come along,’ ” she recalls. To this point, Botha had rattled through an interview in a likeably brusque, sardonic manner, but here she comes undone and needs a few seconds to compose herself.

On the day that Botha spoke to Maclean’s, Kovrig had just had his third consular visit since the meetings resumed. The embassy sent a brief initial report saying that he looked healthy and more relaxed than during the November visit, but it was still a day when his family would wait anxiously for a full update; Botha is full of praise for the Canadian embassy and for Barton’s efforts. To her, the refusal of Chinese authorities to pass along Kovrig’s letters is “unnecessarily cruel.” Her brother’s writing skills are so sharp that she often found his letters difficult to read because they provided such a visceral window into his constricted existence. But losing the connection afforded by that window has been equally hard. “As painful in some ways as getting his letters were—reading his words because they completely transport you into his cell, into that little cell with him, and I find that difficult,” she says. “But at the same time, to have that piece of him, it’s like I can hear his voice. I read his letters and I can see him—it’s like he’s here in a sense.”

Nadjibulla describes herself as a person of faith, with a deep belief in the basic goodness of the universe and its tendency to bend toward justice. “I’m just fundamentally always looking for the totality of the experience, not just the darkness,” she says. “Always holding the shadow and the light together.” She writes poetry as a private way to “metabolize” pain and anger and despair into something more useful. The fuel to keep going arrives in letters or consular reports, when Kovrig cracks a joke or flips back through their shared memories.

If she had been asked two years ago whether Kovrig’s imprisonment would stretch on this long, she would have dismissed the idea out of hand. Many sprints have added up to a marathon she never expected to run, but carving it into sprints is also what’s allowed her to keep running. “I never give up hope, but sometimes it feels like, ‘Enough,’ ” she says, punctuating this with a curt nod of her head. “ ‘How much longer?’ There is this feeling of, ‘Oh my goodness, please, I want to be through this.’ ”

Botha, for her part, says she’s traversed the five stages of grief since Kovrig was imprisoned, but because she refuses to enter into acceptance, she drifts between bargaining and depression.“It has become way too much of the new normal: yep, my brother is just there in jail and I write to him every month, and my children have gotten accustomed to seeing his face on the news and in the newspaper,” she says. “That’s not normal. That’s not okay.”

After the media reports of a possible plea deal for Meng, someone advised Botha that she needed to start imagining her brother’s homecoming: where would he stay? What would he need? What kind of party would they throw? But she can’t take herself to that place yet; it has simply been too long with nothing changing.

“I want to picture it. I want to picture standing at the airport and watching him walk off a plane,” she says. “And I’ve sort of maybe got that image in the back of my mind. But I don’t want to let my heart go there until it might be a reality. It’s too hard.”


This article appears in print in the February 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “A promise to Michael.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Ottawa

The winners of the Maclean's Parliamentarians of the Year Awards

The 12th annual Parliamentarians of the Year awards were presented to three Conservatives, two Liberals, two Greens and one NDP MP. The big winner has one of the biggest jobs in Ottawa.

Maclean’s proudly presents the Parliamentarians of the Year awards, our annual celebration of the elected people who are chosen by their colleagues as the best of the best in the House of Commons. We think it’s more important than ever to recognize their hard work in Ottawa and back home in their constituencies.

Last week, we published the finalists in every category. Scroll down for this year’s winners, including the best overall Parliamentarian of the Year, who were named at a virtual ceremony hosted by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen and in association with Gold Sponsor CWTA and Silver Sponsors BDC and CPAC.

Hardest working

Michelle Rempel Garner (Conservative)

Best orator

Sean Fraser (Liberal)

Most collegial

Marilyn Gladu (Conservative)

Most knowledgeable

Elizabeth May (Green)

Best represents constituents

Shannon Stubbs (Conservative)

Rising star

Jenica Atwin (Green)

Best mentor

Charlie Angus (NDP)

Parliamentarian of the Year

Chrystia Freeland (Liberal)

Lifetime achievement award

Jean Augustine (Liberal)

Past winners

The Parliamentarians of the Year awards have evolved since the inaugural gala in 2006. Scroll down to see every winner, in every category, since the beginning.

Parliamentarian of the Year

2006: Ralph Goodale
2007: Bill Blaikie
2009: Jason Kenney
2010: John Baird
2011: Bob Rae
2012: Elizabeth May
2013: Peter Stoffer
2014: Irwin Cotler
2016: Tom Mulcair
2017: Garnett Genuis
2018: Nathan Cullen

Hardest working

2006: Paul Szabo
2007: Paul Szabo
2009: Paul Szabo
2010: Ted Menzies
2011: Jason Kenney
2012: Kirsty Duncan
2013: Elizabeth May
2014: Jason Kenney
2016: Rona Ambrose
2017: Kevin Lamoureux
2018: Chrystia Freeland

Most collegial

2006: Peter Stoffer
2007: Peter Stoffer
2009: Peter Stoffer
2010: Peter Stoffer
2011: Peter Stoffer
2012: Peter Stoffer
2013: Rodger Cuzner
2014: Peter Stoffer
2016: Marilyn Gladu
2017: Rodger Cuzner
2018: Monique Pauze

Rising star

2009: Megan Leslie
2010: Kelly Block
2011: Chris Alexander
2012: Michelle Rempel
2013: Chris Alexander
2014: Michelle Rempel
2016: Gerard Deltell
2017: Joel Lightbound
2018: Richard Martel

Best represents constituents

2007: Charlie Angus
2009: Bill Casey
2010: Robert Bouchard
2011: Michael Chong
2012: Niki Ashton
2013: Ted Hsu
2014: Brent Rathgeber
2016: Larry Bagnell
2017: Shannon Stubbs
2018: Georgina Jolibois

Best mentor

2017: Judy Sgro
2018: Judy Sgro

Best orator

2007: Michael Ignatieff
2009: Bob Rae
2010: Bob Rae
2011: John Baird
2012: Bob Rae
2013: John Baird
2014: Elizabeth May
2016: Nathan Cullen
2017: Nathan Cullen
2018: Gerard Deltell

Most knowledgeable

2006: Stephen Harper/Bill Blaikie
2007: Joe Comartin
2009: Joe Comartin
2010: Gilles Duceppe
2011: Joe Comartin
2012: Stephen Harper
2013: Jason Kenney
2014: Nathan Cullen
2016: Kevin Lamoureux
2017: Helene Laverdiere
2018: Pierre Poilievre

Lifetime achievement award

2011: Jack Layton
2012: Preston Manning
2013: Peter Milliken
2014: Flora MacDonald
2016*: Lloyd Axworthy
2016: Ed Broadbent
2017: Monique Begin
2018: Paul Dewar
2019*: Ethel Blondin-Andrew

Best civic outreach (discontinued after 2018)

2017: Scott Reid
2018: Terry Beech


EDITOR’S NOTE: Lloyd Axworthy and Ethel Blondin-Andrew both received their awards at special “Welcome to the Hill” events in 2016 and 2019, respectively.

Ottawa

The calm hand of Marc Garneau

Whether his new post is a prime opportunity or a headache in the waiting, Garneau's surprise move to global affairs is a vote of confidence in his steadiness

Foreign affairs is traditionally viewed as one of the most high-profile and consequential posts in the federal cabinet. But at the moment, there is room to wonder whether it’s also an albatross in waiting.

On one hand, a sane and steady new American administration led by President-elect Joe Biden will be in charge before the milk currently in your fridge expires. On the other, the China file and the intractable predicament of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, imprisoned for more than two years in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, is not a problem that is getting any easier to solve.

But seen through either lens—sterling opportunity or international headache in waiting—Marc Garneau’s elevation to foreign affairs minister on Tuesday is a vote of confidence in his abilities; he’s either an understated veteran being rewarded with a high-profile post or a steady hand asked to mind a volatile wheel.

Garneau’s move from transport minister came in a surprise cabinet shuffle precipitated by the decision of Navdeep Bains, formerly minister of innovation, science and industry, to retire from politics to spend more time with his family. On the day he was sworn in over Zoom as foreign affairs minister, Garneau drew links between the different facets of his new portfolio, vowing to work with the United States in an effort to free the so-called two Michaels, and to improve the traditionally close alliance frayed over the last several years by outgoing President Donald Trump’s combative impetuousness. “I believe very, very strongly that no bilateral relationship is more important than that of Canada with the United States and it will continue to be that way,” Garneau said.

Before launching his political career, he was a military man, engineer and astronaut. He graduated with an engineering degree from Canada’s Royal Military College before attending the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London on a scholarship, where he earned his PhD in electrical engineering in 1973.

Garneau served in the Canadian navy until 1983 as a combat systems expert, before a chance sighting of a Canadian government ad recruiting astronauts to fly on the U.S. space shuttle radically altered his career path. He logged almost 700 hours in space on three missions, in 1984, 1996 and 2000, and he was the first non-American to serve as capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, the voice that bridges Mission Control and astronauts in flight. The entire job is about being precise, serene and possessing a technical sort of empathy for what colleagues in space need to know and have relayed back to Earth. “If the frickin’ spaceship’s falling apart,” Garneau once told Maclean’s,“They want to know you are calm, reassuring: ‘You are going to get out of this.’ ”

After retiring as an astronaut, Garneau served as president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006, before making his first unsuccessful political bid in a different Montreal riding, two years before he was elected in Westmount-Ville-Marie in 2008. He ran against Justin Trudeau for the Liberal leadership, but dropped out of the race a month before the April 2013 vote, when he determined Trudeau’s victory was inevitable, saying he was a “loyal soldier” who would support the new leader. “You’re going to see my face around for a long time,” Garneau said at the time.

After the Liberals won their majority two years later, the Prime Minister named Garneau transport minister, a post he held until Tuesday’s shuffle. It was in that role, nearly two years ago, that Garneau sat on the dais at the front of the National Press Theatre and scared the bejesus out of people by being good at a job for which he was uniquely well suited.

Canada had belatedly joined a long list of countries grounding the Boeing 737 Max 8 after a second crash in five months killed 157 people, and Garneau was explaining new evidence about the airplane’s last moments in the air that had led to this decision. Authorities had discovered that the angle-of-attack sensors in the planes were faulty, leading the aircraft to erroneously sense that its nose was too high—an error that could stall its lift as it climbed after take-off—so that the auto-pilot software forced the nose of the plane down in an attempt to correct things.

“The pilot said, ‘It’s not too high,’ so he countered that,” the transport minister explained. “And then a number of seconds later, the…software kicked in again and tried to force it down again, and (the pilot) said, ‘No, no, we’ve gotta climb.’”

Saying that he was setting aside his politician role for a moment to don his “engineer’s hat” and astronaut identity again, Garneau illustrated this with one hand held out in front of him, angling down and then up, as he explained the battle between faulty sensors and a certainly terrified pilot. The gesture was like a child sailing one hand out the car window on a road trip, juxtaposed against facts that were viscerally horrifying, but as in his onetime role as the voice of Mission Control, he laid them out with calm precision.

Now, whether his new foreign affairs role is a plum post at the dawn of a new and more stable era in Canada-U.S. relations or hornet’s nest of intractable problems—or, most likely, a complex mix of the two—Garneau’s elevation to the portfolio is a vote of confidence in his steadiness.

For a man who used to be professionally calm, and who once described his own early political style as “wooden,” that’s not a bad fit.

Ottawa

Omar Alghabra's path to federal cabinet

The new Transport Minister has spent years handling tough 'no-win' assignments and juggling competing interests behind the scenes, say colleagues

Omar Alghabra was due for a promotion into the Canadian federal ministry, say some of his current and former colleagues. 

The Mississauga MP racked up years of experience on tricky issues before his appointment Tuesday to the transport file. “Omar has carried some difficult files and worked so hard in his constituency but also for the wider GTA region politically, but never made it to cabinet,” says a former senior Liberal official. 

The ex-official attributes that to the number of Greater Toronto Area ministers already on the Liberal bench. The departure of another GTA politician, Navdeep Bains, left an opening for Alghabra. “His work ethic, commitment and compassion, not to mention he is whip-smart, a former engineer and passionate about transport, make him ideal for the role. There won’t be anyone you find who isn’t happy for him and excited about what he will bring.”

Julian Ovens, now a senior advisor with Crestview Strategy, was the chief of staff to several ministers for whom Alghabra served as parliamentary secretary. Ovens describes Alghabra as a good friend, a “fundamentally decent person,” a hard worker and someone who isn’t in it for the limelight. 

READ: Another tiny perfect cabinet shuffle

He established good relationships with his counterparts, Ovens says—especially former foreign minister Stéphane Dion and former trade minister Jim Carr, who is returning to the cabinet table per Tuesday’s announcement—and he is well-respected within caucus and across the aisle. 

Alghabra had served in the House of Commons as an opposition MP from 2006 to 2008, working stints as a consultant and a visiting professor at Ryerson University before returning to Parliament in the 2015 landslide that gave Liberals a majority. 

(A non sequitur: In that campaign, Alghabra ran a strange little ad that played off the popularity of Game of Thrones. It began with an animated map then showed angry cartoon constituents hungry for change and getting ready to, verbatim, “storm the capital”—a phrase that, way back in 2015, could only be interpreted as harmless hyperbole. The ad concludes when the gaggle considers flying a raven to Ottawa but settles on sending Omar instead.)

During Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term, Alghabra served as parliamentary secretary to foreign and trade ministers, handling Canada’s consular affairs file for several years. He was involved in managing cases such as the 2015 kidnapping of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall in the Philippines—which culminated in their beheadings as Canada refused to meet ransom demands—and the 2017 rescue of Joshua Boyle, his American wife Caitlin Coleman and their three kids from a Taliban-affiliated group. 

As an Arab-Canadian lawmaker, Alghabra has received regular vitriol online, which Ovens says he “powers through.” His background is not just fodder for Twitter trolls. A Conservative senator was pressured to apologize in 2018 after publicly insinuating that his birthplace would affect his handling of foreign policy.

Born into a Syrian family in Saudi Arabia, Alghabra immigrated to Canada at 19 to study engineering in Toronto. He told the Globe and Mail in 2017 that, growing up, Saudis saw him as Syrian and Syrians saw him as Saudi. “And in Canada, I’m a newcomer as well.”

During the heat of the Syrian civil war, Alghabra was unable to visit family members in the region, including after his father passed away in 2015. This gave him a unique lens for his job, he told the Globe: “I am in a position where I have to interact with families who have loved ones in troubling situations. And I can certainly relate to the level of anxiety and the angst they feel because I know what it’s like.”

After the 2019 election, he was appointed the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary for public service reform. But in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Airlines crash in Iran last year—which claimed the lives of 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and 53 more people en route to visit Canada—he was brought back to the foreign affairs table and asked to work with victims’ families. 

“It is really tough, in some cases no-win work,” Ovens says of consular affairs. “You’re dealing with foreign governments, foreign sovereignty, you’re dealing with highly aggrieved families, you’re dealing with major parts of the bureaucracy, you’re thinking about precedent. Really complex issues. And a lot of it doesn’t happen in the public.”

The tested ability to juggle so many conflicting interests at once will serve him well as he oversees transport, Ovens says. “Transport is a place where it’s really important to understand all sides of different issues—to work with employees and unions, pretty heavily-regulated companies and all sorts of other stakeholders. Grain farmers. Consumers. Businesspeople.” 

Alghabra is inheriting the portfolio, which covers railways, marine safety, aviation and more, at a time when travel is restricted and new pandemic regulations are in force, and just a year after rail blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs caused a supply chain problem and a challenge for a government that has claimed its relationship with Indigenous people is a top priority. 

It is not the most glamorous job in cabinet but it is seen as an important file that requires a steady hand at the wheel. Even if his tenure proves to be short-lived, should an election be called in 2021, Alghabra’s cheerleaders suggest there will be time and space enough for him to make his mark.

Ottawa

Another tiny perfect cabinet shuffle

Paul Wells: Industry is a good fit for the ambitious Champagne. Garneau will be a dignified presence in foreign affairs. And making an impact will be a huge task for either of them.

“For once,” a Liberal I trust told me, “it really is about family.” Apparently Navdeep Bains makes time for a family call every night when he’s on the road—well, he used to, I mean who’s on the road any more? Over the holidays, his oldest daughter told him that if he runs again, she’ll be heading off to university by the time he finishes the next mandate. Assuming it’s a majority. This corner levels no penalty for filial optimism. Out goes Bains. He’ll serve the rest of his term from the back benches, and that may not be long.

Justin Trudeau decided early he likes modest cabinet shuffles. This one has a lot to be modest about. Bains has been this government’s only Minister of Innovation. Before 2015 the job title was Minister of Industry, and since 2019 “Industry” has been tacked back onto the end of Bains’s title. But if you’re going to keep pretending the job’s about innovation, the simplest patch would be to move Marc Garneau, who rode three times in space shuttles. Instead the job goes to François-Philippe Champagne, who’s been foreign minister.

A demotion for Champagne? I’m not so sure. I know some people who worked for Champagne were hoping he’d get the Industry—sorry, innovation—portfolio a year ago. Industry is a good fit for an ambitious pol: it spends a lot of money, it has stakeholders with clout, it puts you in front of Canadian voters full-time, rather than sending you off jetting around the world to spend time with people who don’t vote here. I doubt Champagne is at all displeased by this turn of events.

Garneau to Global Affairs, then. (It’s like Foreign Affairs, but more innovative.) He’ll be a dignified presence at any international conference he attends. He won’t commit gaffes. But it’s hard to imagine him taking the lead with members of the Biden foreign-policy team or with European leaders as the world tries to sketch the contours of a post-Trump democratic coalition. If it does try, I mean maybe I’m being overly optimistic. Despite a c.v. that was already formidable before he ever reached orbit a lifetime ago, Garneau has not been a take-charge guy in government. Trudeau’s listless attention to international files has begun to be noticed by Canada’s international partners, as witnessed by the drubbing Canada sustained in the U.N. security council election. And Stéphane Dion’s botched appointment to two concurrent European diplomatic posts. And the revolving door Trudeau has installed at the entrance to Fort Pearson: Garneau becomes the fourth foreign minister in five years, and there’s no particular reason to expect he’ll keep the job after the election.

The most recent annual report from Freedom House, a U.S. non-governmental organization dedicated to tracking the success people and nations have in promoting civil rights and democratic freedoms, carries the subtitle “A Leaderless Struggle For Democracy.” Lately I find the adjective in that phrase haunting. It’s great to point out that Donald Trump was a problem, but the problem is global, it’s becoming entrenched, and who’s the solution? Is it actually inconceivable that a Canadian could provide part of the answer? In Washington last week we saw the passionate intensity of the worst. The other side seems to lack all conviction. Maybe Garneau, with counterparts from other countries not yet lost to the mob, will help lead a change. This would be excellent news if it happened.

But in a government of quite unprecedented centralization, where the centre struggles to deliver anything but more ideas for subsidies, it’s fair to ask, as I did two years ago almost to the day, what a cabinet shuffle is for. There would be much for François-Philippe Champagne to reform at Industry or Innovation or whatever they want to call it, if he wanted to, if he were granted any leeway. That department is an elephant’s graveyard of earlier governments’ half-baked subsidy programs. In 2017 Kevin Page and his colleagues at the University of Ottawa found $23 billion in existing annual spending from 147 programs and other “activities” to promote “innovation.” Bains made no attempt to rationalize that inherited mess before adding new programs.

The result is predictable. In the banking world, firms hire “quants,” number-crunching specialists to navigate the opportunities the market offers. In Canadian business, companies hire specialists to navigate the forest of subsidies and incentives available from the federal government. This is full-time work because the programs are too numerous and make too little sense. In many cases there is no decision a business can make on its core area of competence that will make as speedy a difference in its balance sheet as its success or failure in capturing the next bit of government help. Here again, the results are predictable: Canadian firms don’t research new ideas, they research the subsidy landscape. An arms-length advisory panel used to deliver this news to Canadian governments every two years. In 2015 Bains released the panel’s most recent report on the lousy results of the Harper government, and then abolished the panel. In its place he had a sunshiny report prepared in-house, which everybody properly ignored.

Bains used to have a simple measure of success in his portfolio: “Ten Shopifys wouldn’t be so bad,” he’d say. Fair enough. What are we to make of the fact that the counter remains stuck at one? Meanwhile Sidewalk Labs fled Toronto’s Quayside project, Element AI sold to U.S. investors for a lot less than its claimed value, and Bombardier is out of the commercial aircraft business.

Making any impact at all on that kind of departmental performance would be a huge task for any minister. But this will be Champagne’s fourth cabinet post in five years. The hatches are already battened down for an election. With the inevitable futzing around in its aftermath, the election will swallow half a year. Then it’ll be time to shuffle Champagne again. I keep reading about ministers being promoted or demoted and I keep wondering, how on earth can anyone claim to tell which is which?

Ottawa

This year's Maclean's Lifetime Achievement winner: Jean Augustine

The trailblazing MP came to Ottawa to make change where she knew it mattered. Over 13 years in federal politics, she paved the way for so many others.

When Jean Augustine arrived on Parliament Hill to be sworn in as an MP representing Etobicoke-Lakeshore in 1993, she was accompanied by two busloads of supporters there to witness her oath. But she also brought along, and kept with her throughout her 13 years in federal politics, a much bigger, albeit invisible, contingent: students (especially those who really needed what school could offer them), women blazing difficult career trails, single mothers and Black Canadians.

Those people she knew or had worked with or had been herself shaped the roadmap for what she worked to accomplish in the House of Commons.

“All the things that I’d been doing over the years, it seemed to me that resolutions to a lot of those situations had to be in the political arena,” says this year’s Lifetime Achievement recipient for the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year Awards. “That it was people in power places that were making decisions that affected the lives of so many.”

She became an MP in her 50s, with a long career in education and community activism behind her, so she didn’t arrive in Ottawa chasing cabinet positions, Augustine says, but rather looking to craft real change in small, focused areas where she knew it mattered.

RELATED: The finalists for the Maclean’s Parliamentarians of the Year Awards

There are two accomplishments she readily points out as her proudest moments. The first was working with Sheila Copps to remove the rule that restricted statues on Parliament Hill only to dead monarchs or nation-building prime ministers; that change paved the way for Augustine to bring forward, as chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus, the motion that resulted in the Famous Five statue commemorating the women who fought the “Persons Case” for political equality. The second pride of her career was advancing the motion in 1995 that established February as Black History Month in Canada.

Augustine was elected as Canada’s first Black female MP, and in 2002, when she was named secretary of state for multiculturalism and status of women, she became the first Black woman in cabinet. She was always conscious of that extra mantle and the expectation of carrying the concerns, aspirations and potential of her community with her every time she walked onto the floor of the House of Commons.

“When you say you’re first, everybody looks to you,” she says. “I think every Black person in Canada at the time thought that they had sent me to Ottawa.” She and her staff joked for years about the first letter they got once they set up her office, from a Black man in prison in B.C., who wrote to say, “Now that you’re elected, get me out of here.”

Dr. Jean Augustine. (Photograph by Kwaku Kufuor)

Dr. Jean Augustine. (Photograph by Kwaku Kufuor)

Politics was a later career chapter—and one she shrugged off multiple times when the idea was suggested, as many women do, she notes.

From childhood on, Augustine was a natural teacher; growing up in Happy Hill, Grenada, every time she and her friends played school, she was the one brandishing the books and paper. After high school, she immigrated to Canada as a nanny through a Canada-Caribbean domestic work program, attended teachers college and taught for years before becoming an administrator. There followed stints on the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and as chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, before she was elected as MP.

In some form or another, education is the thread that weaves through Augustine’s entire life and career. Her grandmother—a family matriarch in the truest sense of the word—was the one who saw Augustine’s potential early and made sure she had the ambition and opportunities to fully inhabit it.

“She was always saying to me, ‘Education will raise the family’s nose,’ and I never knew what that was,” Augustine says. “But I know now what was being implied there, that through education you can get yourself into places and into a lifestyle, and financially, not only helping yourself but helping the rest of the family, and moving the family along as you move along.”

That grandmother was the first one to tell Augustine, “You can do it.” And then her granddaughter went on to carve out a career of teaching and advocacy and the sort of smart, focused, difference-making politics only someone who knows the road is capable of practicing.

“My whole career has been such that I try to make it possible that others could walk along something that I would say I mowed and paved the way for,” she says.

Ottawa

The hard-working politicians who keep our democracy going

The Maclean's Parliamentarians of the Year awards: This year more than ever, it's important to recognize the people in elected office

This has been a hard year for democracy. A poll by PEW Research Center in 2020 found that faith in democracy around the world is on the decline, and in some surprising places: More than half of people surveyed in the U.K., the United States, France and Japan said they were dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in their country. The dissatisfaction is highest in places where trust in politicians is lowest.

Similar polls point to higher levels of trust in Canada, but also worrying declines in some parts of the country, notably in Alberta.

We don’t have to look farther than our neighbours to the south to see how quickly poison can spread through a democratic system. When leadership fails to rise to the occasion and politics is seen as a combat sport between enemies, rather than a work in progress between fellow citizens, the shared belief in a seemingly unshakeable system begins to break down.

At the heart of our parliamentary democracy are elected officials. They are supposed to represent the hopes, concerns and priorities of the constituents who send them to work, and they must serve as the targets of  blame and anger when things go wrong. During this time of historic crisis—a pandemic that is killing thousands of Canadians, an economic collapse that has taken away the livelihoods of many more—there is much to be angry about. Indeed, a level of skepticism about the work politicians do is a healthy and necessary part of our system.

But politicians are also the people who day in and day out, through endless committee meetings, work in their constituencies and through public debate, do the work of government. Along with dedicated public servants, they have toiled long hours to bring Canadians emergency relief programs and provide the reassurance of a steady hand at the wheel. At the best of times, a politician’s work requires sacrifice—long stretches away from home and family. It is work performed by people who have committed their lives to public service.

That is why Maclean’s believes it important to pause and applaud the work of Canada’s elected officials, as we have done for the past 12 years with our Parliamentarians of the Year awards.  The winners of these awards are chosen by Members of Parliament themselves. Those honoured have earned the support from both sides of the aisle of the House of Commons. (Here are this year’s nominees as well as the winners from past years).

As we said in 2006, the first year we held these awards, “It’s the efforts of the MP that make the difference between a system that works, and one that leaves the public alienated and cynical.”

This year that message is more important than ever.

Ottawa

The finalists for the Maclean's Parliamentarians of the Year Awards

The 12th annual Parliamentarians of the Year awards showcase the best and brightest MPs in the House of Commons, as voted on by their colleagues in the chamber

For 12 years, Maclean’s has asked MPs in Ottawa to take a few minutes to recognize the extraordinary work of their colleagues in every corner of the chamber. They fill out a survey with eight categories, writing in the name of the MP who, in their opinion, most deserves special recognition. We enlist an independent, Ottawa-based polling firm—Springbrook Strategies—that crunches the data. To ensure that parties with the most seats cannot dominate the list of winners, MPs benefit when they receive support from outside their own party.

This year’s lifetime achievement award winner is Jean Augustine, a Liberal MP from 1993-2006 who was the first African-Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons, and the first Black woman appointed to cabinet.

These are this year’s finalists in every category (listed in alphabetical order), including the best overall Parliamentarian of the Year, as chosen by 142 participating MPs. Most years, the winners are announced at an evening gala just a short walk from the Hill (sometimes delayed by parliamentary votes). This year, the winners will be named at a virtual ceremony hosted by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen and in association with Gold Sponsor CWTA and Silver Sponsors BDC and CPAC on Jan. 12. Following the ceremony, the full list of winners will be released on macleans.ca.

Hardest working

Chrystia Freeland (Liberal)
Garnett Genuis (Conservative)
Michelle Rempel Garner (Conservative)

Best orator

Sean Fraser (Liberal)
Pierre Poilievre (Conservative)
Alain Therrien (Bloc Québécois)

Most collegial

Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe (Bloc Québécois)
Marilyn Gladu (Conservative)
Christine Normandin (Bloc Québécois)

Most knowledgeable

Charlie Angus (NDP)
Kevin Lamoureux (Liberal)
Elizabeth May (Green)

Best represents constituents

Elizabeth May (Green)
Louis Plamondon (Bloc Québécois)
Shannon Stubbs (Conservative)

Rising star

Jenica Atwin (Green)
Raquel Dancho (Conservative)
Sean Fraser (Liberal)

Best mentor

Charlie Angus (NDP)
Wayne Easter (Liberal)
Louis Plamondon (Bloc Québécois)

Parliamentarian of the Year

Chrystia Freeland (Liberal)
Elizabeth May (Green)
Pierre Poilievre (Conservative)

Past winners

The Parliamentarians of the Year awards have evolved since the inaugural gala in 2006. Scroll down to see every winner, in every category, since the beginning.

Parliamentarian of the Year

2006: Ralph Goodale
2007: Bill Blaikie
2009: Jason Kenney
2010: John Baird
2011: Bob Rae
2012: Elizabeth May
2013: Peter Stoffer
2014: Irwin Cotler
2016: Tom Mulcair
2017: Garnett Genuis
2018: Nathan Cullen

Hardest working

2006: Paul Szabo
2007: Paul Szabo
2009: Paul Szabo
2010: Ted Menzies
2011: Jason Kenney
2012: Kirsty Duncan
2013: Elizabeth May
2014: Jason Kenney
2016: Rona Ambrose
2017: Kevin Lamoureux
2018: Chrystia Freeland

Most collegial

2006: Peter Stoffer
2007: Peter Stoffer
2009: Peter Stoffer
2010: Peter Stoffer
2011: Peter Stoffer
2012: Peter Stoffer
2013: Rodger Cuzner
2014: Peter Stoffer
2016: Marilyn Gladu
2017: Rodger Cuzner
2018: Monique Pauze

Rising star

2009: Megan Leslie
2010: Kelly Block
2011: Chris Alexander
2012: Michelle Rempel
2013: Chris Alexander
2014: Michelle Rempel
2016: Gerard Deltell
2017: Joel Lightbound
2018: Richard Martel

Best represents constituents

2007: Charlie Angus
2009: Bill Casey
2010: Robert Bouchard
2011: Michael Chong
2012: Niki Ashton
2013: Ted Hsu
2014: Brent Rathgeber
2016: Larry Bagnell
2017: Shannon Stubbs
2018: Georgina Jolibois

Best mentor

2017: Judy Sgro
2018: Judy Sgro

Best orator

2007: Michael Ignatieff
2009: Bob Rae
2010: Bob Rae
2011: John Baird
2012: Bob Rae
2013: John Baird
2014: Elizabeth May
2016: Nathan Cullen
2017: Nathan Cullen
2018: Gerard Deltell

Most knowledgeable

2006: Stephen Harper/Bill Blaikie
2007: Joe Comartin
2009: Joe Comartin
2010: Gilles Duceppe
2011: Joe Comartin
2012: Stephen Harper
2013: Jason Kenney
2014: Nathan Cullen
2016: Kevin Lamoureux
2017: Helene Laverdiere
2018: Pierre Poilievre

Lifetime achievement award

2011: Jack Layton
2012: Preston Manning
2013: Peter Milliken
2014: Flora MacDonald
2016*: Lloyd Axworthy
2016: Ed Broadbent
2017: Monique Begin
2018: Paul Dewar
2019*: Ethel Blondin-Andrew

Best civic outreach (discontinued after 2018)

2017: Scott Reid
2018: Terry Beech


EDITOR’S NOTE: Lloyd Axworthy and Ethel Blondin-Andrew both received their awards at special “Welcome to the Hill” events in 2016 and 2019, respectively.

Ottawa

So when do we start promoting democracy?

Paul Wells: If the sacking of a capital by forces loyal to a failed autocrat was happening in any other country it's hard to imagine Canadian officials would stay this quiet

As a mob of idiots descended on the capitol building of the country that sometimes likes to market itself as the world’s leading democracy, to sack it and insist on the maintenance of a president who lost big two months ago, Justin Trudeau got on the phone with Boris Johnson.

I am informed, via one of the Trudeau PMO’s always-reliable communiqués, that the Canadian and British Prime Ministers “looked forward to working together during the United Kingdom’s 2021 G7 Presidency to advance global responses to the pandemic, to promote gender equality, to protect human rights, and to fight climate change. They discussed their shared goal of ambitious progress at the COP26 climate conference the United Kingdom will host in November in partnership with Italy.”

So, nothing about the way their G7 colleague Donald Trump was egging on a mob in a continued and all-consuming attempt to steal an election so Trump could continue to hamper global responses to the pandemic, mock gender equality, suck up to despots and deny climate change.

I thought the world needed more Canada? If the sacking of a capital city by forces loyal to a failed and desperate autocrat were happening in one of the many countries Canada finds easier to patronize—Venezuela, say, or Ukraine, or even India or China—it’s hard to imagine Canadian officials would stay quite this meekly quiet. Perhaps the foreign minister would be on a plane to a third country to discuss options. Or indeed, maybe even marching in the streets of the embattled capital. There’d be sanctions against officials who forgot that their loyalty must lie with rules and institutions, not with cronies.

Instead, until the lurid images from the Senate chamber finally forced comment by Trudeau and other party leaders,  we heard only crickets. Earlier in the months-long post-election descent into chaos, Justin Trudeau did tweet out his congratulations to Joe Biden, the legitimate winner of the recent free and fair elections in the strife-torn regime to the south, and there have been phone calls and preparations for a transition. Opposition leader Erin O’Toole did the same—although, funny thing, when he congratulated Biden via tweet, he didn’t specify what he was congratulating him for. And even then, he was thought too bold by hundreds of his followers, who berated him for endorsing the election results.

I might as well admit that I’m not sure I’m actually serious when I suggest Canada should have made some official statement, at some point since the winner of November’s presidential election became clear, directly endorsing the U.S. electoral process and calling out the shameful attempts to denigrate and nullify its result. It’s easy to anticipate all the obvious objections. These include:

(i) What goes on in the U.S. is none of our business;

(ii) What goes on in the U.S. is too much of our business, and we mustn’t provoke anyone so close with so many weapons;

(iii) The insurrectionists’ contempt for the world is such that anything that gets said in a pipsqueak country like Canada will only encourage them;

(iv) Why bother? Let the Trumpite base blow off a little steam. Biden will be president anyway. This is ending the way (most people in) Canada would have wanted it to end anyway.

These aren’t ridiculous arguments, even though a couple of them are also directly contradictory. But it’s worth pointing out that most of them also apply in all the corners of the world where Canada never hesitates to poke its nose. And yet I think the nose-poking is a healthy instinct. Because when we speak, we’re not only speaking to our audience. We’re also reminding ourselves what we value by saying it out loud.

One of the first things Stephen Harper did as prime minister in the spring of 2006 was to write, by himself, a statement on the then-latest round of fraudulent elections in Belarus. (Part of his motive was to show Foreign Affairs the kind of language he wished they’d use in such statements.) Harper must have known that even the clearest language in a communiqué from Ottawa wouldn’t change facts on the ground in Minsk. But it’s handy to tell the world, at crucial moments, where our priorities lie, or where we think they should: with institutions over incumbents, with protesters over a thuggishly imposed order, with people who hope over those who want to kill hope.

I think it would have been good if, before Ted Cruz and other panderers sought to join their official voice and their thankfully-limited official power to Trump’s attempted insurrection, Canada and the European Union and, I don’t know, Japan or Australia or whoever wanted to get in the pool had released a joint statement, as central banks coordinate monetary responses to economic shocks. The statement might have said: Democracy in the world benefits when free and fair elections lead to orderly transitions. The United States has usually been a beacon and an example of that simple truth. This must continue. The November presidential election in the United States was free and fair. Attempts to undermine its result are un-democratic and corrosive of the rule of law. We call on all officials, especially the defeated president, to accept the result and work for a peaceful and orderly transition of power.

And since the Prime Minister didn’t see fit to raise such a topic on his calls with colleagues, there would have been nothing to stop opposition MPs from providing a better example. But while Conservative foreign-affairs critic Mike Chong remains properly preoccupied with events in Morocco and China and Iran,  he seems unconcerned by the antics of Ted Cruz and the yahoos invading the Senate chamber in fur vests and camo gear. Erin O’Toole and Garnett Genuis, same deal. Surely it can’t be because, while most Conservative voters accept Biden’s victory and many welcome it, nearly every Canadian who would have joined the yahoos if given the chance is also a Conservative voter. Surely principles obtain even when they’re inconvenient.

It’s delicate to raise such matters, but what the heck; I wonder who John Brassard, the Conservative MP who thought it was clever to shout “George Soros!” when Chrystia Freeland was testifying at committee, thinks is the legitimate president of the United States. I suspect that will still be a good question during the next Canadian federal election campaign, so I might as well start practicing asking it now. I also note that Stephen Harper, the chairman of the International Democratic Union, whose members include the U.S. Republican Party, has had nothing to say on Twitter about the presidential election since it happened. I guess it’s easier when it’s about Belarus.

Back to the Liberals. Trudeau’s mandate letter to foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne urged him to “increase Canadian support abroad for democracy, human rights, international law and freedom of the press.” One of the vehicles for this would be a new “Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government,” which seems to be a replacement for the defunct and lamented quasi-NGO founded by the Mulroney government and abolished, after a spell of mismanagement, by Harper, that was called Rights and Democracy. But why wait? Does anybody believe the last four years in Washington have been good for democracy, human rights, international law and freedom of the press? Does anyone believe the next four years will be better if people don’t start speaking up for their values? As I say, I have no confidence that most Canadian officials will do more than keep their heads down. I just wanted to make sure we see them.

Opinion

The entitlement of Canadian politicians

Pam Palmater: Privileged politicians who took pandemic vacations need to lose more than their official roles as ministers or critics. It is time to take a stand.

It is time to clean house in Canada.

While our political houses were never in good shape, this pandemic has shone a light on those who play politics versus those who lead in crisis. The sheer number of government officials at the federal and provincial level who thought they were above the pandemic rules should be a wake-up call for Canadians. Their actions showed not only the worst form of elitism and privilege, but endangered the lives of Canadians—the very people they were elected to serve.

Imagine the audacity of elected officials thinking that they should be exempt from travel restrictions during the height of this pandemic, simply because it is their child moving away; their parent that is sick; their vacation house that needs upkeep or their family that needs a holiday in Hawaii. Do they not think that Canadians would have loved to have travelled to be with family over the holidays or seen their dying parents in person instead of virtually? What makes these politicians any different from Canadians they serve?

The answer is entitlement.

Even now, the shock and awe that some of these politicians show at even the thought of being held accountable is astounding. While they may feign innocence with their weak excuses, it is very clear that they knew what they were doing was wrong. From failing to report travel to their superiors to making social media posts pretending to still be in Canada—these politicians need to lose more than their official roles as ministers or critics—they should all resign.

READ: Brenda Lucki must go

Cancel culture?

No, this is accountability culture and it is long overdue. Cancel culture is the dog whistle term used by those in power who don’t want to be held accountable for their words and actions—often related to racism, misogyny, homophobia or the abuse and exploitation of others. We’ve all seen the fall of people who had faked Indigenous identities to further their careers, eventually be called out on social media and had their shows or events cancelled. Elected officials have a legal and moral obligation to act in the best interests of those they represent and are therefore held to a higher standard—one that requires they at least follow their own rules.

Parties at the federal level typically serve until their party is drowning in scandal and then a new party is elected and serves until scandal forces them out. This has been on repeat for decades. Government institutions that are plagued with racism, misogyny, homophobia and even corruption, work hard to present the problem as a “few bad apples.” This allows the status quo to endure—one set of rules for the privileged and another for everyone else. This only works so long as Canadians accept it.

But this time, Canadians have been pushed too far.

READ: Is Ottawa both Jason Kenney’s benefactor and his political straw man?

Canadians brought in the New Year by trending #ResignKenney on Twitter. Calls for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s resignation did not just come from Kenney’s usual critics—or “urban zealots” as he likes to call them. Albertans of all political stripes have united around calls for Kenney to resign over his failure to account for Alberta politicians and his own senior staff travelling in breach of pandemic restrictions. Not only did Kenney know about the breach of pandemic restrictions, he failed to condemn their actions, at least until #ResignKenney started trending on Twitter. Now these same Alberta politicians and staffers are being held to account and not from leadership shown by Kenney, but from immense public pressure and demands for accountability in Alberta.

And Kenney isn’t the only offender.

In other provinces, the reaction has been mixed. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe allowed MLA Joe Hargrave to remain as Minister of Highways, despite his travel to Palm Springs—that is until his constituents pushed back on social media. Meanwhile, NDP MP Niki Ashton was stripped of her shadow critic duties for travelling to Greece and Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips, who faked his stay-at-home-holidays while on vacation in St. Barts, has resigned.

Wasn’t it Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister who snuck off to his Costa Rican villa just before pandemic measures? And of course, we can’t forget his unmasked convo with then Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer in an airport last summer. The fact that there is any ambivalence at all about holding people to account for breaching pandemic measures shows how bad Canada’s political state of affairs has become. If leaders break the pandemic rules en masse, what moral authority do they have to call on citizens to do their part? Yet many of us did our part despite the lack of leadership on their part.

Ultimately, the choice is ours.

We can move forward into 2021 in the same way that we always have, where Canadians continue to pay the price for the privilege of politicians, or we can hold politicians and systems to account. But we are running out of time to take a stand. To no one’s surprise, the pandemic infection and death rates have increased in the last few months and in all the places it was predicted they would—long-term care homes, prisons, First Nations and racialized and impoverished communities. Disease experts told us that if we did not increase pandemic restrictions, numbers would increase, and they did. Yet, politicians of all stripes, who are elected to put the health, safety and well-being of Canadians first, have prioritized their own.

And the damage is done.

It is too late to re-do the holidays. Only time will tell how much of an impact holiday travel and gatherings in 2020 will have on COVID numbers in 2021. We know that at the beginning of January 2021, ICU numbers have already surpassed the 300 mark—an increase of 81 per cent in the last four weeks. While this was predicted, it did not have to be this way. Had Ontario Premier Doug Ford been clear about pandemic measures from the beginning and condemned those who did not follow the rules—like his own caucus member Sam Osterhoff who attended a large gathering where no one wore masks—we’d be in a different place. Instead, Ford’s response to Osterhoff was to accept his apology as if it was no big deal.

When elected politicians do not follow their own rules, there is little hope that citizens will. In an age of fake news and disinformation campaigns on social media, there is no room for privileged, entitled politicians. We need real leaders who will lead by example and hold themselves and those in their charge to account. Vaccines will not save us from irresponsible and unaccountable leaders. Vaccine uptake, like other pandemic measures, will depend in large part on leadership and accountability—which is sorely lacking right now. That is why accountability culture is so important right now—it is about Canadians taking steps to protect one another and save lives..

#ResignKenney #ResignFord #ResignMoe #ResignPallister and any other elected politician who doesn’t make our collective health, safety and well-being the priority.

Opinion

2021 is going to look very, very similar to 2020

Scott Gilmore: The pandemic isn’t suddenly going away, Trump will still be around and the decline of American democracy will continue. Happy New Year!

My favourite poet is T.S. Eliot, mostly because I never took second-year English and he was about as far as I got in the canon. Regardless, Eliot wrote in his poem “Little Gidding” that “to make an end was to make a beginning”—a line that is most often repeated right around now because it captures the hope that a new year will usher in fresh and better tidings.

Alas, like a lot of poetry, this is mostly nonsense. The only thing likely to change as we march into January is your wall calendar. This is obvious when you consider the only reason we even mark Jan. 1 as the beginning of a new year is because some Etruscan priest decided this was as good a time as any to celebrate Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings. Twenty-five centuries later we’re tracking our New Year’s resolutions on our iPhones and promising ourselves that 2021 is going to be different!

But, it won’t be. The new year is going to look very, very similar to the old one in ways both great and small.

READ: If anything will save us from the plight of 2020, it’s empathy

To begin with, the pandemic isn’t suddenly going away. The vaccine is here, but distribution will take time. What’s worse, a shockingly large number of you don’t trust this vaccine, science in general or objective reality. You will refuse to get inoculated; you may also criminally drag your children along into your benighted cave; and you will ensure that thousands more will needlessly die before this is all over. Thank you for that.

Even after the pandemic is gone, the impact of the virus will linger for a very long time. The world has experienced the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and while markets are up, high levels of unemployment will continue to plague us into 2021. Many of the small businesses that closed will not be coming back, as Amazon and other online megafauna continue to dominate the ecosystem, and as some customers permanently adopt their pandemic habits of shopping on the web or realize they don’t actually miss going to the movies.

There will also be ongoing social impacts. Don’t expect a sudden frenzy of hugging and hand shaking. The instinct to keep six feet from everyone will last well into 2021 and possibly beyond. Like Asia, we may even see face masks become a common accoutrement long after this specific virus is gone.

READ: What’s in store for a post-Trump America? An Idaho town may have the answer.

The year ahead will also continue to include large and unhealthy doses of Donald Trump. He will leave the White House on Jan. 20, possibly even under escort, but he will remain one of the most important political actors in the United States, and consequently the world. He will continue to hold rallies, where he will make headlines with outrageous accusations and self-serving lies. Trump will probably start charging admission and will most certainly set up a super PAC that will attract millions in donations. This money will then be used to primary Republicans who are not sufficiently loyal to him and his campaign for re-election in 2024. The Republican party will not be escaping his influence this year, nor in the years to come.

And, as Trump did with birtherism prior to entering politics, he will spend the year ahead whipping up his supporters to believe the Democratic president is illegitimate and that the election was stolen. Already, 80 per cent of Trump voters believe Joe Biden was illegally elected. This myth will only grow in popularity and will almost inevitably become a rallying cry for a generation of right-wing Americans, enraged at how they were victimized, and convinced that the Democrats are the enemy. So in spite of the incoming president’s sincere efforts to reach across the aisle, in 2021 America’s partisan divide will remain and likely worsen.

Because of this, the decline of American democracy will continue apace. The new year will not usher in an era of political reform and a civic renaissance. The political polarization will continue the legislative gridlock, hampering any efforts by President Biden to address voter suppression, gerrymandering or electoral reform. The politicians most responsible for the Republican party’s anti-democratic tendencies, men like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Devin Nunes, were all re-elected. They will continue to dance to Trump’s tune, or more accurately, mimic the gyrations of his captivated base.

Not coincidentally, Canada and the rest of America’s allies will continue to treat the United States as a dangerous friend. There will be no reversion to a pre-2016 world that puts Washington at the centre of all things. Ottawa will keep strengthening its diplomatic ties with Berlin and Paris. The multilateral community will continue to assume that the U.S. cannot be relied upon to lead and, in some cases, must even be contained. Regardless of Biden’s assurances that “America is back,” his intentions to rejoin the Paris accord, and his vocal support for NATO, the United Nations and the WTO, the world must operate under the assumption that Trump—or worse, another Republican politician who combines Trumpism with competence—will return to office in 2024. This threat, always at least four years away, will ensure America never leads the Western alliance again.

Eliot also wrote in “Little Gidding” that “last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” This will most certainly not be the case in 2021. Expect the same language, the same voices, the same gloomy melody and the same lamenting chorus. Happy New Year!


This column appears in print in the January 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “2021: Once more but with feeling.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Politics

Old man Trudeau enters a likely election year as the veteran politician

The leader who rode youthful optimism to power will now contend with a pack of fresh faces in 2021 as an election likely looms

After Donald Trump had been defeated by president-elect Joe Biden, but before Trump had emotionally processed that fact, Justin Trudeau gave a press conference. The Prime Minister was asked whether he had spoken “too soon” in offering his congratulations to Biden and what he could do about Trump’s refusal to concede. He was pleased to congratulate the incoming president and had full confidence in the American electoral system, Trudeau said, and his government would work with the current administration until the end of January, at which point they would work with the new one.

“President Biden, once he’s sworn into office, will be my third American president,” Trudeau said. “We’ve demonstrated an ability to stand up and defend Canadian interests throughout, which we will do as we move forward.”

There was something novel—jarring, even—in hearing this Prime Minister point out that he had seen three Oval Office occupants come and go during his time, like some wizened old sea captain squinting dispassionately at one more sunset with no surprises to offer.

READ: A Biden-Trudeau partnership will require real work

Contrast that with the end of 2013, when Trudeau was the new Liberal leader and then-prime minister Stephen Harper began placing his people in the Tory firmament for an election that would take place 18 months into the future. Far from being chagrined at the idea of running against a man who had won three elections in a row, Trudeau was delighted to be facing off against Harper, because his team planned to frame the election around a clear contrast; as he put it at the time: “I need old.”

It’s a reasonable bet that a federal election will take place in 2021. And whether Trudeau calls, forces or allows one at what he believes to be an opportune moment, he will do so as a grizzled veteran, and not some impetuous wunderkind. On Christmas Day 2020, Trudeau will enter his 50th year, making him the oldest of his competitors, if only by 13 months over Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. That was true during the 2019 campaign, too, but this time around, Trudeau will be an experienced hand in a field of fresh faces, with O’Toole and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul each leading their parties through their first campaigns, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is at the helm of his second, but retains a freshman quality.

Whenever the election occurs, it will be Old Man Trudeau and a pack of newbies on the trail.

It’s a strange role for a man who led the Liberals to a majority in 2015 on a wave of energy, uplift and change, and whose entire existence as a national politician has centred on youthfulness—for better (exuberance, idealism, the ambitious upside of confident optimism) and for worse (self-righteousness, cliquishness, the cloying downside of confident optimism).

And the shift goes well beyond shallow branding; many of the promises and policies that were most pointedly associated with the fresh approach of the Trudeau government have evaporated or curdled.

Electoral reform is dead in the water. Trudeau’s call for government to be “open by default” has become an access to information system so backlogged and recalcitrant that it won’t comply with the information commissioner’s own ruling on a complaint, compelling Caroline Maynard to go public with her unmet pleas for “strong leadership” and more funding to keep her system functioning. Before the end of the year, the Liberal government was set to unveil the climate legislation that aims to get Canada to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but the bill would reportedly contain “mandatory targets” with no enforcement mechanism. Canada failing to meet its climate targets is a perpetual problem that long predates the Trudeau Liberals, but it would be a uniquely bad showing for a government that has made action on climate change and adherence to scientific advice so central to its mission.

In the game of minority parliamentary chicken that saw the Conservatives demand a dump truck full of documents and carte blanche to call witnesses related to the WE Charity scandal in October, Trudeau’s response, which successfully called their bluff, was a flinty-eyed veteran move.

“Facing down an opposition threat without giving ground is not the work of a political ingenue,” says John Duffy, a long-time Liberal adviser and founder of StrategyCorp.

READ: On climate, at last, Justin Trudeau is all in

To Duffy, the best-before date on a politician is determined in large part by a sort of dance between the vision of the country that a leader offers and where citizens are or want their country to be. Trudeau has long embodied a Canada with features like legalized cannabis, unambiguous support for LGBTQ+ people and gender equity, democratic reform and serious action on climate change, he says, and many voters felt like the country was already there and Stephen Harper’s government was very much not. “2015 was magical,” Duffy says. “Part of the reason it was magical is that Trudeau was able to embody and project and promise a version of Canada that I think a lot of people thought was overdue.”

What happens to most governments that are good at retaining power, he says, is that relationship eventually flips and the government seems past its prime, becoming a throwback people are ready to move on from.

“I don’t see any party having an offering that eclipses Trudeau’s fundamental characteristic, which is that he’s contemporary,” says Duffy.

That’s likely true as far as it goes, but there is more than one direction you can travel to end up seeming out of step with the country.

And O’Toole’s strategy for the campaign, whenever it begins, makes it clear that his camp is betting on a very different sort of mismatch between leadership and the national mood.

There are two key contrasts with Trudeau that O’Toole’s team plans to spotlight. The first is that he’s a pure suburbanite—he grew up in the ’burbs, lives there now, represents suburbanites—which is a proxy for being middle class and understanding the problems of normal people who did not grow up with a millionaire prime minister father. The second defining trait O’Toole will emphasize to voters is his military service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which is intended to demonstrate patriotism, duty and leadership, but also the ability to prove yourself based solely on your loyalty and job performance. The first contrast is what previous Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tried strenuously to leverage in 2019, but the second takes a page from the Stephen Harper playbook of seeking out elements of Canadian patriotism that can belong to Conservatives when the Liberals try to wrap themselves in the flag.

But, more to the point, both of these facets of O’Toole speak to an attempt to offer a very mature, grounded, old-school sort of leadership, in keeping with the Tory strategy to expand their voter base by drawing in working-class people who don’t normally turn out at the polls.

In mid-November, Angus Reid found that Trudeau’s personal approval rating had rebounded to 49 per cent, from a dip into the mid-40s over the summer while the WE controversy roiled. Two-thirds of Canadians think the Liberal government has done a good job handling COVID-19, and that opinion has remained steady since the spring.

One-quarter of Canadians, meanwhile, said they had no opinion of O’Toole one way or the other, but that was down from 39 per cent right after he won the leadership two months earlier. His favourability rating increased by six points over that time, to 36 per cent, but his unfavourability climbed by nine points as well, to 40 per cent. Singh is viewed favourably by 49 per cent of Canadians, compared to 41 per cent who don’t like him, while 50 per cent say they have no opinion of Paul.

But if polling paints an image of a Prime Minister who would be running against a field of walking question marks if the campaign started tomorrow, O’Toole’s camp says that is both expected and not a concern.

Tory research shows that while Trudeau’s personal brand remains quite strong, his vulnerabilities lie in “the old Liberal problem of entitlement”—with SNC-Lavalin looming larger than WE Charity in focus groups—along with untrustworthiness and disappointment, a Tory strategist who spoke on background says. “I’m convinced you won’t succeed—I’ve been convinced ever since he became leader in 2013—in making people dislike Trudeau, apart from people who identify as Conservatives. And you won’t make people believe that he’s in politics for the wrong reasons or he’s driven by the wrong things,” they say. “But he is vulnerable in those three areas.”

The big political X factor, as it has been in life in general for the past year, is the pandemic. “It’s not just a top-of-mind concern, it’s the lens through which they view everything else,” the Conservative strategist says.

Which is why the battle plans for a probable 2021 election are not being drawn in anticipation of a fight over being modern or likable or even empathetic or competent in the midst of a still-unfolding crisis; this is simply about asking voters to choose a steady hand on the wheel in still-stormy seas.


This article appears in print in the January 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Old man Trudeau.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Ottawa

338Canada: What the polls told us in 2020

Philippe J. Fournier: The Liberals escape 2020 holding a significant lead. The Tories still need a place to grow. And the NDP sees a flicker of promise.

From a purely political point of view, the year 2020 was a great year for incumbents in Canada. Case in point: In all three provincial elections held this year, all incumbents were re-elected to majorities. Also, aside from recent numbers in Alberta, satisfaction with provincial governments have remained high all throughout the first and second wave of the pandemic. In the spring, even as Quebec and Ontario had the worst infection rates in the country, Premiers François Legault and Doug Ford kept high satisfaction numbers (above 80 per cent for several weeks) with their constituents.

On the federal scene, satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic has remained high throughout 2020. The latest figures from Léger showed a 66 per cent satisfaction rate nationally—a proportion that goes well beyond partisan lines—with rates at or above 50 per cent in every polling region of the country (yes, including Alberta).

Allow me to share a few data-based thoughts on where the main federal parties stand for this final 2020 column :

  • What did the polls tell us this year? When the pandemic reached Canada’s borders in March, the Liberals and leaderless Conservatives were stuck in a statistical tie near their respective 2019 election results. Soon after, the Liberals jumped in the lead nation-wide, and rode this wave through the spring and early summer with a stable double-digit lead. But then July and August featured the WE Charity scandal/affair (depending on one’s point of view), which brought the Liberals down to Earth, but still the LPC kept the lead nationally. Since August, we have measured no significant movement for either the Liberals or the Conservatives (see graph below):



  • The Liberals end 2020 with a narrow, albeit significant lead in voting intentions. I specify narrow, because the average LPC lead is currently 6 points, so even a modest polling error in favour of the Conservatives could transform this projection into a much closer race than forecasted. In the graph below, we notice the Liberal and Conservative national vote projections do overlap after all.



  • Nonetheless, the Liberal lead is also significant for many reasons, one of them being the regional breakdown of the projection still heavily favour the LPC. Even though the Conservatives elected a new leader in Erin O’Toole back in August, they have yet been able to move the needle where the party needs the most: The CPC still trails the Liberals in Ontario by an average of eight points, and it remains a distant third in Quebec with an average of 17 per cent, far behind the Liberals (37 per cent) and the Bloc Québécois (28 per cent).
  • Additionally, although the Conservatives won the popular vote in British Columbia in the 2019 election, their polling average in the province currently stands at only 26 per cent, in a statistical tie with both the Liberals and the NDP. With Alberta and most of the Prairies already locked in for the CPC, where would the Conservatives find enough winnable ridings to unseat the Liberals in a general election? Atlantic Canada also shows little potential to the CPC.
  • Seat-wise, the Liberals end 2020 with enough support that either a strong(-er) minority or a razor-thin majority would be the most likely scenarios should current voting intentions translate into actual votes. The 338Canada model has the Liberals at an average of 168 seats, just below the 170-seat threshold for a majority at the House of Commons. The Conservatives slip to an average of 104 seats, their lowest projection since July.



  • About the NDP: The latest polls have detected an upward trend for Jagmeet Singh and his team in December. Whereas the NDP had remained mostly stable around the 15 to 17 per cent mark all year (matching its 2019 election result), the most recent polls measured NDP support in the 19-23 per cent range. This modest but notable shift does not appear to have come from current Liberal supporters, but from potential Conservative and Green voters. These potential Orange-Blue and Blue-Green voters will be ones to watch in 2021.
  • Time will tell whether this is a mere statistical blip or a new trend on the eve of 2021. Nevertheless, the NDP’s current 338Canada average is 20 per cent of the national vote and 36 seats—the party’s highest projection of 2020. As you can see on the seat probability density graph below, the NDP’s best case scenario with current levels of support even ranges in the high 40s to the low 50s in terms of seats.



  • As for the Bloc Québécois, it maintained a level of support slightly under its 2019 results (32 per cent and 32 seats) throughout 2020. The rise in support for the Liberals that lasted through the spring and for most of the summer did not sink the Bloc, neither did the arrival of Erin O’Toole at the helm of the CPC, even though O’Toole did spend time and efforts courting the province in the fall—and was even a marquee guest on Tout le monde en parle, the popular Sunday night talkshow on Radio-Canada. In Quebec, the Bloc and the CPC are targeting similar demographics: soft nationalist voters that live in either rural or suburban Quebec. Winning over many of these voters would make the math of a CPC victory much simpler for O’Toole and his team.
  • The Bloc ends 2020 with an average of 28 seats and just under 30 per cent of support in the province. Considering Yves-François Blanchet started his first campaign with popular support in the mid-teens back in August 2019 and ended one point short of the lead in Quebec on election night, many BQ supporters are hopeful the party could grow its support even more should a federal election get under way this coming spring.



  • Finally, a word on the federal Green Party: new leader Annamie Paul lost her bid to win a seat in the House of Commons in October running in the generally safe Liberal seat of Toronto Centre, but she did gather more than 8,000 votes and a respectable 33 per cent of the vote. However, her leadership victory has failed to move the needle in favour of the GPC thus far, and lack of visibility in the political arena may hinder her own notoriety. Finding a new winnable riding could be a major challenge for Paul and the Greens in 2021 (unless a current Green MP resigns?). Which will it be? Guelph in Ontario? Beauséjour in New Brunswick, or maybe Charlottetown in P.E.I?

I would be remiss if I didn’t end this final 2020 column by thanking readers and fellow data nerds from coast to coast who comment, criticize and help improve the 338Canada project—especially readers in provinces where elections were held in 2020: New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. In these three elections, the 338Canada model correctly identified the winner in 91 per cent of all electoral districts. It would not have been possible without your continued support, and for this I thank you very kindly.

Merry Christmas, happy Holidays and I wish you all a safe and healthy 2021.

Ottawa

Bardish Chagger reflects on a tumultuous 2020 in Ottawa

The minister for diversity and inclusion and youth hopes the Liberals can document their lessons learned for the benefit of future governments, but she's not willing to say much about the failed student service grant

Bardish Chagger is Canada’s first-ever minister for diversity and inclusion and youth. Chagger has sat at the cabinet table for every second of the Trudeau era, including stints as minister for small business and government House leader. A few months into the pandemic, Chagger found herself in the hot seat for her role in the WE Charity scandal that rocked Ottawa for much of the summer—and eventually led to Bill Morneau’s resignation as finance minister. Chagger’s contacts with WE before the program was announced came under intense scrutiny. As 2020 winds down, Chagger spoke to Associate Editor Nick Taylor-Vaisey about what her job entails, why her portfolio was so important in a pandemic and whether or not she would do anything differently if she could do it all again.

Q: What exactly is a minister for diversity and inclusion and youth, and what do you do?

A: In Canada, diversity has always been one of our greatest strengths. Yet, we know that a multicultural society, one that is truly open and inclusive, is always a work in progress. It demands our effort and our attention and our care. Having a full voice at the cabinet table to ensure that we are conscious about the decisions we are making to be inclusive is essential. Yes, we need to celebrate our diversity. But diversity comes in many different ways. Diversity of regions, perspectives, gender. We need to include all of that so people can realize their potential and be their true, authentic selves, which would benefit the entire country.

Q: Your mandate letter includes 23 priorities. That’s a lot of priorities. Which are your top priorities this year?

A: The pandemic, which has impacted the entire world, all Canadians and disproportionately certain segments, has really shone light on the systemic inequalities that exist in our country. As we are building back even better, something that’s important to me is making sure we’re also building back consciously more inclusively. So that we’re ensuring underrepresented and underserved communities’ voices are not only just being heard, but represented.

That’s where it’s essential, in all aspects of my portfolio, for that to be the underlying foundation. So whether it’s my work with the youth secretariat or the LGBTQ2 secretariat, or the anti-racism secretariat, it’s essential that these voices inform, at minimum, through their lived experiences, the policies and programs we advance—so they help the very people that we are here to serve.

Q: Did you have to throw the mandate letter’s framework out the window because the pandemic disrupted how the government functioned?

A: My mandate letter actually became more relevant because of the pandemic. I think the pandemic has exposed the need for this portfolio. We can’t leave people on the sidelines. We have to make sure Canadians are able to contribute, to realize their potential, to be themselves, to help strengthen their communities and our economy.

Q: When you look back at 2020, what were your biggest accomplishments?

A: I’m proud of the anti-racism action program, and the 85 projects that were announced from coast to coast to coast with an investment of $15 million. We were able to make a virtual announcement and connect these projects and organizations with each other across the country, which actually helps to build that network of working together to build back consciously inclusive.

I really appreciate that we set up the equity-seeking task force through the public service, so we were more conscious and cognizant about the decisions we were making when it came to equity-seeking communities. That’s something that happened with the partnership of the anti-racism secretariat, as well as Women and Gender Equality Canada, and they had people from all departments and agencies that are part of this table so that we were actually aware of who we were making decisions for, and who is not being represented.

Q: Where didn’t you make more progress, but wish you had?

A: The Government of Canada did make investments in 15 projects when it comes to the blood ban for men who have sex with men. I look forward to seeing progress on the results of the research to see if that blood ban can be eliminated. It is not only a campaign commitment, but I think evidence will prove we can eliminate the deferral period. I would like to see that move ahead.

Q: Ending the blood ban was a Liberal election promise in 2015. You’ve taken some action on that, reducing the period during which men can’t donate after having sex with men to three months, but the fact is a ban does remain. Why is that? And what will it take to end it?

A: Our government believes in making decisions based on evidence and science. That’s where it’s great that it was able to come down to three months. We have made investments in research, and we look forward to Héma-Quebec and Canadian Blood Services asking for that deferral to be removed. Everyone is aware it’s in our platform commitments, everyone is aware that we are paying close attention to that. We want to see that through.

Q: Who still needs to be convinced?

A: I’m not basing my discussion on ideology. I’m basing it on science and evidence. The research that’s being done—we need to get that research. If because of the pandemic people were not able to do that work or do that research or obtain that evidence, I can’t comment on that situation. Many people have been derailed from the work they were doing.

Q: Your colleague Carla Qualtrough has told me a couple of times that the Liberal government took more risks in the pandemic out of necessity, and she was open about some of the mistakes along the way. If you had a second chance, what do you think you would have done differently?

A: There was no playbook when it came to the global pandemic. Everyone has had to respond to it in their own way. I actually echo some of Minister Qualtrough’s comments. I actually think our government was able to respond really quickly. We had to push really hard to get the response to be as quick as it was. You can always push for better.

I do appreciate that we did course-correct on numerous occasions based on feedback we were getting. MPs being able to be in their ridings, because we were all working remotely, was really important because you could actually get to hear directly from your constituents.

Based on the information we had, we continued responding and working all around the clock. There’s been a lot of learning that’s happened. I would hope we do document this so that if there was a need to have a similar response, whether it’s this government or a future government, that we actually have the best practices shared so we aren’t starting from square one.

Q: The pace of government sped up dramatically in those early months, with such condensed timeframes.

A: Condensed, but measures were always in place. It’s sometimes just a matter of looking at the processes. A longer process doesn’t necessarily make it more effective. That’s where we do need to look at the pace that government travels. I think we’re going to have to have these conversations. Now that Canadians know we can respond quicker, there might be a new expectation out there.

Q: What did you take away from the controversy surrounding the Canada Student Service Grant? Is there anything you would have done differently there?

A: The Canada Student Service Grant was part of a suite of programs we were advancing for youth and students. This program was an additional program to recognize the diversity of needs that young people have. When it came to young people needing to pay their tuition and rent, we made sure the Canada Emergency Student Benefit was there. For students who wanted to gain work experience, we modified the Canada Summer Jobs Program, as well as strengthened other programs for young people who are entrepreneurs and wanted to set up their business.

When it came to the service grant, we were working at a historic pace. We’ve never had to respond to a pandemic. Yes, a lot was learned. Yes, the program did not unfold the way we intended it to. But what is clear is that young people have also been impacted by this pandemic and our government will continue to respond to those needs.

Q: But is there anything you would have done differently?

A: The program did not unfold as we wanted it to. We know the importance of service opportunities across the country, and that’s why our government has advanced the Canada Student Corps. That’s why we have a youth policy for the first time in the history of our country. Did we learn? Yes, we’ve learned a lot throughout the pandemic as to how we ensure that we are agile enough to modify programs as needs arise.

NEWSLETTER

Canada is planning for a literal moonshot as soon as 2023

Politics Insider for Dec. 17: A Canadian will join a mission to orbit the moon, Carla Qualtrough admits the government's mistakes and Santa Claus is declared an essential worker

Welcome to a sneak peek of the Maclean’s Politics Insider newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered straight to your inbox.

A little piece of Canada is resting on the moon. When the first lunar module touched down on July 20, 1969, its legs were manufactured by a Quebec-based company named Héroux Machine Parts. This is the sort of trivia Canadians take seriously. Nobody builds space appendages better than us. We’re even building our third Canadarm for the Lunar Gateway space station. But yesterday came a significant new announcement: Canada will send two more arms, and another pair of legs, into outer space. As early as 2023, a Canadian astronaut will orbit the moon.

The news wasn’t universally embraced. Michael Byers, a former NDP candidate who’s an expert on the Arctic at the University of British Columbia, likened a moon orbit that didn’t include a lunar landing to being “invited to the prom but having to wait outside.” Many of us regret our proms, but anyone who was left on the outside witnessing a stunning Earthrise—the phenomenon first seen by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968—would surely not complain. NASA has already published a map of the flight trajectory for Artemis II, which will fly further from our planet than any manned flight in history.

Liberals hoped Canada would embrace their risk-taking. Did it work? Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough sat down with your newsletter correspondent for a year-end interview. She got candid about what her government did right in 2020, and also where they went wrong. She commented on a brewing controversy involving CERB recipients who might actually be ineligible for the program—even though they thought they were following the rules.

At some point, I don’t know when that would be, we’re going to start collecting. We have a commitment to be as compassionate as we can be. Maybe you’re paying $25 a month. There are circumstances where interest can be forgiven. There are programs in existence that will help minimize the difficulty that people will face. But right now, no, there is no commitment to basically forgiving debt that was incurred in good faith.

The Navy has called off the search for Master Sailor Duane Earle, who’s believed to have accidentally fallen overboard HMCS Winnipeg on Monday. Earle’s death was a harsh reminder that working on the ocean can be dangerous business. Today marks the two-year anniversary of a daring rescue in the North Atlantic in which brave sailors and airmen saved a panicked yacht crew who were adrift at sea.

The Public Health Agency of Canada pegs the number of opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and June 2020 at 17,602. New data also says the number of deaths between April and June jumped 58 per cent from January to March levels. New modelling says opioid-related deaths “may remain high over the next months and surpass levels seen in the past.”

Yesterday, Erin O’Toole backed off comments he’d made to young Conservatives at Ryerson University last month. PressProgress reported on a video in which O’Toole said the architects of residential schools had “meant to try and provide education.” O’Toole sent a statement to Global News that clarified the architects actually “intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures.” We also have a mea culpa: In yesterday’s newsletter, we were unfair in our characterization of PressProgress’s headline, which we said “torqued” O’Toole’s original comments.

Top 10 weather events of 2020: Yes, the federal government really does rank these things, and with lengthy explanations to boot. The biggest weather event of the year was [redcated]’s billion-dollar [redacted]. What, you thought we’d spoil the fun?

An eagle-eyed reader noticed something we missed in a federal call-out for an access-to-information consultant. The document stipulates that in the case of a tie between two bids, the winner will be declared by coin toss. There’s even a Coin Toss Agreement and extremely detailed coin-toss instructions with this tidbit on a certain statistical anomaly: “Even on a flat surface, it is possible for a coin to land on its edge, with a chance of about 1 in 6000.”

Santa Claus is an essential worker: That’s the determination of Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer, who gave the news to the man himself on a video call. Does Canada even have jurisdiction over the North Pole’s most famous resident? Well, never forget that back in 2013, at the height of the Mike Duffy scandal, then-MP Paul Calandra bestowed this country’s citizenship on Saint Nick. Watch his glorious deadpan with your own eyes.

Give the gift of Maclean’s. It’s easy, affordable and they’ll enjoy it all year long!