A perfect cabinet? Some Italian Liberals disagree

By Steve Paikin - Published on November 6, 2015
At least some Italian-Canadians are miffed that Trudeau's cabinet features four Sikh-Canadians, including Navdeep Bains, but no one from the Italian community.

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The initial reaction to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet has been overwhelmingly positive. The PM kept his promise to have his cabinet “look like Canada” by having half of his ministers be men, and half be women — unprecedented at the federal level. 

But now that the dust is settling and Ottawa is beginning to get back to business, some observers — even Liberals — are allowing themselves to be a bit more critical. 

Having spoken Thursday night to two prominent members of the Italian-Canadian community — both of whom are Liberals — they are more than a little miffed that there's not a single member of their community in the new cabinet.

In some respects, it is a bit shocking. The Italian-Canadian community has always demonstrated overwhelming support for the Liberal Party of Canada.

"We're not going to make a stink about this because the reaction to the new cabinet has been so positive," one well-connected member of the Italian community told me. "But four ‎Sikhs and no Italians? I don't know about that."

Let's remember, putting a cabinet together is almost by definition an impossible undertaking. There are so many boxes to check off: gender balance, regional balance, ethnic balance, generational balance, and the list goes on. Satisfying every constituency is a hopeless task.

Nevertheless, the absence of any Italian presence in a Liberal cabinet is noteworthy.

Another Liberal with whom I spoke last night — not an Italian — had less patience for the criticism. This source admitted, yes, Italians are under-represented in this cabinet, but added they’ve been over-represented in previous cabinets.

When Paul Martin took over the prime minister’s office in 2004, his cabinets would feature more ministers of Italian heritage than perhaps numbers warranted (Albina Guarnieri, Tony Valeri, Joe Volpe, Joe Fontana, Tony Ianno, Judy Sgro, and Joe Comuzzi).

“No one complained we had too many Italians back then,” this source said.

It’s not like Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t have enough Italian-Canadian MPs from which to choose. Liberal MPs with Italian backgrounds include former cabinet minister Judy Sgro; Joe Peschisolido, who has previous experience as a parliamentary secretary; Marco Mendicino, whose resume includes defeating floor-crossing MP Eve Adams for the Liberal nomination, then Conservative Finance Minister Joe Oliver for the seat in Eglinton-Lawrence;  Francis Scarpaleggia, an MP since 2004; Anthony Rota, first elected in 2004, sidelined for the last four years after losing in 2011, but back in now; and rookie MPs Francesco Sorbara, Mike Bossio, Angelo Iacono, David Lametti, and Nicola Di Iorio, among others.

When our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, once checked into a hotel, he was asked on the registration form what his occupation was. He wrote: “cabinet maker.”

Our first PM was a clever guy. He also understood that every time he made a decision to put someone in cabinet, it required a concurrent decision to keep several others out. High profile victorious candidates such as former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, former broadcaster Seamus O’Regan, downtown Toronto’s Adam Vaughan, and former general Andrew Leslie are among the many Liberal MPs who have learned this the hard way.

And so, apparently, are many Italian-Canadian MPs, who for the first time in three-and-a-half decades find themselves outside the Liberal inner circle. As we are learning, it is a curious and uncomfortable place for them to be. 

Update: This post originally stated that Trudeau's gender equal cabinet was unprecedented in Canadian history. In fact, former Quebec premier Jean Charest assembled a cabinet with an equal number of men and women in 2007. And current Alberta Premier Rachel Notley assembled a gender equal cabinet earlier this year. The post has been changed to reflect that. 

Image credit: Facebook/NavdeepSinghBains

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