A Cabinet that Looks Like Canada

by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto 

Diversity of all kinds was pivotal for Justin Trudeau in the recent election, and on Wednesday, the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada kept one of his main campaign promises. 

We now have a cabinet that looks like the rest of Canada. Diverse and gender balanced “because it’s 2015” as Trudeau put it.

That didn’t stop him from springing some surprises on the immigration and visible minority files. 

The appointment of John McCallum as minister for immigration, refugees and citizenship is likely to have surprised pundits. 

McCallum, who was the Liberal critic for the same portfolio while in the opposition and a veteran minister in previous Liberal cabinets, was seen as too obvious a choice likely to be overlooked in the quest for fresh blood. 

It looks like the strength of his experience prevailed. McCallum, who told New Canadian Media during the campaign that he would like to see “immigrants being welcomed with a smile instead of a scowl,” now has the daunting task of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end and the long-term mission of revamping the family reunification program. 

There was no surprise in the selection of Navdeep Bains, a long-time Trudeau friend and adviser. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Fittingly, it was Bains who told us that “diversity would be a given in the Trudeau cabinet” because it was an organic part of the larger Liberal team.[/quote]

His important portfolio of innovation, science and economic development is a welcome departure from the previous cabinets where minority ministers only had token presence. 

Fittingly, it was Bains who told us that “diversity would be a given in the Trudeau cabinet” because it was an organic part of the larger Liberal team. 

An accountant and financial analyst and visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, he was an MP from 2004-2011 and served as parliamentary secretary to the PM and a Liberal critic for various portfolios. 

Harjit Sajjan, as Minister of National Defence, was again not a surprise. His appointment marks yet another case of a minority MP getting an important position. Sajjan was the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment. A decorated Afghanistan veteran, he also served with the Vancouver police gang crime unit. 

Sajjan is a member of Trudeau’s economic team announced during the campaign and was seen with him at various stops across the country. As reported earlier, this team has proven to be a precursor of the newly appointed cabinet, with many of its members figuring in it. 

More surprises 

The next three minority ministers came as a surprise. 

Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, has a backstory like no one else’s. 

A three-term Edmonton city councillor, Sohi was a former bus driver. He was also wrongfully imprisoned, without charge, as a terrorist in India. He has gone on and won various awards for his efforts to promote cooperation among cultural groups. 

While Sohi was at least on some speculative lists of likely ministers, Bardish Chagger, the Minister of Small Business and Tourism was on nobody’s list. 

Chagger is a long-time Liberal worker from the time she was a teen and has volunteered for community organizations for the past two decades. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Maryam Monsef is now not only the first Afghan-born MP, but also the first from her ethnicity and the first Muslim to become a minister.[/quote]

She also breaks the usual mould of “ethnic” MPs getting elected from ridings with large minority populations. She was elected from Waterloo-Kitchener, Ontario where not many look like her  family who emigrated from India. 

Like Chagger, Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, also broke new ground by getting elected from Peterborough-Kawartha, Ontario where not many share her heritage. 

Monsef is now not only the first Afghan-born MP, but also the first from her ethnicity and the first Muslim to become a minister. She came to Canada with her single-mother led family as a refugee 20 years ago and went on to co-found a campaign to raise money for women and girls in Afghanistan. 

It must be mentioned that Monsef is the only visible minority minister who is not a Sikh and doesn’t speak Punjabi, now the third most spoken language among the new set of MPs. [Twenty of them speak the language and appropriately, according to Statistics Canada, it is the third most common tongue in Canada after English and French.] 

Empowered women

The absence of tokenism in the cabinet also extends to the gender diversity file. 

Among the women, many have large portfolios. Jody Wilson-Raybould is the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Chrystia Freeland gets international trade, Catherine McKenna is the minister of the now-renamed Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and Dr. Jane Philpott gets health. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]All these women are there not merely because of their gender, but for being high achievers.[/quote]

In addition, Carla Qualtrough, a visually impaired Paralympian, is Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities; Kirsty Duncan, a medical geographer, is Minister of Science; Dr. Carolyn Bennett, is in charge of Indigenous and Northern Affairs; and Patty Hajdu will look after the status of women portfolio. 

All these women are there not merely because of their gender, but for being high achievers. And, this being Canada, there is again diversity among them.  

Wilson-Raybould is from among the eight Liberal Indigenous MPs, a record in itself. She along with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, unlike in previous federal cabinets, did not get pigeonholed into ministries presumed to be natural fits. 

Like a commentator said on CBC, minority and Indigenous ministers have now been “mainstreamed,” while a mainstream minister like Dr. Bennett is in charge of indigenous affairs. 

All of these ministers are also members of various cabinet committees and now have a chance to bring their diverse voices to the highest decision-making table of the land. 

And the calibre of the ministers selected will lay to rest the claim that diversity and merit cannot go together. It no longer is a case of window dressing to meet a certain diversity quotient. 

To borrow from an infamous line in a Conservative attack advertisement against Trudeau, “the cabinet got to balance itself.”

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