OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made former TV host Seamus O’Regan his new veterans affairs minister Monday in a mid-mandate shakeup that puts cabinet stalwart Jane Philpott at the heart of a retooled Indigenous Affairs department.
Philpott is taking on a new Indigenous Services portfolio to work alongside Carolyn Bennett, whose new title — minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs — signals a sharper focus on reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples.
Ginette Petitpas Taylor becomes the new health minister, while Carla Qualtrough becomes minister of public works and procurement, replacing Newfoundland and Labrador MP Judy Foote, whose resignation prompted Monday’s shuffle.
It’s widely seen as one of the toughest portfolios in cabinet, responsible for handling the federal government’s troubled Phoenix pay system as well as handling defence procurement challenges.
O’Regan and Bennett were seen arriving at Rideau Hall for the swearing-in ceremony. Asked his feelings about being named to cabinet, O’Regan would only say, “For once, I’m speechless.”
Foote, who had been on leave from her cabinet portfolio, said last week that she was resigning her House of Commons seat for family health reasons. O’Regan’s promotion ensures a continued seat at the cabinet table for Newfoundland and Labrador.
With Trudeau having made gender parity in cabinet a big part of his government’s identity, he also needed to add a promising female backbencher to the cabinet table to restore the balance upset by Foote’s departure.
That turned out to be Ginette Petitpas Taylor, whose promotion to the Health portfolio indicates a strong degree of confidence in the rookie New Brunswick MP.
The opposite could perhaps be said about Kent Hehr, who was shuffled out of Veterans Affairs to take over for Qualtrough in the Sport and Persons with Disabilities portfolio.
The Liberals were elected two years ago on a promise to address many of the complaints veterans had raised about their treatment under the Conservative government.
The biggest promise was to re-introduce lifelong disability pensions, which had been eliminated in favour of a lump-sum payments and a new system of benefits for injured ex-soldiers in 2006.
But the Liberals have since waffled on that promise, and Hehr’s folksy style and vague promises had failed to quell growing complaints that the government was breaking its key promises to veterans.
In terms of cabinet newcomers, the 46-year-old O’Regan, a former CTV television personality, was a marquee choice. He was first elected in 2015 and is a close personal friend of the prime minister.
O’Regan and his partner were among the friends who accompanied Trudeau on a controversial family vacation last Christmas to a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims.
The previous Christmas, O’Regan spent the holidays in a “wellness centre” where he received treatment for alcoholism. He has openly discussed his struggles with alcoholism and mental illness.
O’Regan worked in politics as a ministerial assistant both federally and provincially before joining CTV’s Canada AM in 2001.
— With files from Lee Berthiaume, Kristy Kirkup and Terry Pedwell