December 20, 2019

A prime minister-in-waiting


Having seen his parliamentary majority reduced to a minority and not managing to get a single member of Parliament elected in two Prairie Provinces – Alberta and Saskatchewan – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has turned to his most capable minister to help heal the regional division created in the most recent election.

And that is none other than Ukrainian Canadian Chrystia Freeland, whom he has appointed his deputy prime minister. She also assumes the portfolio of minister of intergovernmental affairs and will also continue to oversee some ongoing files from her previous position as minister of foreign affairs – in particular overseeing the implementation of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement.

Even though she currently lives in Toronto and represents a central Toronto constituency, Ms. Freeland was born in Peace River, Alberta, and grew up in Edmonton’s Ukrainian community. As such, she is the closest thing Prime Minister Trudeau has to an Alberta representative.

The position of deputy prime minister is not a Cabinet portfolio that is a regular fixture. It was first created by Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre, in 1977 to recognize the political clout of Allan MacEachen, a key Liberal minister who also a principal political strategist. The last person to occupy that position was Edmonton’s Anne MacLellan, whose term ended in 2006. The position can be symbolic, or it can carry considerable clout – best example being Don Mazankowski (who is of Polish origin, but is married to a Canadian of Ukrainian origin) in former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Cabinet.

There is no question that Ms. Freeland will belong to that category of DPMs who carry considerable clout. Just days after being sworn in, Ms. Freeland flew to Alberta to talk with that province’s premier, Jason Kenney, one of Mr. Trudeau’s most vocal critics. Then was off to Saskatchewan to meet with his second most vocal critic, Premier Doug Moe. (In between those meetings, she and Mr. Kenney attended a banquet in Edmonton honoring former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, at which she received by far the biggest ovation of all the dignitaries present.) Both premiers praised her diplomatic skills. The day after meeting Mr. Moe, she was off to Washington to resolve issues related to the free trade agreement.

She has become what some pundits have termed Mr. Trudeau’s most indispensable minister, and the fact that she has been tasked with the most difficult challenges facing the administration is a testament to her ability.

Ms. Freeland is also very proud of her Ukrainian heritage. As minister of foreign affairs, she has been very effective in promoting Canada’s support for Ukraine and equally effective on the world stage. She has punched way above her weight in such international forums like the G-7 and NATO.

After obtaining a USSR press pass on the basis of a letter of accreditation from Ukrainian News in 1989, Ms. Freeland cut her journalistic teeth as a Ukraine-based stringer for the Financial Times, The Washington Post and The Economist. She went on to wear many hats at the Financial Times and served as deputy editor of The Globe and Mail between 1999 and 2001, before returning to the Financial Times as deputy editor and then as U.S. managing editor.

In 2010, she joined Canadian-owned Thomson Reuters. She was a managing director of the company and editor of consumer news when she decided to return home and enter politics in 2013.

She has written two books: “Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution” (2000) and “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” (2012). “Plutocrats” is an international best-seller and won the Lionel Gelber Prize and National Business Book Award.

In 2018, Ms. Freeland was recognised as Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year and was awarded the Eric M. Warburg Award by Atlantik-Brücke for her achievements in strengthening trans-Atlantic ties.

And what the future brings is the critical question insofar as Ms. Freeland is concerned. It is no secret that the Liberals held on to power not because of Mr. Trudeau, but despite Mr. Trudeau. That, and the fact that, aside from the Conservatives, the other three opposition parties all stand to the left of the Liberals on social and economic issues, means that most Canadians prefer progressive economic policies as opposed to conservative ones. With a more competent leader they could easily win another majority,

Ms. Freeland is a staunch Trudeau loyalist, so don’t expect her to do any overt or covert campaigning for the job. The Liberals, however, consider themselves to be Canada’s “Natural Governing Party” and, as such, are determined to cling to power. Should Mr. Trudeau drop dramatically in the polls, or should he lose the next election, the pressure from inside the party on him to resign would be quite strong. Were that to happen, Ms. Freeland would automatically become the front-runner in any leadership race. Even if Mr. Trudeau won a third term and decided to retire at his own pace, Ms. Freeland would still be a front-runner.

Either way you look at it, Chrystia Freeland is a prime minister-in-waiting.


Marco Levytsky may be contacted at