The March 1 appointment of Marie-Claude Bibeau as Canada’s 35th agriculture minister was noteworthy enough to draw even some unaccustomed mainstream attention.
She is, after all, the first female agriculture minister in Canadian history even though women have been farmers, industry stalwarts and leaders through many of those 151 years.
The repercussions should soon be evident.
Coming soon to a government microphone near you — program announcements to support women in agriculture and to encourage more young women to consider the industry as a career choice.
In government, Bibeau (a former international aid worker) has forged a reputation as a strong advocate for women’s rights and opportunities. In her former cabinet role as international development minister, the rookie MP championed a “feminist international assistance” agenda that aims to direct virtually all Canadian foreign aid to programs that help women and girls.
But beyond the obvious gender precedent, Bibeau’s elevation in the new cabinet lineup sent a significant political message from the Justin Trudeau government to Quebec voters who are key to Liberal hopes for re-election in next autumn’s vote.
For the first time in almost a century and a quarter, a Quebec-based parliamentarian is in charge of federal agriculture policy and the department that delivers it.
The last time that was the case was in late 1895 when besieged Conservative Prime Minister Sir Mackenzie Bowell appointed MP Joseph-Aldric Ouimet as acting agriculture minister. At the time, Bowell’s government was in chaos, fighting for its life.
During Canada’s first three decades, agriculture was considered a Quebec portfolio. Seven of the first eight Canadian agriculture ministers were from the province.
It was recognition of Quebec’s status as a largely rural, agrarian society with a farm-based economy and a Francophone farm population that was a powerful political voting block.
Reserving the portfolio for a Quebec politician was considered part of the Confederation bargain between John Macdonald and Georges-Etienne Cartier.
But with Bowell’s ouster, the mould was broken. His temporary Tory successor, Charles Tupper, appointed an Ontario physician to the job and when his 69-day ministry ended with an election defeat to Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, the mould remained broken for the next 123 years.
Laurier, Canada’s first francophone prime minister, effectively launched the tradition of looking outside Quebec for an agriculture minister, usually to Ontario or Saskatchewan.
Last week, another Quebec-based prime minister with a government under siege finally broke the mould again.
Trudeau had three obvious political goals for his decision:
- Since 2015, he has touted himself as a “feminist” prime minister with an agenda that includes promoting women and creating a gender-balanced cabinet, in part to shore up support among female voters who strongly supported him in 2015. Check box No.1.
- As the unseemly details of behind-the-scenes machinations in the SNC-Lavalin political fiasco have been revealed, Trudeau has shown that protecting the Liberal Quebec base and interests are his highest priority. Check box No.2.
- The government is facing a backlash from Quebec’s powerful dairy lobby over trade concessions that will undermine supply management. Although lacking a personal background in agriculture, Bibeau represents a strong dairy riding in southern Quebec and has vowed to fight hard to protect her farmers and to demand fulsome compensation for any loss of domestic market share. Check box No.3.
The lingering political question is whether Trudeau’s pursuit of these short-term political goals will permanently change the cabinet-making dynamic, translating into a more open attitude toward Quebec candidates when future agriculture ministers are being chosen.
Barry Wilson is a former Ottawa correspondent for The Western Producer.