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Canadian politics 2017: The year in 12 chapters

Morneau’s tax turmoil, two new opposition leaders, border-crossing refugees, Indigenous issues, and coping with a Diet Coke-chugging president
Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to members of the media as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on at a press conference on tax reforms in Stouffville, Ont., on Monday, October 16, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to members of the media as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on at a press conference on tax reforms in Stouffville, Ont., on Monday, October 16, 2017. (Nathan Denette/CP)

During a typical presidential workday (if such a day can be said to exist in the current White House) how many Diet Cokes does Donald Trump reportedly quaff? Early in 2017, when Theresa May was still presiding over a parliamentary majority, how many points did the British prime minister lay out in her master plan for an advantageous British exit from the European Union?

The Trumpian ingestion of the aspartame-laden cola was estimated by the New York Times at a dozen cans a day. And May presented a 12-point scheme, back in January, for a “smooth, orderly” departure from the European experiment. In fact, Brexit remains decidedly disorderly, and voters demoted May’s Conservative from majority to minority status in a June election.

But let’s not allow the delusions and dietary choices prevailing in the anglosphere’s major capitals to distract us further here. (Nor will we fixate on the 12 confirmed test firings by North Korea in 2017 of medium-range, intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.) No, the duodecimal fixation of this space is, as in years past, limited to picking just one story per month to wrap a bow around what Canadian federal politics was in 2017.

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

JANUARY: We noted that a cabinet shuffle moves policies as well as players

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started the year with a cabinet shuffle that signalled a great deal about the months ahead. The big winner was Chrystia Freeland, promoted from trade to global affairs, but retaining—in an unusual twist—authority over Canada-U.S. trade. That meant Freeland would try to salvage something from the NAFTA renegotiation foisted on Canada and Mexico by Trump. There were other notable moves in this shuffle, but none that would resonate through the year like Freeland’s rise.

FEBRUARY: We speculated on what a White House handshake said about Canada-U.S. relations

Visiting the Trump White House for the first time, Trudeau deftly fended off one of the president’s weird handshakes. The meetings were better than cordial. But the real news, emerging then and evolving through the year, was the Trudeau government’s extraordinary outreach to U.S. political forces beyond Trump and his circle. The aim was to build allies for NAFTA, should the protectionist president ultimately scrap the deal.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer announces to a group of asylum seekers that identified themselves as from Haiti, that they will be crossing illegally into Canada as they wait in line to to enter at the US-Canada border in Champlain, New York August 7, 2017. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

MARCH: We wondered what Canada is all about as desperate border-crossers kept coming

Refugees had been crossing the windswept border from Minnesota to Manitoba even in winter’s worst weather, but with spring coming, the government braced for increased numbers. Crossings at other lonely stretches of border, including hot spots in British Columbia and Quebec, continued through the year. Were Canadians susceptible to the anti-refugee anxieties that partly fuelled Trump and Brexit? How would Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen respond? These issues are still very alive at year-end.

Many students use marijuana responsibly, to wind down after an exam or to help them sleep, but universities must also account for problem users. (PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images)

APRIL: We puzzled over a marijuana liberalization law packaged as a get-tough policy

Trudeau’s very first big policy commitment as Liberal leader was to legalize and regulation marijuana. He always presented it, though, counterintuitively: his approach would somehow make it harder for young people to get weed. When Liberal legislation was finally released, the policy was clarified, but that paradox remained. (In fact, Trudeau’s view is at odds with the perspective of Canadian teenagers.) Still, the new law is a landmark, and the year closed with a deal with provinces on splitting the proceeds of a pot tax.

Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer speaks to the crowd during the opening night of the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto on Friday, May 26, 2017. A final winner will be picked to lead the Conservative Party of Canada on Saturday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

MAY: We were surprised when a slow-but-steady campaign prevailed in the Tory leadership

Coming into the final phase of the federal Conservative leadership race, Maxime Bernier was the frontrunner. Would the party really choose a free-market maverick who was against farm marketing boards and the universal health care status quo? Actually, no. After Bernier flopped at the final campaign event, Andrew Scheer prevailed. Saskatchewan MP ran a disciplined, low-key leadership bid, pitching a low-risk platform. Bernier might have been a lightning rod for criticism. Scheer must find a way to generate energy.

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness makea a national security-related announcement at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

JUNE: We took note of how an old pro delivers the political goods with minimal fuss

Back when he was in opposition, Trudeau took a lot of heat from the left for refusing to reject all elements of Stephen Harper’s anti-terrorism law, know as Bill C-51. Instead of vowing to scrap it all, Trudeau said a Liberal government would adapt it. And so, just before summer, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale delivered Bill C-59. Despite our experts calling it “the biggest overhaul in Canadian security” since 1984, it created no controversy. In a cabinet that often faltered in 2017, Goodale—its most seasoned veteran—delivered quietly.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau takes part in a discussion at the fourth annual Canada 2020 Conference in Ottawa Thursday June 15, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

JULY: We were too busy summering to properly notice the fuse being lit for a tax-reform explosion

Few beyond the policy-wonk community were immediately agitated when Finance Minister Bill Morneau released details of a promised move against rich Canadians who use small businesses to reduce their tax burden. The rest of us soon caught up. Morneau’s proposals should have been saleable, but his weak communications skills hampered him. Then the debate was compounded by controversy about his personal financial affairs. Among its many elements, the debate allowed Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre to paint Liberals as out-of-touch elitists.

Carolyn Bennett (left), minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott take questions from media after a Liberal cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

AUGUST: We see from Trudeau’s reassigning of a key talent that Indigenous files need work

Just as Trudeau put Freeland on a tough file back in January, his August shuffle assigned Jane Philpott, his widely admired health minister, to a new portfolio, Indigenous services. It was the ultimate political acknowledgment that 2017 was a year of turmoil on Indigenous issues—especially at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Trudeau later talked about it at the UN. And Philpott posted at least some progress before another year of First Nations discontent ended.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 18, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

SEPTEMBER: We felt the usual school’s-back vibe of the House fall sitting with unusual intensity

When MPs return from their summer break, there’s always a bit of a back-to-class feel on Parliament Hill. But this year’s resumption of sitting was especially invigorating. The Tories had a new leader, and the NDP was about to pick one of its own. The prolonged honeymoon enjoyed by Trudeau’s Liberals after their 2015 election win finally seemed to have ended. Polls showed the government sagging. Morneau made himself a target. The prevailing sense in federal politics was of a truly new chapter opening.

Jagmeet Singh celebrates with supporters after winning the first ballot in the NDP leadership race to be elected the leader of the federal New Democrats in Toronto on Sunday, October 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OCTOBER: We hadn’t expected the NDP leadership voting to wrap up quite so quickly

Jagmeet Singh’s first-ballot victory in the contest to succeed Tom Mulcair as New Democratic Party leader caught many by surprise. The Ontario MPP far outstripped veteran federal MP Charlie Angus, who ran second, to become the first person of colour to lead a federal party. The fact that he took only one ballot to win made Singh briefly seem like a formidable new political star. But he seemed to fade from view in the final months of 2017, aside from a few stumbles. Still, his youth and flare could still make him a fascinating foil for Trudeau.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada. (Art Babych/Shutterstock)

NOVEMBER: We were reminded of the Supreme Court of Canada’s reassuring place in our political life

Trudeau’s appointment of of Sheilah Martin, an Alberta judge, to the top court set in motion an historic transition. Martin would fill the vacancy left by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s retirement on Dec. 15; McLachlin would be replaced as chief justice by Richard Wagner. True, there was controversy over Trudeau’s decision to name Martin rather than an Indigenous judge. Overall, though, the emphasis on centrist harmony and public outreach that McLachlin long fostered on the court felt likely to continue.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has concluded that Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules when he vacationed last Christmas at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

DECEMBER: We hear the Prime Minister, not for the first time, unable to find the right tone

If there’s a dominant factor in this political era of federal politics, it’s Trudeau’s gift for connecting. He can talk. He looks terrific. But if 2017 offered his rivals solace, it was his off moments. Like when he bristled at reporters wanting to hear from Morneau, not him, at a news conference. Or, just before Christmas, when he responded rather stiffly to an ethics watchdog’s finding he broke rules by taking a trip to the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island. Sometimes politics happens in big strides; sometime in small missteps.

If there is a phrase that sums up the Canadian political mood in 2017, it might be, “Well, at least…” Those words often prefaced a remark contrasting contemporary Ottawa with Washington. It was a distinct change from the continental comparison at play for previous editions of this yearly 12-chapter diversion. If you care to look back, here they are from 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010. Or, better still, crack that book you were given. Or bundle up and take a walk. Or steal a nap.