Gerald Butts’ departure marks end of position rarely seen in Canadian political life

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In a past political life, working for a long-ago premier of Ontario, Gerald Butts helped usher in a new provincial holiday called Family Day.

Little did Butts know that he’d be marking Family Day in 2019 stepping down from a job at the very top of a government led by his old university friend, Justin Trudeau.

Many people step down from political life to spend more time with their families, but this professional parting of the ways between Butts and Trudeau will be as tumultuous as a family breakup — not just in the lives of this duo, but for the government as a whole.

It’s a question that has come up periodically throughout Trudeau’s rise to power and the past three and a half years of Liberal governance: could Trudeau exist without Butts at his side?

The short answer is yes, of course: life and government does go on, as Butts himself said in the no one is indispensable part of his public statement Monday. Note too that Katie Telford, chief of staff to Trudeau, remains in the PMO and while her personal history with Trudeau is shorter and less high-profile, the tight, inner circle around the PM hasn’t totally left the building.

Butts travelled with Trudeau; he sat in caucus and cabinet (along with Telford.) He spoke for the prime minister, on Twitter and social media, and on deep background to reporters. When Trudeau dined with foreign leaders, Butts and Telford were often at the same table. When cabinet ministers or MPs requested a private meeting with the PM, they could usually count on the presence of Butts or Telford in the room if the request was granted — and that’s if they weren’t just told to meet with Butts instead.

This dynamic, incidentally, could be crucial to the ongoing questions about what led to the demotion and departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould from cabinet, which precipitated Butts’ resignation. She spoke to Butts on a number of occasions before the now-infamous January cabinet shuffle; Butts was at Trudeau’s side in the conversations the ex-minister held with the PM before she quit her new job as veterans’ affairs minister. That’s how things worked in this government.

That’s how things worked with Trudeau. He and Butts met at McGill University when they were both studying English literature and on the debating team. Their friendship endured after university, even as Trudeau moved to B.C. to teach and Butts went on to work in politics — first, briefly, as an aide in the Jean Chretien years, and then on to Queen’s Park, to serve as senior adviser to premier Dalton McGuinty.

It’s there that Butts met Telford, then a chief adviser to then education minister Gerard Kennedy. Trudeau surprised some people by supporting Kennedy in the 2006 federal Liberal leadership — not the people who knew of his friendship to Butts, and through him, then to Telford.

By 2012, when he was working at the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Canada, Butts was helping his friend get into the Liberal leadership race and amassing the team around him. Butts has a huge network of friends in politics. One of his early mentors was James Coutts, the man who served as principal secretary to Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau. Just a few months ago, Butts was one of the keynote speakers at an event to donate Coutts’ diaries to Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Traditionalists in the Liberal party — indeed in Canadian politics — often balked at Butts’ large public profile while serving with Trudeau. While the prime minister himself grew more cautious in public life, speaking increasingly through careful statements and behind talking points, Butts was very much a personality on social media, sparring with critics of the government, often impolitically.

Two speculative conclusions arose: either Butts was saying what the PM couldn’t, or worse, that Butts was the real voice behind the power at the centre. Neither is likely correct: it’s probably more accurate to say that the two spoke — and thought — in tandem.

Back in 2013, in those early days while Trudeau was running for the Liberal leadership, we sat down for a long interview for an ebook I was writing for the Star. I asked Trudeau to talk about his inner circle of advisers and his relationship to each of them. Here’s what he said to me about Butts:

“Thinking objectively about Gerry is like thinking about myself and that’s a really challenging thing to try and figure out. We bounce off each other really well,” Trudeau said.

Now Trudeau speaks alone, at least for his government. It’s not entirely clear how and when and where we’ll be hearing from Butts again, but those who have known him for a long time know that he’s unlikely to disappear into obscurity.

For a while, Butts was posting instalments on his Facebook page from a favourite book called “The Daily Stoic.” The book contains meditations for each day and the instalment for Feb. 18 is called “Prepare for the Storm.” Butts is gone from the PMO, but the storm isn’t over, for Trudeau or his old friend.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: sdelacourt@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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‘Nobody is feeling good about’ John McCallum’s departure, says PMO source

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John McCallum had two big jobs in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. First, as immigration minister from 2015 to early 2017, he managed the influx of Syrian refugees to this country; then, for the last two years, McCallum was Canada’s man in China.

On a day that both of those issues collided spectacularly in the news, McCallum lost his job as Canada’s ambassador to China — asked by Trudeau to step down after some extremely ill-advised remarks on Friday to a StarMetro reporter in Vancouver.

Even as attention was riveted on Kingston, Ont., and the questioning of a Syrian refugee in a terrorism take-down on Friday, McCallum was musing aloud in Vancouver about how it would be “great for Canada” if the U.S. dropped an extradition request that has entangled Canada in a massive, high-stakes dispute with China.

It was McCallum’s second verbal misstep in a week, and Trudeau phoned him late on Friday night to say that this latest outburst was one too many.

The firing throws a bucket of cold water over speculation all last week that McCallum was saying what the Trudeau government could not say publicly in what has been an escalating, high-stakes feud with China, kicked off by the December arrest and detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as part of the U.S. extradition request.

Since then, two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been detained and another, David Schellenberg, has been sentenced to death.

This is, in short, not a situation that can tolerate freelancing, even by a man with a long history with this Prime Minister. (McCallum was dean of arts at McGill University when Trudeau and his principal advisor, Gerald Butts, were students there.)

McCallum, on two separate occasions in the past week, appeared to be saying that politics — not the rule of law — would get this whole mess sorted. That’s “completely offside” with what the Trudeau government has been saying, a PMO source said, about the need to keep the rule of law at the forefront.

“You can walk those comments back once,” the PMO source said on Saturday. “Not twice.”

Trudeau’s reluctance to jettison the ambassador was evident earlier in the week, when reporters asked him on Thursday about the outcry over McCallum’s remarks and demands — especially from Conservatives — that he fire him.

The Prime Minister, obviously annoyed, made clear that McCallum’s job had been saved for practical, not sentimental reasons: “Making a change would not help release those Canadians a day sooner,” he said.

The question now is whether McCallum’s missteps have prolonged the misery of those Canadians. This will be the top question in the coming days, as Trudeau wrestles with the question of who will replace the ambassador to China at a moment when every step seems perilous.

Read more:

Ambassador John McCallum says it would be ‘great for Canada’ if U.S. drops extradition request for Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou

John McCallum’s ‘gaffe’ was telling the truth about China and Huawei

Canada’s ambassador to China backs Meng’s chances of fighting extradition to the U.S.

One thing is clear — the next appointee will not be offering political opinions to journalists. It will be a surprise, in fact, if the next ambassador is allowed to speak to the media at all.

It is almost ironic that McCallum would lose his job for being too political. When he first came to elected politics in 2000, fresh from the Royal Bank of Canada where he served as economist, many thought McCallum was too academic for the rough and tumble of political life.

But he seemed to relish the job, and was repeatedly a good sport when Stephen Harper, then in opposition, did his annual impersonations of McCallum at the press gallery dinner. Once the Liberals were relegated to the opposition benches, McCallum was one of the happier warriors, appearing to enjoy the chance to pillory the Harper government at any opportunity.

So McCallum became one of the few, trusted “old hands” when Trudeau swore in his first cabinet, with all its emphasis on youth, women and diversity. Similarly, his appointment as ambassador was meant to send a signal to China that the Trudeau government was putting someone serious, political and trusted into the job of ambassador.

“Nobody is feeling good about this,” the PMO source said of the decision to axe McCallum. That is undoubtedly true — many times over — for the Canadians whose future hangs in the balance in China.

The questions over McCallum’s future have been settled this weekend. But the futures of Kovrig, Spavor and Schellenberg — as well as Meng in Vancouver — are as unsettled as they were last week, and perhaps more so.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: sdelacourt@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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Brian Gallant moves up departure from helm of Liberal Party

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Former premier Brian Gallant says he’ll step down as leader of the Liberal Party earlier than planned.

Gallant said Friday that he will resign at the party’s next caucus meeting, which is scheduled for mid-February, rather than wait until a leadership convention can choose his successor.

« It has become clear that while I still occupy the role of leader, many will be hopeful — and some will be fearful — that I might run again in the next election, » Gallant told a news conference in Moncton.

« Let me be clear I am not running again in the next election as leader of the Liberal Party or to be the MLA for Shediac Bay-Dieppe. »

Gallant wasn’t pressured, MLA says

Discussions are underway on whether the next caucus meeting should be held sooner than mid-February, said caucus chair Jean-Claude D’Amours.

Gallant made the decision to quit on his own and not under pressure, D’Amours said.

« I really respect his decision to decide to not be the leader of the Liberal Party, » he said.  

An interim leader will be chosen at the next caucus meeting as well, but D’Amours hopes party members can elect a new leader as soon as possible. A steering committee of the party will choose a date for the leadership convention, which is to be held in Saint John, he said.

Resignation already announced

Gallant, who tried to form a minority government after the Sept. 24 election, had already announced his intention to resign when his government was defeated in the legislature and the Progressive Conservatives took over.

At the time, Gallant said he would stay on as leader until the party found his successor, which it hasn’t done. On Friday, he suggested that by leaving earlier, he would be nudging the party into getting a new leader more quickly. 

« My hope is that by doing this the Liberal Party will recognize that it indeed needs to choose a new leader and in a time frame that makes sense for the party, » Gallant said.

He also suggested there is some urgency because Premier Blaine Higgs, who has the support of three People’s Alliance members, is governing « like he has a majority. »

« He has given the People’s Alliance all the cards and therefore control of the government’s agenda. »

Former premier says he’ll step down at next caucus meeting 1:10

As a result, Gallant said, the PC government might fall over its first budget, which is to be presented after the legislature reconvenes on March 19.

Gallant said he will stay on as MLA for Shediac Bay-Dieppe for now but wouldn’t say if he would stay until the next election.

He said he will stay neutral on who should be the next Liberal leader.

He became Liberal leader in 2012 and won a majority government two years later, defeating David Alward’s Progressive Conservatives.

Gallant said he has no interest in running at any other level of government. 

At the news conference Friday, Gallant thanked New Brunswickers for the opportunity to serve the province. He said he and his wife will continue to contribute to the betterment of the province, but in other ways.

He has « no plans at the moment. »

Later Friday, Higgs wished Gallant « the very best » in his future endeavours.

He said he didn’t know what to make of Gallant’s allegation he was running the province as if he had a majority. 

Gallant said he will resign at the party’s next caucus meeting scheduled for mid-February. (Shane Magee/CBC)

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Premier Doug Ford shuffles cabinet after Jim Wilson’s departure

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Rookie Premier Doug Ford is shuffling his cabinet just 129 days after being sworn in, the Star has learned.

Reeling from the departure of Jim Wilson, his most senior minister who quit suddenly Friday to tackle addiction issues, Ford will make a slew of changes early Monday.

Doug Ford has had to make a major cabinet shuffle after only four months in power.
Doug Ford has had to make a major cabinet shuffle after only four months in power.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star file photo)

Conservatives sources said Sunday that the premier is scrambling to shuffle his cabinet.

“It’s crazy,” said one worried Tory, mindful that the moves so soon after the government had taken office will make it seem as if the fledgling administration is in chaos.

Embattled Community Safety and Corrections Ministers Michael Tibollo, whose past legal challenges have made headlines in recent days, is being demoted.

Tibollo, who represents Vaughan-Woodbridge, will be the new minister for Tourism, Culture, and Sport.

That’s a swap with Sylvia Jones, who takes over his role as solicitor general, a big promotion for the Dufferin-Caledon MPP.

Also being promoted is Natural Resources Minister Jeff Yurek, who becomes Transportation Minister. The Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP is widely seen as a calm, capable minister.

Transportation Minister John Yakabuski will assume the duties at Natural Resources. Yakabuski, who represents Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, had sparred with the beat reporters who cover transportation issues, which apparently concerned the premier’s office.

Government House Leader Todd Smith will take Wilson’s old post as Economic Development and Trade Minister. Smith represents the riding of Bay of Quinte,

Coming into cabinet will be Bill Walker, the chief government whip, who takes Smith’s role as Minister of Government and Consumer Services. Walker is the MPP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound.

The changes were triggered by Wilson’s stunning announcement Friday night – after he had spent the day with Ford on a campaign swing to Sarnia.

A 28-year veteran Simcoe-Grey MPP, he quit cabinet to seek treatment for what friends confide is a problem with alcohol.

But in an unusual move, Wilson also resigned from the Conservative caucus and Ford has yet to issue any public statement about his colleague.

That, combined with some senior PC staff changes Friday night has many Tories concerned.

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