Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has picked a former astronaut to be Canada’s top diplomat as a new administration takes shape in Washington — and as speculation mounts of a federal election this year.
Marc Garneau, who has served as Trudeau’s transportation minister since 2015, takes over the foreign affairs portfolio from François-Philippe Champagne, who’s shifting to the government’s innovation, science and industry ministry. Liberal MP Omar Alghabra takes over at Transport Canada.
The Quebec MP was Canada’s first astronaut in outer space and ran the Canadian Space Agency during the early 2000s before entering federal Liberal politics. He once ran for leadership of the party.Garneau’s relationships with government officials in the U.S. and his reputation as a workhorse make him a logical choice to lead Canada’s diplomatic arm as Democrat Joe Biden prepares to move into the White House, cross-border experts said Tuesday. But that’s likely not the only motivator for the mini-Cabinet shuffle.
“This has as much to do with the government sort of clearing the decks as they go into what will be their last session before an election,” Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat in the U.S., said of speculation that the Liberals could use their next budget to force an election.
Trudeau denied Tuesday that he’s angling for an election and noted that as leader of a minority government he is not in control of opposition party decisions.
Garneau takes the helm at Global Affairs Canada 14 months after Trudeau made Champagne foreign minister. But responsibility for the Canada-U.S. relationship during much of that time was centralized with now-Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who spearheaded NAFTA renegotiations for Ottawa and has a deep well of Washington connections. Her ownership of those relationships spurred some initial confusion as Trudeau made Cabinet changes during his second mandate to who was in charge.
“I believe very, very strongly that no bilateral relationship is more important than that of Canada with the United States, and it will continue to be that way,” Garneau told reporters Tuesday.
No one Cabinet minister will have responsibility for the Canada-U.S. relationship, PMO spokesperson Ann-Clara Vaillancourt explained on Tuesday, adding that each one is expected to work with their counterparts at corresponding U.S. departments.
Robertson said the prime minister will need to be clear about who in his Cabinet is holding the reins on the bilateral relationship, citing confusion around Champagne’s role on the file. “The question I have is, who’s responsible for the United States?” he told POLITICO.
Garneau is no stranger to the U.S. He lived in Houston, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, for nine years in the 1980s and 1990s. He led the Cabinet’s Canada-U.S. relations committee during USMCA talks, and he served as the Liberals’ foreign affairs critic before the party’s 2015 electoral victory.
The Quebecer has established relationships with state and local government officials in the U.S. and is “highly regarded,” said Dan Ujczo, a trade attorney at Thompson Hine in Columbus, Ohio.
“He’s really been on the ground in the U.S.,” he said.
“A number of Canada-U.S. issues will be at the state and provincial levels” in the coming years, he added, citing cross-border permitting for pipelines, bridges and electric transmission as examples. “He’s well known here.”
One of the big challenges Garneau will face is the inability to travel to ingratiate himself with those officials and with Biden’s incoming team.
“Zoom helps, but there’s no substitute to being there in the flesh,” said Mark Agnew, senior director of international policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Still, Garneau’s reputation as a reliable statesman with experience in the U.S. is a reflection of the type of international leadership Canada wants to project now, especially with a new and friendly administration in Washington, said Robertson, who compared the foreign minister to Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken.
Blinken has held a variety of foreign policy and national security positions since the Clinton administration.
“These are individuals that are not all that dissimilar — their knowledge and their experience and steady hands — and aren’t looking to the next job,” Robertson said.