Trudeau Shifts From Wall Street to Times Square With New Envoy

  • Cineplex chairwoman Phyllis Yaffe replaces John Prato in NYC
  • TV and film executive once lobbied against foreign investment

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed a long-time media executive as Canada’s new representative in New York, replacing a former investment banker.

Trudeau named Cineplex Inc. chairwoman Phyllis Yaffe as his consul general on Tuesday, part of his biggest diplomatic overhaul since taking power.

Yaffe emphasized her private-sector background and said she’d advocate for a wide range of initiatives, building on the work of her predecessor John Prato. “I don’t see it as a pivot, I see it as a great opportunity to bring what I can to the job,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

Trudeau’s government considers New York the media capital of the world and sees Yaffe as a star recruit for the post. She is a former chief executive officer at Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., where she oversaw television distribution, including the popular “CSI” series, according to her government biography. She’s also a director for Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. and newspaper publisher Torstar Corp.

While serving as executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, Yaffe urged the federal government to restrict foreign investment and protect domestic publishing companies from takeover. It ultimately did, adopting the so-called Baie Comeau foreign ownership policy in 1985 that prevented the sale of Canadian-owned publishers to non-Canadians. Yaffe said Tuesday she’s nonetheless “very pro-trade” and sees opportunities to open markets for Canadian cultural industries.

Cultural Exports

“New York is a huge center of commerce for Canada” to favor trade, she said. “Creative industries have always played a different role in trade agreements -- they certainly did in Nafta -- and they will continue to be areas that Canada will want to make sure are vibrant and successful. But this is a government that has also said let us try and export Canadian content to the world.”

An adviser to the previous government said Yaffe’s appointment represents a shift in focus, adding that it’s a shame to see Prato go.

“He was top notch,” said Sean Speer, who served under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he appointed Prato in 2010. Trudeau’s Liberals soundly defeated Harper’s Conservatives last year, winning a majority in the October election, and it’s common for new prime ministers to appoint their own envoys. However, Yaffe’s “skill-set may reflect not only a different predisposition, but also a different group of target stakeholders,” said Speer, now a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think-tank.

Previous Envoy

Prato is a financial analyst who worked previously as a managing director of TD Securities Inc.’s equity capital markets group. Harper favored him in part for his business experience and familiarity with the financial sector, Speer said. He recalled the appointment was controversial because Prato came from outside the bureaucratic ranks of Canada’s foreign service and said he was happy to see Trudeau do the same.

Joe Oliver, a former Toronto investment banker who served as Harper’s finance minister also praised Prato’s record. “He was proactive, creative and effective,” Oliver said in an e-mail. “New Yorkers understand his appointment had ended and that there is a new government. They will of course be interested whether the pro-trade agenda continues to be pursued.”

Prato himself congratulated Yaffe, saying on Twitter she was a “great appointment.” The diplomatic shuffle announced Tuesday included 13 men and 13 women. Among them was Janice Charette, a former top government bureaucrat named as High Commissioner to the U.K. 

Gender Parity

Trudeau won praise last year for appointing a cabinet that was made up equally of men and women. “I am an advocate for that policy, I always have been,” Yaffe said of the government’s efforts to improve gender balance in business and in politics. “It’s a leap for me and I think lots of times women have to take big leaps. We have to encourage them to do that -- that’s when we start to change the dynamic.”

Yaffe begins Sept. 8 and will resign her board positions to take on the diplomatic role. She began her career as a librarian before rising in the corporate and non-profit world, serving also on the boards of Ryerson University in Toronto and of World Wildlife Fund Canada, where Gerald Butts -- now Trudeau’s principal secretary -- was president and chief executive officer.

“It’s an honor and a real privilege to get to serve Canada this way,” Yaffe said of her appointment.

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