OTTAWA – Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair’s promotion to cabinet gives the Trudeau Liberals a political firefighter on the thorny issues of irregular migrants, gun violence and criminal syndicates.
Blair’s move to the front benches in the newly created cabinet post of minister of border security and organized crime reduction also gives Justin Trudeau a new ally in a much broader ideological battle — combating what the prime minister calls the “politics of fear” practised by conservatives at home and abroad.
Blair was one of five MPs promoted to cabinet in Wednesday’s shuffle, a pre-emptive move by the Liberals to prepare for the next federal election in 15 months.
Trudeau faces complications from populist governments at home in Ontario under Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives and in the United States under President Donald Trump.
Ford has clashed with Ottawa over the strains posed by an influx of irregular border crossers from the U.S. into Ontario, a problem that has also affected Quebec. The escalating tariff war and uncertainty over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement — not to mention the complete breakdown in personal relations between Trump and Trudeau — has diminished Canada-U.S. relations.
Blair’s new job will bring him face to face with provincial premiers as well as politicians south of the border. He will face challenges in both settings.
Both are drug-related.
At Queen’s Park, Ford’s emotions are reportedly still very raw over the fallout from police chief Blair releasing the infamous video of his brother, then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford, smoking crack cocaine in 2013.
Blair’s clash with the Ford family capped what was at times a tumultuous decade as the city’s top cop.
Blair will be drawing on his vast law enforcement experience to help find solutions to gun violence that in Toronto alone has left 27 people dead and 82 injured so far this year, compared with 17 deaths and 80 injuries at this time last year.
“The best response is when all three levels of government come together,” Blair said after being sworn in at Rideau Hall.
“I look forward for the opportunity to work with the provinces, territories, and with the municipalities across the country to address that concern.”
In Washington, as Blair tries to stem to flow of northward migrants, he will face questions over Canada’s plans to legalize marijuana as of this fall. The Trump administration opposes relaxing restrictions on the drug.
But Blair will be prepared, having stoically served as the Trudeau government’s main political spokesman on cannabis.
It was lifetime away from the start of his career as a beat cop on the streets of some of Toronto’s toughest neighbourhoods.
As chief, he would fight off calls for his resignation after hundreds of protesters were rounded up on Toronto’s streets during the G20 summit protests in 2010. He also clashed with both Fords at Toronto city council while fighting cuts to the police budget.
Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario minister responsible for immigration offered hope of good relations, when she tweeted her congratulations to Blair on Wednesday, saying said she looked forward to meeting with him.
That followed last week’s bitter clash between MacLeod and federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen when they met to discuss the impact of migrants.
Blair’s new portfolio overlaps with those of Hussen and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
Trudeau played down any suggestion that Blair was being parachuted in to clean up a problem, saying he’s adding value to an already strong team.
“Bill Blair has always stepped up in public service and we’re excited about being able to have him focus on this particular question within the larger areas of public safety and immigration,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau said his first conversation with Blair — years ago when he was trying to lure him into politics — resonated with him now that he is in his cabinet.
“He said the number one enemy of public security is fear,” Trudeau recalled.
“When Conservatives across the country are playing the fear card we need strong, reassuring voices to counter that and to demonstrate that the safety and security of Canadians and their communities is something that we will never flinch on, that we will continue to deliver.”
Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt said the shuffle would continue to lead to Liberal failures, partly due to Blair’s appointment. “I think what it’s saying is that this government is ready to take on the provinces and have a fight.”
Raitt also took issue with the appointment of Jonathan Wilkinson, a North Vancouver MP, as minister of fisheries, saying that would isolate him from the fishers he will be serving because “the most turbulent place for fisheries is the Atlantic Canada coast.”
Trudeau created a new seniors portfolio, appointing Hamilton MP Filomena Tassi to court a constituency that traditionally has a higher voting rate than younger people. The Canadian Medical Association applauded a decision it says gives seniors a voice at the cabinet table.
Trudeau rounded out his new cabinet appointees by naming Toronto MP Mary Ng to the small business and export promotion portfolio, and giving her responsibility for the Business Development Bank of Canada.
And veteran Montreal MP Pablo Rodriguez, who was government whip, was promoted to heritage, replacing the embattled Melanie Joly.
— with files from Janice Dickson and Andy Blatchford