What Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s new foreign minister, brings to the Global Affairs file

The former journalist, who found success with CETA as trade minister and is barred from Russia, replaced Stéphane Dion this week. Here are five things to know about her.

By: /
January 11, 2017
Chrystia Freeland
Chrystia Freeland poses with Canada's Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being sworn-in as Canada's foreign affairs minister during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Jan. 10, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A cabinet shuffle within the Trudeau government on Tuesday saw a change in leadership for Global Affairs Canada, with Chrystia Freeland, former minister of international trade, replacing party stalwart Stéphane Dion as minister of foreign affairs.

Freeland, a multilingual former journalist whose star has been rising in the Liberal Party since her election as an MP in 2013, is now the third woman ever to hold the post — and the first female Liberal to do so.

Truly humbled,” Freeland tweeted after her swearing in. “I will continue each and every day to represent the best of Canada around the world."

Other moves were made in the shuffle that suggest the government is re-positioning itself on key international files: in a high-level appointment, John McCallum has been named Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, leaving his post as immigration minister (he will be replaced by Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s first Somali-Canadian MP), and François-Philippe Champagne, a champion of liberal economic policy, will replace Freeland as trade minister. On Thursday, it was announced that Transport Minister Marc Garneau will take over from Freeland as chair the Cabinet Committee on Canada-United States Relations.

The ministerial changes, made 14 months after Justin Trudeau’s government took office, are widely seen as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the uncertainty that comes with it. With questions surrounding the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Canada-U.S. auto industry, in Freeland the government gets a minister who has extensive connections in the U.S., whose trade experience makes her well-positioned to protect Canada’s interests and whose views often match the prime minister’s. 

Some experts failed to see a coherent strategy for foreign affairs under Dion, and there were a few instances over past months where Dion's pronouncements differed from those of others in government.

Freeland’s number one challenge this year will undoubtedly be managing relations with the U.S., but she will also face a myriad of other foreign policy issues: navigating Canada’s relationship with China and Russia, for example (the latter which she is barred from entering), and overseeing a department many still consider to be reeling under cuts made by the Harper government.

As Freeland takes up her new post, here are five things to know about her:

1. She got her professional start as a journalist.

Freeland received a B.A. in history and literature from Harvard University, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where she earned a Master’s degree. At 21, while on exchange from Oxford at the University of Kyiv, she worked as a fixer and translator for New York Times reporter Bill Keller, launching her successful career as an international journalist. After starting out as a stringer in Ukraine writing for the Financial Times, The Washington Post and The Economist, she worked in various editorial positions including both Moscow bureau chief and U.S. managing editor at the Financial Times, deputy editor at The Globe and Mail, and managing director at Thompson Reuters. 

2. She had to be convinced to enter politics.

In July 2013, after being courted for months by then-Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau to run for the Toronto Centre seat vacated by Bob Rae (as reported by the Toronto Star), Freeland made the decision to leave journalism and move back to Toronto from New York City with her husband, New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, and their three children. After being elected as the member of parliament for Toronto Centre in 2013’s by-election and then re-elected in October 2015 as the MP for University-Rosedale, Freeland was appointed minister of international trade for Trudeau’s new government. Freeland has described the decision to make the leap into politics as a tough one — but it is one that appears to be paying great dividends, given this week’s announcement. 

3. Her new position is viewed as a promotion.

Freeland’s move to Global Affairs is widely seen as a reward for a job well done in her last portfolio. From November 2015 to January 2017, Freeland served as Canada’s 18th minister of international trade, promoting Trudeau’s vision of free trade and an open global economy. Last February, she signed Canada on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though she said in November that the deal would be unable to go ahead without the U.S. (Trump has promised to pull the U.S. out of the pact).

The apex of Freeland’s time as trade minister came during the tense and dramatic negotiations with the Belgian region of Wallonia over the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). After an emotional walkout during the talks in October, which seemed on the verge of collapse, Freeland and Trudeau were able to strike a deal that satisfied the Walloons.

Before Tuesday’s shuffle, Freeland was poised to begin exploring trade talks with China and examining possibilities for “maintaining or increasing” Canada’s trade relationship with the United Kingdom as it sorts out the mechanics of its Brexit — efforts which presumably will continue under new minister François-Philippe Champagne.

4. Her views on Russia have been shaped by her family history and reporting experience.

Freeland, whose maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine before the Second World War, describes herself as a “proud member of the Ukrainian-Canadian community” but also as a “Russophile.” In a 2015 essay for the Brookings Institution, she wrote: “I speak the language and studied the nation's literature and history in college. I loved living in Moscow in the mid-nineties as bureau chief for the Financial Times and have made a point of returning regularly over the subsequent fifteen years.”

Even so, over her career as a journalist, Freeland’s work was often critical of the Kremlin and of Vladimir Putin (who she interviewed in 2000). But it wasn’t until after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine that she was put on a list of Westerners banned from Russia — making her rocky relationship with the country at odds with Trump’s sympathetic views at the moment. It remains to be seen if Freeland’s status will change; the decision rests solely with Putin.

5. Her progressive worldview is an antidote to protectionism and elitism.

Freeland’s credentials as a progressive are unassailable. She has years of experience exploring issues related to international business and economics; her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012) is an international bestseller. Her subsequent 2013 TED Talk on global income inequality, in which she explores how globalization and advancements in technology are contributing to the stratification of society, has been viewed almost two million times.

Freeland made the case for what she called “inclusive prosperity” in an interview with OpenCanada in 2015: “We are all going to benefit when our economy can grow together…in the long run, it’s not going to be good for anyone, including the 0.1 percent, if we have a society where the chasm between those at the very top and everyone else is too great. That is a recipe for gated communities and a polarized society.”

Canadians will have to wait and see how Freeland will incorporate this mindset into her dealings on the international stage as foreign minister — but it's one that will be welcomed in many circles, at a time when protectionist sentiments and close-mindedness are on the rise.