A little reorganization; a lot of meaning!

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his pre-election “dream team” this past week by adjusting his front bench.  Much was made of aligning the Cabinet to bring additional talent to the relationship with Ontario given its change in leadership.   The Prime Minister let go of the intergovernmental affairs portfolio, giving this to his long-time friend and associate, Minister Dominic LeBlanc who was doing a good job as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and therefore considered a strong candidate to take on the challenging intergovernmental job.  

What the media political pundits missed in their analyses was one additional change affecting Minister LeBlanc’s new portfolio.   LeBlanc is responsible for all those thorny relations with the provinces. He is also responsible for internal trade; again, a rather challenging part of his portfolio affecting how much Ontario and British Columbia wines I can legally transport home to Whitehorse (a particularly serious part of the job I must say).  The part that was missed is the middle part of the new title: Minister responsible for Intergovernmental Affairs, Northern Affairs and Internal Trade.  

Before the shuffle, Minister Carolyn Bennett was responsible for the North through her Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.  That Northern Affairs part has now been transferred to LeBlanc’s new portfolio.

Now, why is this at all important?

For the few of us who are North-centric constitution watchers, this is a really big deal.  We’ve come a long way as territories in this federation since the 1970s.

In the late ‘70s and early 1980s the territorial government was a far less sophisticated and robust representative and responsible government in Canada.  I recall, as a young public servant in Yukon’s Executive Council Office in the early 1980s, taking part in a conversation with the Deputy Minister that we were running out of paper for the department, requiring us to be careful about use to fiscal year end at which time we would have a new budget to work with.  In subsequent years, the Deputy Prime Minister, also Yukon’s Member of Parliament, Honourable Erik Nielsen, established Territorial Formula Financing so that the territories no longer had to take their budgets to Ottawa for federal officials to pour over and ultimately to recommend approval! Imagine that – we got to decide how to apportion money to pay for that paper!  

This reflects the extent to which government changed in the 1980s.   Now, in 2018, Yukon has a $1.5 billion budget that the Legislature and the Government can totally control and change to meet the needs of the business of this territory.  

So, why is this portfolio change so important?   In the 1980s I also recall conversations among the territory’s then-constitutional advisors about the importance of having the territorial relationship with the Government of Canada moved from Aboriginal Affairs to the more powerful and central intergovernmental relations agency at the Privy Council Office.  The argument was made then that we looked so much more like a provincial government than a glorified municipal government. These territorial advocates argued forcefully that we should engage with Canada as a junior member of that “provincial club”. It was perhaps a matter of optics, but it was felt that by being part of the Aboriginal Affairs department the North was considered an appendage to the Indigenous agenda in Canada.  I hasten to say that there was no argument about the importance of the Indigenous agenda, but just that the territorial relationship was about placement in the federation in relationship to the Provinces and not about the links to the Indigenous rights debate (a persuasive debate mind you given the Indigenous population percentages of that day: Yukon 25 percent, western NWT 50 percent, and what is now Nunavut 85 percent – these are approximations).    

Well, it took another three decades, but we find a government in Ottawa willing to adjust the federal-territorial relationship such that the Minister responsible for federal interaction between Canada and the provinces now also holds that same responsibility for Canada’s relations with the three territories.  

The statement here is not all that much about substance, as Ottawa, through Territorial Formula Financing, treats the territories extremely well.   This is about the optics of how the federal government perceives the territories’ position within the federation and its governance relationship with all its subnational counterparts.  This move by the Trudeau government indicates that Canada now wants to work with the territories as members of that “club” of provinces. ◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/GBlakeley

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