Why Chrystia Freeland is the indispensable Trudeau cabinet minister

The most important relationship Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has within his cabinet is with Chrystia Freeland. By tasking her with improving relations with the provinces, Trudeau put her at the centre of much of his minority government's ambitious policy goals.

Much of what the PM wants to do requires provincial cooperation. That's where Freeland comes in.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland speak after she's sworn in as deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland have been very good for each other. Not for the first time, the future of the Liberal government — and a lot else — seem to be riding on the two of them finding success together.

"She is someone with whom I worked very, very closely, and with great success, on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the challenges of the American administration," Trudeau said Wednesday afternoon, using the most delicate language possible to describe the experience of dealing with Donald Trump's White House.

"We know that as we move forward on issues that matter across the country, like energy and the environment and other large issues, we will have to engage in a strong and positive way with different orders of government."

During a phone call with Trudeau in the summer of 2018, at perhaps the most contentious moment of the prolonged struggle over NAFTA, Trump described Freeland as a "nasty woman." In some circles, that's a badge of honour in its own right.

But Freeland came away from that prolonged drama with a claim to having played a pivotal role in preserving this country's most important trading relationship at a moment of unprecedented instability.

Her reward is the title of "deputy prime minister" and responsibility for helping to hold together the world's largest democratic federation at a time of profound change and uncertainty.

How Freeland gave Trudeau early credibility

It's the culmination of a political career that began six years ago when Trudeau and his top advisers recruited Freeland to run in a by-election in Toronto Centre. Trudeau had become Liberal leader just six months earlier and Freeland became his first star candidate — the first evidence that Trudeau could attract smart and accomplished people to serve alongside him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Freeland was something like the platonic ideal of a Liberal candidate: a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who had become an internationally recognized journalist and author in New York. And while the Conservatives were scoffing that Trudeau wasn't ready to lead, Freeland was ready to line up behind him.

From Trudeau's perspective, not all of his star recruits worked out for the best (Jody Wilson-Raybould, most notably) but Freeland became central and integral to his government.

A year before she joined the Liberals, Freeland published her second book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Once in the fold, she was an important voice in shaping a political agenda focused on increasing taxes on the wealthiest and building supports for the middle class.

In Trudeau's first cabinet, she was made international trade minister. There, she dragged a free trade deal with Europe to completion — famously displaying "visible emotion" during the final push. She was not a natural politician but she slowly got better at it.

Freeland's New York connections

When Trump won the presidency, Trudeau promoted her to foreign affairs (awkwardly shuffling Stéphane Dion aside to clear the way).

It was Freeland's connections in New York that first put Trudeau's team in touch with Trump's people, including Jared Kushner. Behind closed doors, she sat across the table from Robert Lighthizer, Trump's proudly protectionist trade representative. In public, she was a steady and consistent voice for the Trudeau government. She won "diplomat of the year" and used the occasion to deliver a stinging and provocative speech on the fate of the free world.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer talk after a news conference on the last day of the second round of NAFTA talks in Mexico City on Sept. 5, 2017. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

Her task now is not neatly defined, except in the sense that she will be important and she will be dealing with the provinces.

The role of intergovernmental affairs does not have a long history in the federal government. It was mostly an afterthought during Stephen Harper's nine years in power. Justin Trudeau initially gave the portfolio to himself. The most notable occupant of the office was Dion, who held the title for seven years in the aftermath of the 1995 referendum in Quebec.

Now, as then, there are deep concerns about national unity. And the Liberals have an agenda that would be much easier to implement with provincial cooperation: on pharmacare, infrastructure, climate change, energy and internal trade.

A baggage-free proxy for Trudeau

If there is to be a fight over equalization — one that Alberta and Saskatchewan seem to be agitating for — Freeland will be a valuable representative and negotiator. She carries none of Trudeau's baggage into any debate with western premiers (as she is fond of noting, she is an Albertan by birth) and could offer a new voice to those in Calgary and Regina who long ago stopped listening to the prime minister.

She and Trudeau are not unalike: they're both energetic and ambitious, both huggers. But she is generally more direct in her speech than the prime minister, more naturally plain-spoken. Where Trudeau is smooth and polished, Freeland is slightly quirkier and more loquacious.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, centre, shares a laugh with fellow Liberal MPs Allan MacEachen, left, and John Munro, right, during voting on amendments to the Constitution in the House of Commons, Ottawa, April 23, 1981. (Andy Clark/Canadian Press)

The title of "deputy prime minister" has only slightly more history than "minister of intergovernmental affairs". The deputy position was created in 1977 when Pierre Trudeau bestowed it upon Allan MacEachen, the veteran minister and skilful House leader who was integral to reviving the first Trudeau government after its near-death experience in 1972.

Though her skill set and history are different, Freeland might be regarded as Justin Trudeau's MacEachen — a vital lieutenant who complements Trudeau's talents and abilities. She will chair the cabinet committee on the economy and the environment and, as Trudeau's second-in-command, she would seem to be in line to share some of the responsibility for minding the government's overall operations.

With his own political brand in need of rehabilitation, Trudeau might benefit from letting Freeland — and other senior ministers — carry more of the weight.

For all the things the Trudeau government must work on now at this new stage of its life, Freeland could be a significant force. But the experience of the NAFTA process also could end up seeming relatively straightforward by comparison.

Attacks from foreign leaders might be easier to brush aside than the challenges of domestic rivals. Until now, Freeland has been Canada's champion abroad. Now she'll be simply a Liberal contending with the concerns of Canadians and the second-guesses of Conservatives.

As the second-most senior minister, and a possible successor to Trudeau, she also can expect to be an object of new and increased scrutiny.

Without Trudeau, Freeland might never have gotten to this point. Without Freeland, Trudeau might be in an even worse place now.

At this moment, they need each other to succeed.

The full list of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet sworn Nov. 20 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (CBC)


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.