Women take charge of key portfolios in Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet

October 27, 2021
Women take charge of key portfolios in Justin Trudeau's new cabinet
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As any student of government will tell you, there are traditional levers of power in Ottawa: Finance, Foreign Affairs and Defence. 

They constitute the power to spend and make economic policy, the power to manage the country’s image abroad and the power to defend ourselves in a time of crisis.

Those levers are now — for the first time in Canada — collectively in the hands of women: Chrystia Freeland at Finance; Melanie Joly at Global Affairs; and Anita Anand at the Department of National Defence.

“I really, really hope that this is the new norm, rather than just a moment in time where we have women in big files and influential power in government,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Inarguably, Anand has been given the most politically troublesome post. She has been vested with the expectation of bringing about meaningful change in a hidebound military institution which has lurched from crisis to crisis since allegations of sexual misconduct rocked its senior leadership.

The last woman to hold the defence portfolio was Kim Campbell — three decades ago.

Since Anand, the former procurement minister, is walking into the centre of a legal and social hurricane — with nearly a dozen flag and general officers on leave, or facing investigation, or leaving the military altogether — Duval-Lantoine said people should temper their expectations. 

She said it’s critical to attribute the future success or failures of all three women not to their gender, but rather their decisions. 

Appointments bring ‘hope, but with caution’

Each of the ministers will need rock-solid support from their staff and the political backing of the prime minister’s office to drive the necessary change, said Duval-Lantoine.

The appointments, unveiled Tuesday, “bring a lot of hope, but with caution,” she said.

Megan MacKenzie, an expert in security studies and military culture at Burnaby, B.C.-based Simon Fraser University, said the appointments go beyond gender parity and place real power to shape the country’s future in the hands of women.

“They represent a next phase of leadership,” said MacKenzie.

Melanie Joly speaks to reporters shortly after being sworn in as Canada’s foreign affairs minister. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“These are three huge portfolios and they’re being led by women who are relatively early in their careers,” she said. “These are women who’ve shown themselves capable and have not had decades and decades and decades in the service of the party.”

They are, said MacKenzie, part of a generation of women in high-pressure, high-profile positions who’ve had to balance a number of competing demands — professional and personal. 

Anand touched on that theme in her remarks following the cabinet swearing-in on Tuesday.

“I am a determined person,” said Anand. “I work very hard and I focus on results.”

She turned aside questions about how to restore trust in an institution that has been badly damaged and — according to the country’s top military commander — having trouble recruiting and retaining people. Anand said she hasn’t met yet with defence officials, nor been briefed, but believes her background as lawyer and in corporate governance will be important moving forward.

WATCH | Top roles go to women in latest cabinet shuffle: 

Women in top roles in Trudeau’s new cabinet

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has unveiled his new cabinet, which achieves gender parity and puts women in three top roles: finance, defence and foreign affairs. 2:40

The symbolism of having a woman leading the defence ministry is important, especially at this juncture of the sexual misconduct crisis, but it is not a silver bullet solution, said Duval-Lantoine.

“I do not believe appointing a woman is solving the issue, per se,” said Duval-Lantoine.

“It is a short-sighted view because sexual misconduct is not just a woman’s issue, necessarily.”

She went on to cite numerous cases of men being assaulted in the military.

Cultural changes within the military

The problem, Duval-Lantoine said, is what’s being described as the culture of impunity among senior leaders, an environment where certain individuals are protected no matter what they do or how badly they perform.

And that is not just a problem for the military, she said, it extends into the civilian and political spheres where former defence minister Harjit Sajjan was accused of mishandling the misconduct issue.

“The trust in the office of the minister of national defence has been broken, and that goes beyond Sajjan,” said Duval-Lantoine. “One of the first steps she will have to do is work towards re-establishing trust.”

Anand must come out within a few days and firmly state how committed she is to addressing this issue and taking action “in the immediate future,” said MacKenzie, adding that Anand positioning herself as the authority on misconduct is crucial to arresting the downward spiral of the military.

“I think we haven’t had either the prime minister or the minister of defence previously situate themselves as the person who is willing to take responsibility and to lead on this issue.” 

Beyond sexual misconduct, MacKenzie said Anand should consider updating the country’s defence policy in light of the evolving geo-political landscape, which includes the rise of China and ongoing, sometimes belligerent rivalry with Russia.

“I think post-Afghanistan this is a very important moment for regrouping defence commitments and thinking seriously about the fact that Canadians contributed to an international military mission that is largely seen to have been a failure,” said MacKenzie. 

“I think that is a conversation that hasn’t happened.”

Anand’s time at public services and procurement will also possibly put her in a good position for major decisions that will be made on her watch, including the purchase of new fighter jets and the contracting for the construction of the navy’s new frigates.

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