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Chantal Hébert: When MPs return after summer break, the political landscape might not be as hospitable for Justin Trudeau

Chantal Hébert: When MPs return after summer break, the political landscape might not be as hospitable for Justin Trudeau
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MONTREAL—Canada’s parliamentarians are about to adjourn their debates for the summer possibly to return only after a general election. One way or another, they are in for a somewhat different political conversation next fall.

With every passing week this spring, other issues have slowly been pushing the pandemic off centre stage. In the House of Commons, election fever and its attending partisan symptoms have been running rampant. The result has been an increasingly toxic environment.

The summer parliamentary ceasefire may help clear the air. But it may be that the only lasting cure will be a return to the polls. Such is the reality of minority parliaments.

At the same time, tensions on the federal-provincial front are set to rise.

The one-year countdown to a 2022 spring election is already underway in Ontario. With an election set for the fall of next year, Quebec will soon follow suit. And Alberta is gearing up for a provincial plebiscite on equalization in October that seems bound to exacerbate regional divisions.

Trudeau is planning to meet the premiers in person early in the fall. It may not be the most cordial post-pandemic get-together.

The summer will also see major changes that could alter the relationships between the current government and some key participants in the political conversation.

On July 1, Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella will retire. Over her long and remarkable tenure, she had become the leading progressive voice on the top court. It will take a while to measure the impact of her departure on the philosophical balance on the court.

Between Quebec’s securalism regime, the constitutional moves of that province but also of Ontario and eventually Alberta, there is no lack of defining issues to land on the top court’s docket over the next few years.

With the proposed appointment to the top court this week of Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Mahmud Jamal, the prime minister is breaking new ground.

Trudeau’s bilingual nominee will be the first person of colour to sit on the Supreme Court. He has been described by his peers as a formidable legal mind. Who knows? Even the Star’s editorial board may come to find that the bilingualism criteria is not an impediment to the recruitment of top-notch Ontario legal talent for the Supreme Court.

Over on the union front, Hassan Yussuff’s seven-year tenure as head of the Canadian Labour Congress came to an end this week. It is hard to think of a CLC leader who has had a more cordial relationship with a federal government.

In return, rarely has the Canadian union movement had a front-row seat at as many government tables, including that of the recent NAFTA renegotiation.

Critics fault Yussuff for a major loosening of the traditional relationship between the union movement and the New Democratic Party.

Trudeau has certainly been an active participant in that shift. But it really was Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper who played matchmakers in the rapprochement between organized labour and the federal Liberals.

Chrétien’s decision to ban union and corporate donations to Canada’s political parties could not but change the nature of the relationship between big business, big labour and their respective political allies. He who no longer pays the piper does not as frequently get to call the tune.

And then, with the passing of legislation designed to clip the trade union movement’s wings, the Harper government burned a lot of bridges. On that score, the recent Conservative party tenure bore little resemblance to the days when former prime minister Brian Mulroney would not cross hotel picket lines to deliver speeches.

In time, the election of a non-conservative government came to take absolute precedence over advancing the fortunes of the NDP. Once the New Democrats stopped looking like they were best placed to beat the Conservatives in 2015, the party’s interest and that of the labour congress diverged.

It is an open question whether Yussuff’s departure will lead to a recalibrating of the congress’s political relationships.

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Earlier this week, the Senate passed into law Canada’s commitment to align its legislative regimen to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

As Bellegarde takes his leave, the new law heralds the beginning of another intense round of discussions rather than the end of a process.

The balancing act involved in managing Indigenous expectations and the frustrations attending progress that tends to proceed at glacial pace is not about to become less challenging. And on this sensitive front, as in the case of the labour movement, Trudeau may be hard-pressed to find interlocutors as like-minded as those who are departing.
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