OTTAWA – Chrystia Freeland has become the most powerful federal government minister in Canadian history following a Cabinet shuffle by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on January 10.
Ms. Freeland, who had served as Canada’s international trade minister since the Trudeau Liberals formed a government in 2015, was promoted to foreign affairs minister, replacing Stéphane Dion, who is also a former federal leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
The Cabinet shake-up – in which three ministers were given new roles, three new persons were appointed as ministers, and three ministers were removed – also reduced Ukrainian Canadian representation on the ministerial team by half through the removal of MaryAnn Mihychuk as minister of employment, workforce development and labor.
In an unprecedented move, Mr. Trudeau also gave 48-year-old, Alberta-born Ms. Freeland – only the third female Canadian foreign affairs minister in history – the added responsibility of maintaining the trade portion of the Canada-U.S. file as the Canadian government prepares for Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on January 20, effectively making the Ukrainian Canadian former journalist second only to the prime minister in power and influence.
“One of the things that we’ve seen from President-elect Trump is that he very much takes a trade and job lens to his engagements with the world in international diplomacy,” Prime Minister Trudeau told reporters following the swearing-in ceremony of Ms. Freeland and five other Cabinet ministers. “It makes sense for the person who is responsible for foreign relations with the United States to also have the ability and the responsibility to engage with issues, such as NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the broad range of trade issues that we’ll be facing with our friends and neighbors south of the border.”
He called Ms. Freeland “an extremely strong member” of his team, and said that “her ability to deal with multiple situations around the world was well demonstrated in her tremendous success in negotiating the Canada-Europe trade agreement.”
The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was signed last October, largely thanks to Ms. Freeland’s deft handling of negotiations when opposition from the Belgian region of Wallonia threatened to scuttle the pact, which once ratified by the European Parliament will give Canada access to a market of more than 500 million people in 28 countries with a combined GDP of more than $14.9 trillion (U.S.).
Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) President Paul Grod said he is not surprised by Minister Freeland’s rapid rise up the ranks in the Trudeau government.
“This was something in the making,” Mr. Grod said in an interview. He believes that were it not for Mr. Trudeau’s initial appointment of Mr. Dion – seen as a senior statesman within the government – as foreign affairs minister, Ms. Freeland likely would have been given that portfolio.
But after serving as trade minister for the past 14 months, during which time she also finalized the historic Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement and affixed her signature to the document at a signing ceremony in Kyiv last July, Minister Freeland has “demonstrated her weight and capability” as a “very astute, capable and hard-working politician” who is more than qualified to serve as Canada’s top diplomat, commented Mr. Grod, who considers her a close friend.
He said he has witnessed first-hand how Prime Minister Trudeau values Minister Freeland’s opinion and relies on her advice, and how she freely offers both to him, all of which will help the Trudeau government manage its critical foreign files with both the U.S. and Russia. Ms. Freeland has lived in both countries, first as Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times and later in New York City as the U.S. managing editor of the London-based international daily newspaper.
The Canada-Russia dynamic could prove the most challenging – yet pivotal – one for Ms. Freeland, who along with 12 other Canadians, was declared persona non grata by President Vladimir Putin’s government in 2014 after Canada responded to Russia’s invasion of Crimea by imposing economic sanctions and travel bans on 45 Ukrainian and Russian officials.
At the time, Ms. Freeland tweeted that it was “an honor to be on Putin’s sanction list.” On January 10 Russia’s Embassy in Ottawa confirmed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that Canada’s new foreign affairs minister remains on the no-fly list.
But Ms. Freeland, who speaks Ukrainian and Russian fluently, didn’t seem bothered by that. “I am a very strong supporter of our government’s view that it is important to engage with all countries… including Russia,” she told reporters on Parliament Hill. The minister also noted that she “really, really enjoyed” living in Moscow for four years and has a “deep love” for the Russian language and culture. “I feel with my background in Russia, I am going to be well-positioned to be a member of our government’s engagement there,” Ms. Freeland said.
Mr. Grod, who is also on that list of Canadians banned from entering Russia, said he believes that President Putin will come to respect Minister Freeland. “She is tough, and that’s exactly the language Putin understands,” Mr. Grod said.
“She is a very straightforward and very intelligent minister who will not only be able to speak on behalf of Canada, but we expect that she will also be able to lead the international community when it comes to dealing with Russia.”
On that front, the UCC president observed that Ms. Freeland could find an important ally in former ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state who forged close business ties with Mr. Putin, and who, with Ms. Freeland, “could come up with a really important strategy on how to deter and counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and other parts of the world by drawing clear red lines and outlining the consequences.”
Mr. Grod said he expects that, with Ms. Freeland as Canadian foreign affairs minister, there will be a shift in the Canadian government’s approach toward Russia and move away from the “engagement strategy” Mr. Dion took “as more of an academic exercise” that in the UCC president’s view did not accurately reflect the prime minister’s tough position on Russian involvement in Ukraine.
Mr. Trudeau addressed this with reporters in Ottawa last week.
“We’re proud of the strong friendship between Canada and Ukraine, and continue to condemn in no uncertain terms the illegitimate and illegal actions of the Russians in Ukraine, in the Donbas and the Crimea,” he said.
As for Ms. Mihychuk’s relegation to the backbenches, Mr. Grod voiced hope that she will be freer to serve as “an advocate on the Ukraine file” as a member of Parliament within the Liberal government caucus without being “handcuffed” in what she can say or do as a minister.
“MaryAnn has a lot of talent,” he added, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if she found her way back into the Cabinet.”