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The Vancouver port strike may be a sign of a new era in Canadian politics


Economic damage from the strikes at the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Prince Rupert is piling up, but labour experts say the Liberals, and even the Conservatives, are less inclined to favour back-to-work legislation than ever before.

The strike action, and the political maneuvering it inspires, may be a sign of a new era in Canadian politics where all three major parties are now vying for organized labour votes and changing the landscape of the country’s politics in the process.

Since July 1, over 7,000 port workers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada, have been picketing to demand higher wages, and to protest the growing presence of non-unionized contractors at the ports.

The Liberal government has not proposed back-to-work legislation to end the strikes paralyzing two of Canada’s largest ports, and Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University, says the Liberals have good reason to avoid doing so.

“The Liberals in particular pride themselves as being the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and so it’s a bad look when that party is seen as potentially violating Charter rights,” says Savage. “The right to strike, since 2015, has been read as part of the Constitution and that’s relatively new given the trajectory of labour rights in Canada.” 

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the right to strike was constitutionally protected on freedom of association grounds. Savage says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s criticism of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s use of the Notwithstanding Clause, which allows governments to override certain provisions in the Charter, during last year’s CUPE strike further constrains the federal government’s options. 

“Anytime you legislate someone back to work, the union is always going to be upset,” says Brian Dijkema. “I would say, most of the time, there’s good reason for the union to be upset. The reason we have collective bargaining is so the state does not need to be involved in the economic affairs of a corporation and its workers.” 

Dijkema, vice president of external affairs at the Cardus Institute, has previously talked about the potential for closer ties between conservative political parties and organized labour. He says the decision to support or oppose back-to-work legislation is a tough call for both the Conservatives and Liberals, even though the strike is impacting the whole country.

“They want to respect the rights of workers to associate and negotiate their own wages, but at some point, does it become a question of national, and maybe even international interest, when there’s a whole host of people downstream,” says Dijkema.

The last Conservative government led by Stephen Harper frequently ended labour disputes with back-to-work legislation, but times have changed since 2015. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has urged the Liberals to end the strike, but has stopped short of calling for back-to-work legislation.

Poilievre has also made attempts to appeal to organized labour, including promising to streamline natural resource projects and boost domestic manufacturing, as well as frequently visiting unionized job sites.

Negotiations between the ILWU and the B.C. Maritime Employers Association to end the strike are ongoing, and on July 11, Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan, who retained his post in Wednesday’s cabinet shuffle, gave a federal mediator 24 hours to recommend a set of terms to end the strike. 

A tentative settlement was reached between the negotiators, only for the workers to reject the deal and resume the strike on July 18, without giving 72 hours notice, leading to O’Regan publicly declaring that the strike was illegal. ILWU’s leadership has recommended that the union’s members vote in favour of ratifying the latest proposed deal. 

“We’re pleased to see that the ILWU Canada Longshore Caucus will be recommending ratification of the Terms of Settlement proposed by federal mediators to their membership,” read a statement from O’Regan’s office when asked for comment. “Right now, our B.C. ports are operating, but we need long-term stability. That’s what we’re focused on.”

An estimated $800 million worth of goods pass through the Port of Vancouver and into the Canadian supply chain every day, and some estimates place weekly losses from the strike at $250 million. Premiers across Canada, including Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, have called on the federal government to implement back-to-work legislation. 

Howard Levitt, senior counsel at Levitt Sheikh, a Toronto law firm specializing in labour law, says the government has the authority to pass the legislation, but it would break with its approach towards organized labour. 

“It would be an absolute change of course, but one that they’ve been making noise about in this particular strike, and it’s one that has such a massive impact across the country, and in other industries in the economy generally, that they may not have a choice,” says Levitt. 

During 2014, the last full year in office of the previous Conservative government, the federal lobbying registry recorded just four communications between the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and parliamentarians. Under the current Liberal government, the registry has recorded 136 communications initiated by the CLC in the last six months. 

While the NDP have an agreement to support the Liberals in the House of Commons for specific issues, Savage says the NDP would vote against back-to-work legislation, possibly forcing the Liberal government to rely on the Conservatives to pass it.

“I think that Trudeau doesn’t want to be seen as in bed with the Conservatives to extinguish the workers’ right to strike, especially given the Liberal Party has worked so hard to kind of craft itself as a party of the middle class,” says Savage. 

The Conservatives, however, may no longer be willing hawks when it comes to forcibly ending labour disputes.

Like many other right-of-centre parties worldwide, the Conservatives have attempted to make inroads with organized labour in recent years, following the example of the Republicans in the United States and the United Kingdom’s Tories. Previous Conservative leader Erin O’Toole praised the presence of unions in the lives of working and middle-class Canadians, citing his own upbringing as an example. 

Some surveys conducted in the last 12 months have indicated that the Conservatives’ efforts are paying off, with a February Abacus poll indicating a plurality of unionized workers would vote for them. 

‘The focus stays on Trudeau’: Four things we learned from the massive cabinet shuffle


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a massive cabinet shuffle on Wednesday, dropping some high-profile ministers, promoting some new faces, and rearranging some key portfolios.

The biggest name to leave cabinet entirely was former justice minister David Lametti, who was joined by former treasury board president Mona Fortier and Marco Mendicino, who faced several controversies as public safety minister.

Dominic LeBlanc will take over from Mendicino at public safety and former defence minister Anita Anand was named president of the Treasury Board. Anand will be replaced at defence by Bill Blair.

High-profile ministers who kept their existing jobs were Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne.

Here are four things we learned from the changes Trudeau made to his front bench.

Looking for a reset

Massive cabinet shuffles like this one don’t tend to happen when everything is ticking along smoothly.

Today’s cabinet shuffle coincided with a poll from Abacus Data showing the Conservative Party ten points ahead of the Liberal Party nationally, with the Conservative gaining four percentage points in the last month.

The poll shows that 32 percent of Canadians approve of the government compared to 51 percent who disapprove of it, the worst score since July 2021.

At a press conference after the swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau disputed the notion that his government is in a slump and argued that he was looking for “fresh energy” to help the government connect with Canadians.

“This is a moment where putting forward the strongest possible team with fresh energy and a range of skills that are going to be able to continue the really important of work of showing Canadians the positive and ambitious vision for the future that we’re so committed to,” said Trudeau.

Reinforcements in the battleground ridings

A couple of cabinet appointments could be a clue to where the Liberals are expecting tough fights in the next election.

Jenna Sudds, the Liberal MP for Kanata—Carleton, was named the minister of families, children, and social development on Wednesday. Sudds squeaked out a victory in her riding by three percentage points in 2021, with the Conservative candidate gaining ground compared to the previous election in 2019. The provincial riding in that area has been held by the Progressive Conservative Party since it came into existence.

The Liberals may also be looking to shore up seats that face competition from NDP challengers.

Toronto MP Arif Virani, who represents Parkdale—High Park, faced a fierce challenge from the NDP in the 2021 election, also winning his seat by just three percentage points. Virani will be the new minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, a boost in profile that may help him in the next election.

It’s just one of the ways a government can bolster the chances of incumbents facing close races.

Wave of retirements

Some high-profile ministers announced their retirement this week in advance of the cabinet shuffle, suggesting that the Liberals are looking to settle on a team that will lead them into the next election.

Stepping down, with the intention to quit politics entirely, were former transport minister Omar Alghabra, former fisheries and oceans minister Joyce Murray, former public services and procurement minister Helen Jaczek, and former mental health and addictions minister Carolyn Bennett.

It was reminiscent of the final years of the Harper government when some top ministers, including foreign minister John Baird, announced that they would not be running in the 2015 election. In hindsight, it was a sign that some of the top political minds saw trouble on the horizon in an election campaign that would sweep the Liberals into power.

The focus stays on Trudeau

Although the Liberals are hoping that a new team around the prime minister will help carry the government’s message to Canadians, the focus will likely continue to be on Trudeau.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre argued that the wave of cabinet demotions wasn’t good enough and that Trudeau “should have fired himself.”

“The minister that really needs to be shuffled out is Justin Trudeau. His record is one of failure, and he is shuffling nearly his entire cabinet in a desperate attempt to distract from all that he has broken,” said Poilievre, in a statement released to reporters after the cabinet shuffle.

Wednesday’s Abacus Date poll likely provides a clue that the Conservatives will keep their focus on Trudeau, rather than the team around him.

The prime minister’s net approval rating sits at -22, with 29 percent of Canadians rating their impression of him as positive versus 51 percent with a negative impression. Poilievre’s net approval rating is at -6, with 31 percent positive and 37 percent negative.