Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.

In the 1990s, Freeland worked as the Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times before taking posts in the 2000s at the Toronto-based Globe and Mail and at Thomson Reuters. Freeland, who once interviewed Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2000 shortly after he took office, has written a book on Russia’s post-Soviet stumbles, and she is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian (and French and Italian).  Freeland was also a Rhodes scholar, and she has written a book on income inequality, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.

A Canadian of Ukrainian descent, Freeland was an outspoken critic of Putin’s 2014 decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine and the subsequent Russian attempts to perpetuate a low-grade civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk oblast. That landed Freeland on a list of nine Canadians subject to sanctions from Putin’s Russia, banning her from receiving a travel visa. It’s not clear whether Moscow will now lift Freeland’s ban unilaterally, suggesting yesterday that it will do so only if Canada, in turn, lifts some of its sanctions on Russia. Freeland has championed a new law, similar to the ‘Magnitsky Act’ adopted by the United States in 2012, and currently under consideration by the House of Commons, that would allow Canada to freeze Russian assets and prevent human rights violators from entering Canada.

Incredibly, it means that Canada’s foreign minister cannot, under Russian law, fly to Moscow to meet her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. That’s amazing, and if Russia doesn’t relent, it’s an ominous sign of what could become a breakdown in diplomatic channels.

She replaces Stéphane Dion, who often seemed to struggle in the role of foreign minister, none more clearly when he struggled last spring to defend a $15 million arms deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia . Dion, who will leave politics after a failed stint as Liberal Party leader in the late 2000s, came to politics initially as a minister of intergovernmental affairs, where he drafted the Clarity Act that governs future secession matters. As leader, he embraced efforts to reduce the effects of climate change. In leaving politics, Trudeau will lose one of the party’s leading figures from French-speaking Canada who played an important role in bringing the country together after the divisive 1995 Québec independence referendum campaign. Though Trudeau may have caused some hurt feelings in so abruptly sacking Dion, an elder stateman of the Liberal Party, Dion’s legacy is secure with respect to Canada’s unity and as an advocate for greater environmental activism within Canada’s government.

Nevertheless, the idea of a prickly, mumbling green warrior with shaky English skills representing Canada’s interests in the Trump era always seems somewhat incongruent. Imagine the awkwardness of Dion, the academic-turned-politician and crusader for renewable energy, sitting down with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for US secretary of state.

Freeland, though her worldview contrasts sharply with the Trump’s protectionist and pro-Moscow views, has received universal praise for her, among other things, her negotiation prowess as Canada’s trade minister.

Among other things, Trump has often discussed renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. Though Trump’s problems with NAFTA are primarily directed toward the Mexican labor market, Canada is the third signatory to the trade agreement, forcing Canada’s government to take Trump’s threats seriously. If Trump significantly weakens NAFTA — or rips the agreement up entirely — the economic results would be disastrous for Canada, as trade with the United States amounts to two-thirds of Canadian imports and three-fourths of Canadian exports. Notably, François-Philippe Champagne, another member of the Liberal class of 2015, and a trade attorney from Québec, will assume Freeland’s old role as international trade minister, though he will not have any responsibility for US trade issues, a policy area reserved for Freeland in her new role. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s future looking especially bleak, Canada has already started exploratory talks for trade deals with both Japan and the People’s Republic of China in 2017. Meanwhile, immigration minister John McCallum, previously chief economist at the Royal Bank of Canada before launching a political career in 2000, will be Canada’s new ambassador to China.

As trade minister, Freeland is credited with cementing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union, largely negotiated under the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper. Freeland and the European Union’s commissioner for trade, Cecilia Malmström, successfully reached a deal with Paul Magnette, the regional president of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, over CETA’s enforcement and dispute resolution mechanism last October.

In Trudeau’s cabinet reshuffle, his first as prime minister, he promoted Ahmed Hussen, a Somali-born MP elected only in  October 2015 as the country’s new minister for immigration, refugees and citizenship.

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