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Contender to Replace Trudeau Faces First Real Test

OTTAWA, Ont. — Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly was supposed to deliver a major policy speech this month charting the future of Canadian democracy. Instead, she found herself traveling to the Middle East to showcase that vision.

Joly landed in Israel and Jordan last week, where she sought to ensure the safe evacuations of Canadian citizens — and defend the Trudeau administration against allegations that its response came too slow.

This is the first significant test for a rising star in Cabinet whose name is already being floated to replace Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Joly’s actions could help determine her political future, along with that of an administration seeking to overcome a series of recent foreign policy blunders.

“I’m working 24/7 on this,” Joly told reporters last week ahead of the evacuations. “There’s so many issues happening in the world, I’m trying to address all of these.”

Joly, two years into her role as the face of the Liberal government’s diplomatic efforts, has grappled lately with allegations of international assassination and charges of foreign interference. These storylines have contributed to Trudeau’s freefall, fueling talk about who might replace him. The foreign minister is considered a leadership contender, even a front-runner.

She’s a well-connected francophone politician who hails from Montreal. Once demoted but later thrust into a top Cabinet post in 2021, she is among a small group of Cabinet ministers quietly putting together their bids for Trudeau’s job whenever he decides to leave politics. If the polls are any indication, that time may come soon, although his backers still insist he’s the party’s best chance.

But Joly has never faced a challenge like this one, in an area of the world where Canada has a relatively small diplomatic footprint.

“Leaders emerge during times of grave crises,” said Ian Lee, a Canadian politics observer. “It’ll be a chance for her to demonstrate the gravitas and the seriousness and understanding of the sensitivity in this horrible time. And if she does it well and manages the files extremely well, there’ll be people noting, commenting upon her in Canada.”

Six Canadians are among the thousands dead from the war that began Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a surprise attack against Israel and two remain missing, according to Canadian officials.

Joly has declined to say if any have been taken hostage. But Canada sent a team of experts to assist the chief negotiator dealing with hostages in Israel, she said last week.

Two Canadian Armed Forces Airbus CC-150 Polaris jets on Thursday began the process of shuttling more than 1,000 Canadians and dual nationals from Tel Aviv to Athens, Greece, to connecting flights back home. But some 250 people in the West Bank are seeking the Canadian government’s assistance to leave and around 300 are trapped in Gaza.

Critics derided the administration for taking nearly a week to start rolling out evacuation flights.

“The government has not learned the lesson of its past failure to evacuate Canadians from Afghanistan,” said Deputy Conservative Leader Melissa Lantsman, in reference to what some labeled a botched operation in 2021 when the country struggled to evacuate Canadian citizens from Kabul and left many Afghan interpreters behind.

The last time Canada mobilized flights like this in Sudan earlier this year, one of the planes broke down and another flight was scrubbed over gunfire.

Joly’s office said she was not immediately available for an interview. But she argued at a press conference last week that the government has been responsive throughout the crisis and that conflict-zone evacuation plans can’t be created at the snap of her fingers. She noted Canada was the first of the Five Eyes countries to announce its military would airlift citizens out of Israel and acted quickly despite numerous demands.

Global Affairs Canada, in a statement, said its staff at headquarters and missions in the region have been “working around the clock to support those in the area.”

The latest pushback adds to a litany of foreign policy fumbles. The first day of Parliament in fall began with allegations by Trudeau of an international assassination plot tied to India. The fallout has thrown Canada’s Indo-Pacific diplomatic and trade strategy into the air.

That bombshell arrived on the back of a roaring scandal after rare leaks from the country’s intelligence community implicated China in meddling in Canadian democracy.

On top of all that, she’s had to smooth things over with allies after Parliament mistakenly applauded a member of a Nazi military unit in WWII during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Ottawa visit, a blunder that inadvertently handed Russia a PR win.

For the government’s critics, these events are all examples of the administration’s failure to defend Canada’s interests.

Trudeau’s main political opponent, Pierre Poilievre, described the Nazi event as the “biggest” diplomatic “embarrassment” in Canadian history.

And former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney suggested Canada’s global influence is waning under the current government. He pointed to the country getting left out of a joint statement condemning Hamas by a group of five leading industrial countries, including the U.S.

“This is happening quite often,” he said in a recent interview with CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. “We were excluded down in the [AUKUS defense] deal in Australia. We were defeated for a Security Council seat at the United Nations. We’ve got the Indians in complete rupture with us. The Chinese don’t want to talk to us.”