Chrystia Freeland is now the federal finance minister, at a time when Canada is dealing with the biggest budget deficit since the Second World War — a job that will involve planning for an economic recovery as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Freeland was officially sworn in at Rideau Hall Tuesday afternoon. She is the first woman named to the portfolio, which is considered to be a top cabinet post.
Freeland replaces Bill Morneau, who resigned Monday after weeks of controversy over his and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s roles in awarding a sole-source contract to run a student-volunteer program to WE Charity.
Freeland will continue serving as deputy prime minister in addition to taking on finance, but New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc will take over from her in the intergovernmental affairs portfolio.
Trudeau was on hand for the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall Tuesday, as was his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. All of those taking part in the physically distanced ceremony wore masks as they walked in. They removed them to take their oaths of office.
Instead of a hug from Trudeau, as has been his custom in past ceremonies, Trudeau gave Freeland and LeBlanc a congratulatory elbow bump.
The Liberal government is seeking a reset both internally and externally as it tries to recover from the self-inflicted wounds of the WE Charity debacle, and as the country looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trudeau is also preparing to prorogue Parliament in order to come back with a new speech from the throne and an economic update in October. Either could allow opposition parties to vote to bring down the Liberal government and force an election this fall.
Both Morneau and Trudeau are facing ethics investigations for not recusing themselves in the WE Charity deal, given their close family ties to the WE organization.
As the minister of finance, Freeland will help shepherd the government through the biggest economic recovery since the Great Depression. The government has not yet tabled a 2020 budget, because plans to do so in March were upended by the pandemic.
A fiscal snapshot released in July was a bare-bones look at the pandemic relief programs thus far, but provided few details about how the government intends to move out of the crisis.
That plan will come in the throne speech and either a fall economic statement or a budget, which Trudeau is looking now to bring in this fall. He will prorogue Parliament, which would suspend Parliament and all of its committees until after the speech from the throne, but it’s not clear yet when that will happen.
A cabinet retreat is scheduled for Sept. 14.
The House of Commons has a sitting day scheduled for next week, and was scheduled to resume full-time in Sept. 21. Several Commons committees are probing the WE Charity contract, and the potential that progrogation could end or delay their work did not sit well with the opposition.
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said Morneau is just taking the fall for the government and that Trudeau is the one who should resign.
“Bill Morneau is a boy scout next to the Liberal lawbreaker we call Justin Trudeau,” Poilievre told reporters in Ottawa.
Poilievre said he did not have hope that Freeland replacing Morneau would mark a change in policy or direction for the Liberals.
“Regardless, though, of how you play musical chairs, we still have the same corrupt and incompetent prime minister ahead of the same corrupt and chaotic government.”
Poilievre sidestepped questions about whether the Tories would try to trigger an election this fall, saying they want to uncover the full story of the WE controversy so Canadians know all the details before they go to the polls again.
If there is a vote on the throne speech it would be a confidence vote in the government. So would any vote on a budget or economic statement. Because Trudeau only presides over a minority government, opposition parties could choose to bring the Liberals down in either vote.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet last week said he would bring a non-confidence vote himself if Trudeau, Morneau and Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford do not all resign. He said Tuesday a throne speech could just make doing so easier, though he also left the door open to supporting it.
Speaking to his MPs at a caucus retreat in Bonaventure, Que., Blanchet said the party would vote against a throne speech if it does not contain greater health transfers to the provinces, substantially more help for Quebec seniors, and aid to agricultural producers in supply-managed sectors.
The New Democrats have been using their position in the minority Parliament to help Trudeau’s Liberals pass emergency aid legislation, while negotiating changes. The NDP are now asking for a $12-billion investment in child care, including an immediate $2 billion investment so parents — particularly mothers — can go back to work.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says this will remain the NDP’s focus — for now.
“If the Liberal government continues to focus on helping their close friends instead of helping people … then we’ll have to look at all options,” he said Tuesday in Vancouver.
Singh, like Poilievre, pointed out that both Trudeau and Freeland were at the cabinet table for all of the Liberal government’s big controversies, including the WE student grant deal and the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Morneau insisted his decision to leave was based strictly on the fact that he doesn’t intend to run for re-election and his belief that the finance minister must be someone around for the long, hard road to recovery ahead.
He said he intends to run to be the next secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Both Trudeau and Morneau have close family ties to the WE organization have apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision to select WE Charity to administer the multimillion-dollar program. WE backed out of the deal in early July, citing the controversy. Both Trudeau and Morneau are now under investigation by the federal ethics watchdog for possible breaches of conflict of interest rules.
The investigation into Morneau will continue despite his decision to quit this week.
Morneau compounded the controversy by revealing WE Charity had paid over $41,000 in expenses for family trips to see its humanitarian projects in Ecuador and Kenya. Morneau repaid the charity just hours before disclosing the trips during testimony before the Commons finance committee last month.
Mia Rabson and Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press
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