Politico

Trudeau’s lone Chinese Canadian minister has a tough job ahead of her

BERLIN — Canada has a lot riding on Mary Ng’s connections.

The international trade minister spent most of fall a world away from Ottawa — air miles in the service of a critical mission for Canada: bolstering the country’s presence in the Indo-Pacific and resetting its rocky relationship with China.

It is no small task. In late November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government unveiled a new “clear-eyed assessment” of Beijing. It announced Canada’s ambitions for the Indo-Pacific — namely increasing its military and intelligence cooperation with allies in the region while checking the influence of China, which it dubbed “an increasingly disruptive global power.”

Trudeau’s C$2.3 billion roadmap for the region comes as a tide of protectionism has swept the United States and Europe — a trend at odds with Canada’s hopes for expanding economic and trade ties in the Indo-Pacific.

Enter Ng, whose diplomatic efforts in the world’s fastest-growing region could well determine the success or failure of Trudeau’s plan.

She has traveled monthly to the Indo-Pacific since August, cultivating key contacts in Indonesia and India. Trudeau enlisted her to join him at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-country union, and the G-20 in mid-November.

And when Chinese President Xi Jinping scolded Trudeau on the summit sidelines there, blaming the Canadian leader for leaking details of a conversation to the media, it was left to Ng to assuage anxieties in diaspora communities worried about becoming scapegoats as a result of Canada’s tougher rhetoric on China.

“While there are conversations that are difficult to have at times for Asian Canadians and Chinese Canadians, we are there for you,” she said during a press conference at ASEAN. “Know that the contribution you make to your country as Canadians is exceptional.”

On top of her ministerial responsibilities, Ng has become Trudeau’s de facto ambassador to Canada’s Chinese and Asian communities.

“Look around the Cabinet,” she told POLITICO. “I’m the only person that looks like me.”

Criticism of Beijing is now mainstream in Canada because of China’s treatment of Uyghurs as well as “the Michaels,” two Canadians who were jailed in China for nearly three years, an exercise widely seen as hostage diplomacy after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Xi’s rare display of annoyance at the G-20 added a new challenge.

The uniqueness of her position as the only Chinese Canadian in Cabinet means Ng must execute a tougher stance against Beijing without fanning anti-Asian sentiment in a way that would antagonize Canada’s Chinese communities.

The assignment requires a mix of diplomacy and brass knuckles. Success would benefit Trudeau politically and help mend relations with big businesses that spent years asking Ottawa for a new China strategy.

Ng describes her responsibilities succinctly: “I promote Canada. I defend where I need to defend.”

A rare person of color in power

Before she jumped into politics, she was the prime minister’s director of public appointments. There, she made it her goal to nominate “more people that look like Canada” to the country’s top roles.

In 2017, Ng decided to run for her own seat in the House. After winning a Toronto-area by-election, she was soon in Cabinet in charge of small business and export promotion. Trudeau tacked international trade onto her portfolio in 2019.

In just a few years, she vaulted from being the “highest ranking Chinese Canadian to have ever served in the Prime Minister’s Office” to becoming one of Canada’s most influential ministers.

It’s rare for someone who isn’t white and male to reach the top echelons of power in Ottawa.

In the history of Canada, only 34 politicians of color, including Indigenous peoples, have been appointed ministers. Ng is the fifth of East Asian heritage and one of seven ministers who is a visible minority in Trudeau’s 39-person Cabinet.

Ng’s family immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong when she was 7. They landed in Winnipeg before settling in Toronto, where her father opened a restaurant and named it Kahing — “family” in Cantonese. Her favorite item on the menu was sweet-and-sour chicken balls. “I know, it’s not even Chinese. But it’s our Chinese,” she says.

Filial devotion and the grind of restaurant work shaped Ng’s formative years. As soon as she earned her driver’s license, Ng was on the road making food deliveries.

Her parents didn’t speak English, so they relied heavily on Ng and her two younger siblings. The children would play interlocutor every time the bank called or when Mom or Dad needed to visit the municipality to complete paperwork for the restaurant.

Now 52, Ng credits her late father — a feminist, she says — and her upbringing for her work ethic.

“I grew up in my family’s small business,” she said. “You always had to work hard — you always had to work harder than the next person.”

‘An extra gear’

Ng worked through the ’90s as a public servant in the Ontario government, climbing the ranks in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Cabinet Office. She switched to the political side in 2003 after the provincial Liberals were swept into office.

It was at Queen’s Park that Ng met Katie Telford, now Trudeau’s chief of staff. Both women worked for Gerard Kennedy, Ontario’s education minister at the time.

Ng was originally seconded to Kennedy’s transition team. After hitting it off with Telford and Kennedy, she left a secure government job for the political side where she cut her teeth as a policy director.

Kennedy told POLITICO that Ng operates with an “extra gear”; she is someone who responds to a single problem with four solutions. Often underestimated, she delivers “in a surprising way” because her background in public service makes her a rare politician who knows where to hot-wire the system from the political side, he said.

Jason Easton, now Ng’s chief of staff, said he first witnessed Ng’s effectiveness working together in 2008.

When Kennedy was up for reelection in 2008, Easton served as managing director of the campaign. “I was planning on running a very bare bones campaign,” he said. “Those were hard times for Liberals.” That’s when the Kennedy reelection team brought on Ng.

“Mary took us from being a C$40,000 campaign to being a fully funded C$120,000 campaign,” Easton said. “Overnight, I say jokingly, Mary became my best friend and I saw how effective she was. What Gerard said to me at that time was, ‘You give Mary a task, instructions, and she will deliver on it. That is what she’s good at.’”

Between Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill, Ng took a job as the executive director for the president of Ryerson University. That was when her dad’s health started to slip. Ng became his caregiver.

He was in and out of the hospital, admitted for weekslong stretches for treatment for chronic illness, heart disease and emphysema. Ng would work by his bedside.

“My dad is looking down on me knowing that I’m doing something that I love, but it certainly wasn’t a path I could’ve taken during those years when I was looking after him.”

Ties with Tai

In a motorcade somewhere between Neuhardenberg and Berlin, Ng is “binder-clearing,” extracting takeaways from two days of G-7 meetings.

Schloss Neuhardenberg, the castle where German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck had hosted Ng and five other G-7 leaders for two days, was still in the rearview mirror when the minister known for her privacy offered a rare behind-the-scenes window into her work.

Ng twists her shoulder-length hair into a bun, kicks off her heels and pulls a stack of papers and more comfortable shoes out of a black secure bag.

She reviews the three-minute speech she’s due to deliver at the Canadian embassy in downtown Berlin, in Potsdamer Platz, at the end of the car ride. She tells staffers she doesn’t like the flow, then starts marking up text in red pen until motion sickness forces her to stop.

To the uninitiated, the G-7 is basically an elite-level conference group charged with executing hundreds of meetings a year. The events are tightly choreographed. Security is everywhere. Reporters are kept penned away from world leaders, only interacting when politicians are ready.

Ng says she finds the security apparatus that accompanies her to high-level meetings “weird” and something she is still getting used to. Inside the fortified meeting rooms, Canada assumes a somewhat preordained role as the consensus builder between world superpowers and big egos.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who considers Ng as a close friend, told POLITICO her colleague has proven herself to be a “fierce” defender of Canada. Both women endured tense NAFTA renegotiations after former President Donald Trump threatened to rip up the trade pact.

Ng is “very good” at joining together Cabinet, businesses and international players, Freeland said, especially her American counterpart.

Ng and Freeland teamed up to threaten retaliatory tariffs in response to President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better electric vehicle tax credits, which Ottawa considered a threat to Canada’s automotive industry. The pair drew up a list targeting C$100 billion in U.S. imports but never published it once Build Back Better was declared dead.

“She worked so hard and effectively to develop a relationship with [United States Trade Representative] Katherine Tai,” Freeland said. “What sets Mary apart is she is strong-willed and relentless. When she wants to get something over the finish line, she does not let up.”

Tai, who also considers Ng a friend, says she is a “force of nature.”

They’re on a texting basis — helpful given that the prime minister explicitly tasked Ng to “lead Canada’s efforts to combat protectionism” and “unfair trade policies” bubbling stateside.

The integrated nature of the North American economy leaves Canada at the mercy of the United States and the increasingly volatile politics redefining it. More than C$1 trillion in two-way trade flows between Canada and the United States annually.

When she lost her cool

In 2021, her third and latest campaign, Ng won her seat with 61 percent of the vote.

She’s now charged with the same portfolio that launched the careers of her predecessors, Freeland and Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne. Yet a host of systemic factors often reduce one of Canada’s most influential ministers of color to a background player.

News often prioritizes sensation, which inadvertently devalues policy initiatives like Ng’s Black entrepreneurship program. Her French isn’t strong, one reason she does not appear on lists of the contenders who could lead a post-Trudeau Liberal Party.

Even in her government’s own handouts, she is sometimes cropped out or blurred if there are more high-profile politicians to frame. News coverage of Trudeau’s trip to the G-20 and ASEAN focused on the prime minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly with Ng’s name and image often dropped from broadcasts.

Kennedy, her former boss in government, suggests maybe Ng wants to keep a low profile. “At the end of the day, political capital does matter … I doubt very much it matters a lot to Mary.”

“It’s not a strategy,” Ng said before taking a few seconds to think about the observation. “Perhaps it is an advantage that I just get to put my head down, do the work.”

It’s hard to knock Ng off talking points — a discipline that makes her a bore to some reporters but an asset in the eyes of Team Trudeau.

But when pandemic frustration and misinformation fueled anti-Asian racism and spurts of violence targeting elderly people, the minister known for her calm demeanor said she lost her cool.

At the end of Cabinet meetings, the prime minister sometimes asks ministers what’s on their minds. Ng said she spoke up one day on a topic outside her small-business and trade portfolio.

“I’ll tell you what’s on my mind: racism,” she said she told colleagues. “People who look like me are getting beat up, elder people are being assaulted … This is happening to people.”

The intervention led to C$13 million being announced in the federal budget to combat racism and to help pay for enhanced security measures at places of worship, school and cultural centers to protect communities at risk of hate-motivated crimes. Her influence is growing and few are paying attention. Ng didn’t take public credit for it when the money was first announced.

“If I get the privilege of sitting around the Cabinet table,” she said, “I’m gonna do something about it.”

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