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The move signals that the Trudeau government is unlikely to depart from the corporate-friendly trade policies of his predecessor, says Dimitri Lascaris

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. On Tuesday, in preparation for the new Trump administration coming into office in Washington, just north of us, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled six members of his cabinet, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of International Trade and the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour. Joining us to take a closer look at this development is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is the former Justice Critic in the Green Party of Canada’s shadow cabinet and he’s a Real News board member and a laureate. Thank you so much for joining us, Dimitri. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you for having me, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Dimitri, three of the positions I mentioned are pivotal for US/Canada relations — that is, the foreign ministry and the trade ministry and perhaps the labor or workforce development issues. Give us a sense of the foreign ministry change and who’s leaving, who’s coming in. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Yeah, so that would be equivalent, I suppose, of the United States Secretary of State. And that position had been occupied up until today by Stéphane Dion, a politician of extensive experience in Canadian federal politics, former leader of the Liberal Party which is currently the governing party. He also served as a minister for almost a decade, including as the Environment Minister, in prior governments. So he was appointed to be the Foreign Minister when the government assumed power late in 2015, and now a little more than a year into his tenure as Foreign Minister, he’s being replaced by the Minister of International Trade, somebody by the name of Chrystia Freeland — someone who in the relatively short time she’s been government has been focused upon the portfolio of trade. And this is very important because Trump has said that he is going to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is of very central importance to the relationship between Canada and the United States, and if he doesn’t get the deal that he wants he’s going to rip it up. So someone needs to be in that portfolio, I think the perception is, who has significant understanding of the trade portfolio. And the other thing is Chrystia Freeland has significant experience in the United States. She was the Managing Editor of the Financial Times based in New York City for a while. And in that capacity she has a significantly greater understanding of the American economy and the political environment than Stéphane Dion would have had. So I think for all of those reasons she was viewed as being a better candidate to deal with the incoming U.S. administration than Stéphane Dion. SHARMINI PERIES: Yes, as you read the new press out there about the cabinet shuffle, a lot of press are leading the story with Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, reshuffles his cabinet to prepare himself to deal with the new government that’ll be sworn in the U.S. in just a few days. So that, itself, is interesting. One of the contested issues between the Obama administration and Justin Trudeau’s administration is the XL Pipeline. Tell us a little bit more about that and how you think Chrystia Freeland, the new Foreign Minister, will be dealing with this. DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’m sure you’re referring to the Keystone XL Pipeline that was ultimately nixed after long and torturous consideration by the Obama administration. There isn’t an oil project that Trump doesn’t like. The man is completely hell bent upon developing all possible resources of fossil fuels, even coal. And he’s indicated that he is going to resurrect the Keystone XL project, which is something that Justin Trudeau said very clearly he wanted the U.S. government to approve. And so, Freeland, I think, is probably going to be somebody who’s going to be more than happy to advance that particular agenda. And she’ll be looking to take advantage of the fact that the incoming administration seems inclined to resurrect Keystone XL. Dion probably, because of his environmental credentials and his view about the importance of environmental responsibility, would have pushed back on that kind of initiative. I don’t think Chrystia Freeland is going to push back at all. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So tell us more about Chrystia Freeland and where she’s coming from, besides, of course, her financial background as an editor. What is her experience to deal with foreign affairs and how will she be dealing with other countries? DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, she came to office for the first time in 2013; whereas, Stéphane Dion has held office federally for two or three decades. Prior to becoming the Minister of Trade in late 2015, she’d never held a ministerial post in the Canadian government. In fact, she didn’t hold any political office at all prior to 2013. Up until that point in time, virtually her entire career had been devoted to financial journalism. I think, however, that the way she dealt with the Canada-European Trade Agreement was something that earned her a lot of brownie points because that agreement — which the Trudeau government characterized as the gold standard of trade agreements, and one in which it invested a very significant amount of political capital — was, a few months ago, hanging by a thread because of some quick, fierce resistance to that agree within Belgium. And ultimately that resistance was overcome with some concessions that were viewed, I think, by the Canadian government and observers here in Canada, as being not particularly onerous concessions for us to make, and the agreement was salvaged. So the fact that she was able to save the agreement, or was perceived as having played a very constructive role in saving that agreement, I think that Trudeau and his advisors viewed her as being particularly well qualified to try and defend the interests of Canada in any negotiations that may come about with respect to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. So I think that’s primarily what she brings to the table along with her familiarity with the U.S. economy and political environment, because of her work as a journalist. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri, any other big notes on the shuffle? DIMITRI LASCARIS: Sure. One good thing, I think, that we should celebrate is that the incoming Minister of Immigration is the first Somali-Canadian to have held a ministerial post. One thing that can be said about Justin Trudeau’s cabinet selections from the time he took office is that he has been much more interested in ensuring ethnic, religious diversity in his cabinet and gender parity. That tradition is continuing and I think that’s a good thing. But, typically, the Minister of Immigration is not somebody who wields a great deal of power in the cabinet. Somebody who will likely wield significantly more power is the new International Trade Minister who is going to be replacing Chrystia Freeland. He’s a lawyer by the name of, ironically, Champagne. And Mr. Champagne has a background as a corporate lawyer. He worked for a large Swiss conglomerate for many years. And it may seem to a lot of sort of ordinary observers or average citizens that putting somebody with a corporate lawyer background in that particular portfolio … in the Trade portfolio, but there’s absolutely no reason why that portfolio can’t be occupied by somebody, for example who comes from a background of organized labor, a background of social justice, a political economy background. Somebody who is going to approach the Trade portfolio with a much more progressive perspective — this is sadly, I think, signaling that the Trudeau government is going to continue to pursue quite vigorously other trade agreements in the future, and that they are not going to depart from, not in any significant sense, from the trade policies of the predecessor government, which were really sort of corporate-friendly trade policies and anti-labor trade policies. So I think that is not a good sign that Chrystia Freeland has been replaced by a corporate lawyer who worked for a Swiss conglomerate for many years. SHARMINI PERIES: And Dimitri, just on a final note, just recently, actually last week, we saw that Justin Trudeau has slipped, as far as popularity polls are concerned, in terms of favorability of how he’s doing his job, has slipped by 10%, I understand. And this is just a year after being in office. Tell us what that was about. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, he was at 65% approval rating in September and then in mid-December the polls showed that he’d dropped to 55%. So he still has a robust approval rating. And just sort of stepping back for a moment, it’s important to understand that he is in an extraordinarily favorable position in terms of his popularity ratings because the two main opposition parties, the Conservatives and the traditionally left-leaning NDP, are essentially in disarray at the moment. Neither of them has a leader. They both have interim leaders and these leadership contests that they’re both pursuing are becoming, particularly in regard to the Conservatives, increasingly belligerent. One of the candidates who’s emerging perhaps as a front-runner in the Conservative race is a reality TV star named Kevin O’Leary, who works for “The Shark Tank” and who once infamously said that 3.5 billion people living in poverty was fantastic. That’s the word that he used. Many Canadians regard him as a sociopath, and you would include me in that. So these are the kinds of opponents that Justin Trudeau, very fortuitously, has to face at the moment from the two major parties. And he’s also young and he’s telegenic and there’s a tremendous amount of relief about the departure of Stephen Harper, who was widely reviled within this country by the time he left office. So he’s operating in a very favorable environment. And my own view is that when he’s ultimately tested we may find that his popularity is a mile wide and an inch deep. And I think that the Trump administration is going to pose such tests. It’s almost certainly going to happen. And when there are leaders of those two parties in place, to join the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, and holding to account Trudeau whenever he commits any errors or missteps of judgement in dealing with Trump and the other challenges that a prime minister must confront, I think that’s when we’re really going to find out how popular he is in this country. For the time being, he still remains significantly popular. I think there was a dip — it was a significant dip because towards the end of the year there was a perception because of some of the reports about his fundraising activities that he was catering to the wealthy. He spent his holidays, apparently, in the Caribbean, with the Agha Khan, a very wealthy individual. He was participating in fundraisers where people were paying up to $1500 a head in order to hobnob with the prime minister. And this is something that the Liberals have mastered over the years — raising money from the elites. And I think that that really sort of rubbed a lot of Canadians the wrong way, and so did his approval of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. There’s very, very intense and broad-based opposition to that pipeline on the West Coast and that’s where the pipeline is ultimately going to be. And I think that he has engendered a lot of hostility in the relatively progressive electorate out in the West Coast. And you know, as I say, as that project unfolds and as that resistance to that pipeline project develops and intensifies, then we’re going to find out exactly how popular Justin Trudeau really is with the Canadian people. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri. I thank you so much for joining us. We’ll see how this evolves over the next few weeks. Usually the first trip that a U.S. President takes abroad is to Canada. So I guess Justin Trudeau’s preparing for that. So we’ll be back talking to you about this very soon. DIMITRI LASCARIS: I look forward to it. Thank you, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining on The Real News Network. ————————- END

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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at