OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday made major changes to his Cabinet, making several ministerial appointments in a hid to help stave off increasing unhappiness in the energy-producing west.
Trudeau’s Liberals lost their majority in an October election and now face a potential national unity crisis.
They have no legislators in the western oil-rich provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where anger is growing over tough environmental protection laws that critics say could cripple the energy industry.
Trudeau moved close ally Chrystia Freeland from the foreign ministry and made her minister of intergovernmental affairs, where she will be dealing directly with Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“Our ability to work well together ... is going to be an extremely important thing at a time where we see some very different perspectives across the country that need to be brought together,” Trudeau told reporters.
National unity tensions are a particularly painful issue in Canada, where the province of Quebec held a 1995 referendum on independence that failed by a narrow margin.
Freeland, who rose to prominence by leading Canada’s team at talks to renegotiate a new continental trade deal, also takes on the more symbolic role of deputy prime minister. Freeland is often touted as a possible successor to the prime minister.
She was born in Alberta and often talks about her roots in the province.
She could be facing a tough task. Alberta’s ruling United Conservative Party has variously demanded the new environmental rules be scrapped or be toned down.
The initial reaction in Alberta to Trudeau’s moves was cool, with one well-placed conservative saying it did not matter where Cabinet ministers came from.
“It’s too soon to say whether this is a good or bad thing because we are beyond the politics of gestures. We need action,” said the conservative, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Daniel Beland, who heads the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal, said the government’s policy towards the west “is more important than who ... is around the Cabinet table”.
The environmental standards that angered westerners were authored by then environment minister Catherine McKenna.
She was replaced by Jonathan Wilkinson, who backs the proposed expansion of a crude pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific coast that the energy industry says is vital and that environmentalists oppose.
Trudeau named former Trade Minister Jim Carr, who has cancer, to act as his special representative for Alberta, Saskatchewan and the central province of Manitoba.
Both Alberta and Saskatchewan have right-leaning governments and Melanee Thomas, associate professor at the University of Calgary, said partisanship was clearly one of the reasons for their opposition to Trudeau’s left-of-center Liberals.
“It’s really difficult to see how something structural or institutional like a government appointment ... (is) going to satisfy those two actors,” she said by phone.
Trudeau is also under pressure from western industries to quickly end a strike by workers at Canadian National Railway, the country’s largest rail network, which is hitting exports such as grain and oil.
Freeland was replaced by Francois-Philippe Champagne, previously the infrastructure minister. Finance Minister Bill Morneau stayed in his job.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool
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