Chrystia Freeland: Trudeau's first star candidate becomes his brand ambassador

Chrystia Freeland, the new foreign affairs minister, wasn't quite the first Justin Trudeau Liberal, but she was the first star candidate wooed by Trudeau and his advisers. Now she gets to represent, protect and build his government's brand abroad.

New foreign affairs minister known for extensive international connections

Chrystia Freeland's described as the right person for the job as Canada braces for what might unfold under Donald Trump's U.S. presidency: a foreign minister with "a broader and deeper network of alliances than anyone since [Lester B.] Pearson." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Chrystia Freeland, the new foreign affairs minister, wasn't quite the first Justin Trudeau Liberal — Yvonne Jones was elected in a byelection a month after he became party leader — but she was his first star candidate, wooed by Trudeau and his advisers to hold the Liberal bastion of Toronto-Centre.

Her turn to politics in 2013 came on the heels of her acclaimed book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, and her reporting on economic inequality converged with Trudeau's increasing focus on the middle class.

Her curriculum vitae reads like the model of a certain Liberal ideal: a worldly, Harvard-educated journalist who has worked in Moscow and New York, writing and talking about international politics and global finance while in the employ of some of the most revered companies in international media. (Her familial roots in Peace River, Alta., help to take some of the edge off her cosmopolitan bona fides.)

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as foreign affairs minister during a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Before she was even elected, she was made a co-chair of the economic advisory council of MPs and wonks that would inform the Liberal platform. Immediately upon arriving in Ottawa, she became a prominent voice on Russian interference in Ukraine, her ancestral homeland.

During 14 months as the minister of international trade, she completed a deal with the European Union — famously emoting in public at one point during negotiations and later hugging her Conservative predecessor in the Commons — and apparently worked to improve her French.

Chrystia Freeland emotional after Canada-EU trade deal talks collapse

7 years ago
Duration 1:33
International Trade Minister has walked out of free trade negotiations with the European Union. "I worked very hard. But I think it's impossible."

With all of that in mind, it perhaps makes sense that Trudeau has made Freeland his envoy to the world.

At a moment of remarkable global uncertainty and with remarkable attention on Canada's example amid the tumult, Freeland has been put front and centre.

Freeland vs. Trump and Putin

A senior government source calls her the right person for what is now a very difficult job. The world is certainly having a bit of a moment, dizzied by the developments of Donald Trump and Brexit. The liberal order is beset by the forces of populism, protectionism and nationalism.

The U.S. is particularly pivotal for the Canadian economy and it's certainly easier to imagine Freeland dealing with senior members of the Trump administration than, say, Stéphane Dion, the fastidious professor whom Freeland replaces. 

Freeland might have ended up foreign minister regardless of who was president.

She is said to be highly trusted by the prime minister and his advisers and is hailed for her work ethic, her diplomacy and her connections.

"She probably walks into that job with a broader and deeper network of alliances than anyone since [Lester B.] Pearson," a government source told CBC news.

(Mitchell Sharp might have tried to make a case for himself here.)

For whatever it's worth, she can also boast of having interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2000, when she was an editor at the Globe and Mail. And she speaks Russian.

As a journalist, Freeland was a frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime. She's been banned from setting foot in Russia since 2014. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Press Service, Sputnik, via AP)

But Freeland, a frequent critic of the Putin regime as a journalist, has been banned from setting foot in Russia since 2014.

The degree to which that will matter in any practical sense remains to be seen. But it's at least a potentially interesting twist, seized on by The Guardian, in light of Trump's praise for the Russian leader.

A voice for the Trudeau brand

In what might have been her last speech as trade ministerFreeland enthused about the "open society" and made what has become the Trudeau government's central argument: that immigration, diversity and trade are valuable ideas, but that in the absence of widespread economic security those ideas will come under attack.

Freeland seems steeped in the essential stuff of the global moment. She's thought about the need for a new model of progressive government. To that she's added the real experience of negotiating a trade deal. And now she can try navigating the United Nations as Canada pursues a seat on the Security Council and prepares to embark on peacekeeping efforts.

Freeland is said to be highly trusted by the prime minister and his advisers. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In the acknowledgements at the end of Plutocrats — the list of friends, colleagues, advisers and acquaintances reads like a potential speakers list for the next World Economic Forum summit in Davos — Freeland writes, "I sometimes describe my own political philosophy as being simply 'Canadian.'"

At the time that might've just meant an enthusiasm for bank regulation.

But, over the past year, "Canadian" has become a trendy adjective associated with pluralism, pandas and other retweetable notions. And now Freeland, an early adherent to Trudeau's cause, gets to represent, protect and build that brand abroad.


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.