Minister of defence is no easy job — is Bill Blair ready for it?

On Tuesday, the night before the federal cabinet shuffle — when it became clear that Anita Anand was on the way out as defence minister — one question dominated a sweltering mid-summer reception in Ottawa’s diplomatic community.

Who is Bill Blair?

It isn’t as though the former public safety minister and retired Toronto police chief is a complete unknown on the Canadian political landscape.

But the choice of him as minister of national defence at this particular moment — with the world in crisis and the Canadian military as an institution still reeling from a crisis of its own making — raised more than a few eyebrows, even among our closest allies.

The answer to the question of who Bill Blair is will be pertinent — perhaps even crucial — for the Liberal government as it tries to refocus its agenda away from the dangerous mess that is the rest of world and toward domestic, pocketbook, vote-getting issues.

But the world has a way of intruding on the homefront political agenda in ways that governing parties, regardless of political stripe, find most unwelcome.

Just look at the Afghan war, the tumultuous term of Donald Trump as U.S. president, the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the rise of a newly assertive China intent on bending countries like Canada to its will.

Members of the federal cabinet stand behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he speaks at a media availability after a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he has “tremendous confidence” in Blair, given the minister’s tenure in the emergency preparedness portfolio.

In an open letter sent to Department of National Defence staff on Thursday (which was also published on Twitter), Blair said his mission is to “modernize this institution, establish meaningful culture change and keep Canadians safe in a changing world.”

How he intends to do that — and what sort of personal capital (or baggage) he might bring to the effort — were subjects of intense debate and speculation in the defence community on Thursday as experts took stock of his record in previous portfolios and his former career.

Steve Saideman of Carleton University, one of the country’s leading experts on NATO, said Blair has big shoes to fill.

Anand, he said, worked very hard to earn the trust and respect of those at the centre of culture change within the military, while at the same cultivating important relationships with key allies, such as Ukraine, during a time of global crisis.

Defence Minister Anita Anand chats with members of the guard as she attends an announcement in Halifax on Friday, Nov.18, 2022. Halifax has been selected to be the host of NATO's North American regional office for defence innovation.
Defence Minister Anita Anand chats with members of the guard as she attends an announcement in Halifax on Friday, Nov.18, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“How good is Blair at this kind of stuff, [at] building relationships with foreign leaders, with defence secretaries and other countries? … I don’t really have an answer,” said Saideman.

How quickly Blair masters inarguably complex files, how much homework he’s willing to do, how much effort he’s willing to put into building relationships with allies and survivors of sexual misconduct in the military — these will be the key factors that decide whether he succeeds.

It will be up to Blair to deliver the Liberal government’s long-anticipated update of the country’s defence policy — a rewrite precipitated by the war in Ukraine. He’ll also have to navigate increasingly outspoken allies who don’t believe Canada is pulling its weight internationally in terms of commitments and defence spending.

Roughly around the same time Blair was being sworn in on Wednesday, a senior U.S. military commander was calling for tough conversations with Canada about defence spending. Lt.-Gen. Gregory Guillot was addressing a U.S. Senate hearing to confirm his nomination as the next head of North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

Man in blue military uniform with lots of medals, in front of dark background
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee on July 26, 2023 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Stephanie Scarbrough/AP)

Saideman said he wonders how this changing of the guard will be interpreted by increasingly frustrated allies.

“Moving Blair into defence suggests that domestic politics clearly takes priority [over] what is best for Canadian national security and national defence,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody would be surprised if people interpret this as that you don’t care that much about international relations and defence policy. And I think that’s what a lot of people are saying. So maybe the allies are catching a whiff of that.”

Saideman said he also has concerns about the future course of military culture and institutional change because of Blair’s former life as a high-profile cop.

“I think it’s almost as bad to appoint a police chief to be a head of the military as it would be to appoint a retired general,” said Saideman. “I think it’s really problematic.”

Law enforcement and the military are both institutions unto themselves, he said, and they often bristle at civilian control. Whether Blair is willing to push back and exercise that control in the way Anand was prepared to do is something worth watching, he added.

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute has written extensively on sexual misconduct in the military. She said she wonders how hard Blair will drive the agenda for institutional change.

“I think that this is a disruption that we didn’t need right now,” she said, referring to Anand’s departure and the work still left to be done to stamp out sexual misconduct.

In early June, an external observer hired to oversee a plan to change the military’s culture said Ottawa lacked a comprehensive strategy to accomplish that goal.

Jocelyne Therrien, appointed last year to supervise the implementation of the 48 recommendations in former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour’s report on sexual harassment and misconduct in the military, said she has “seen some cross-referencing among the recommendations. There is no overall framework that sets out how the organization, as a whole, will move from one phase to the next.”

Duval-Lantoine said the new minister will have to make outreach a priority — especially to survivors of sexual misconduct — and will have to overcome the suspicions held by those affected by misconduct who might question whether a former police officer is sympathetic to their plight.

“Blair’s going to have a lot of work to do in terms of building a relationship,” said Duval-Lantoine.

Wesley Wark, an intelligence services and national security expert, said Blair will also face the challenge of playing a leading role in the new national security council-style cabinet committee that was quietly announced as part of Wednesday’s shuffle.

The committee was first proposed by the Centre for International Governance Innovation in 2021 and again by two national security experts at the University of Ottawa in 2022 before being adopted as a recommendation by David Johnston, the special rapporteur on alleged Chinese election interference.

“It will be the key … frontline of cabinet ministers dealing with national security issues,” said Wark.

WATCH: Anita Anand says her move to Treasury Board was not a demotion

Anita Anand pushes back against perception she was ‘demoted’

The new president of the Treasury Board joined Power and Politics to discuss her new file, her time as minister of defence and the perception that she was demoted.

He questioned whether it would have been better to leave Anand in the defence chair, given the kind of discussions that will take place on the war in Ukraine and the need to rebuild the Canadian military.

“It’s important … given some of the challenges that Canada faces and some of the criticisms that face us among NATO partners, and some of the criticisms that are becoming more vocal from south of the border,” he said.

“I think it would have been important to have someone who had been used to sort of stickhandling and presenting a Canadian position with regard to those criticisms to remain in place.”

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