Like His Father Before Him, Trudeau Has An Indispensable Lieutenant

Justin Trudeau has found his Marc Lalonde.

Lalonde was famously his father Pierre’s indispensable cabinet minister, serving in a variety of portfolios as each in turn became critical to his government between 1972 and 1984.

Now more than forty years later, Trudeau the son has found a counterpart in his own cabinet.  Chrystia Freeland, who has been moved from Foreign Affairs to Intergovernmental Affairs, and made Deputy Prime Minister as well, is the Lalonde of this generation of Liberals.

Marc Lalonde and Pierre Trudeau forged their political relationship after Trudeau was elected to Parliament in 1965 and was named Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Lester Pearson.  Lalonde was already working in the Prime Minister’s Office and he and Trudeau soon became allies – so much so that when Trudeau succeed Pearson as Prime Minister, he made Lalonde his Principal Secretary.

Four years later at Trudeau’s urging, Lalonde was elected to Parliament and immediately went into cabinet. Medicare was then in its infancy, a source of controversy with various provincial governments and to some extent with the medical community.

As now, the Liberals had gone from a majority to a minority. Into one of the toughest portfolios, Pierre Trudeau inserted Marc Lalonde as Minister of Health. After the Quebec Election in 1976 that brought the separatist Parti Quebec to power, Lalonde was handed that hot potato.

He was named Minister for Federal – Provincial relations and Minister of Justice.

In the 1980’s the pattern continued.  When the oil pricing fight with Alberta was at its height from 1980 to 1982, Trudeau made Lalonde Minister of Energy.  With the economy in the tank in 1982, Lalonde was suddenly Minister of Finance.

Marc Lalonde retired from elected politics along with Pierre Trudeau in 1984. The Prime Minister and his indispensable lieutenant left public life together.

Pierre Trudeau and Marc Lalonde worked their partnership for sixteen years.  The partnership between Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland is much younger, but has room to grow.

After he became leader of the then third place Liberals, Trudeau recruited Freeland to run in a by-election in downtown Toronto. When the Liberals took power in 2015, he named her Minister of International Trade.

As a former international journalist with the Financial Times, Freeland seemed born to the job. And  when Trudeau moved to her to Foreign Affairs, he left her with the responsibly for the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The NAFTA negotiation was the most important issue of the first Trudeau government.  It still awaits ratification in the United States Congress, and tellingly, Trudeau has left the responsibility for bringing the deal to its final successful conclusion with Freeland, even though her hands will be more than full in her new job at Intergovernmental Affairs.

As was the case in 1980, in the recent federal election the Liberals went from a majority to a minority government. And as was the case then, the governing party has no Members of Parliament from either Alberta or Saskatchewan.

Similarly, the energy industry and the economic health of Alberta in particular, are central to the dispute. In 1980 the issue revolved around how to cut up what seemed like a never ending growing pile of money as Arab oil producers in the Middle East kept driving the international price of oil.

Now the dispute is over getting pipelines built at a time when there is wide spread environmental concern over climate change, and when the Alberta oil sands and Canadian oil and bitumen from the oil sands are selling at a discount to already depressed oil prices.

In 1980 the fight between Ottawa and Alberta lead to the formation of groups calling for the separation of the Western provinces from the rest of Canada. Similar groups have been forming recently, although separation now seems more problematic than it did then.

These are the problems Freeland is now taking on. Finish the re-negotiation of NAFTA. Solve the problem of Western Alienation. Sounds like the kind of job that requires a Marc Lalonde.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.