OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau is tapping his star global diplomat, Chrystia Freeland, to help bridge a divide with what increasingly feels like a foreign country to his Liberal Party: Canada’s restive Western provinces.
The Canadian prime minister’s decision to move Freeland, a familiar face in U.S. and European political and media circles, from her prestigious foreign minister post to the domestic portfolio of intergovernmental affairs came as he rolled out his new Cabinet Wednesday. And it’s a stark illustration of the political challenge facing Trudeau as he prepares to start his second term having lost his majority government in last month’s elections.
While Trudeau came to power four years ago as a globalist determined to put Canada back on the world stage, he’s now been forced to look inward. And he’s throwing the highest-profile member of his government at an effort to manage regional divisions between Canada’s liberal urban centers and the conservative Prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where his Liberal Party has zero members, and where lawmakers have been threatening to consider an independence effort loosely labeled “Wexit.”
It’s a move that clearly required some careful packaging; after all, the intergovernmental affairs position would normally be considered a demotion for Freeland, who’s been Trudeau’s point person on everything from U.S.-Canada trade relations to Ottawa’s tense relations with Beijing. To help elevate the status to her new duties, Trudeau has also given Freeland the largely symbolic role of deputy prime minister.
Plus, Freeland will continue to work on the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement — which she helped craft — to help ensure it makes it all the way to ratification. Trudeau’s new foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, however, will inherit her duties as the minister responsible for U.S.-Canada relations.
Freeland, a native Albertan, was a veteran journalist at The Globe and Mail, Financial Times and Thomson Reuters, where she was managing director, before being elected to Parliament in 2013. Now, she’ll be tasked with using her diplomatic skills to deal with rising frustrations directed at Ottawa — including a pro-independence movement — in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Freeland quickly rose to prominence within Trudeau’s Cabinet on the international scene, first as trade minister and later as foreign minister.
President Donald Trump once singled Freeland out in the midst of a tense period of U.S.-Canada negotiating over the USMCA, saying in September 2018 that “we’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiation style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”
Indeed, Freeland has been widely credited in Canada for her work at the table during tough USMCA negotiations with an unpredictable Trump administration. After a deal was reached, Freeland moved to smooth things over by hosting U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer at her Toronto home for a roast beef supper with her family.
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Freeland’s shuffle likely won’t be enough to quell the resentment boiling over in the prairies, but noted that she’s viewed as one of Trudeau’s most talented Cabinet ministers.
“Unless Trudeau completely becomes a Conservative, they’re not going to like anything,” he said. “But I think it’s an honest outreach.”
Trudeau has called on Freeland to deal with other major challenges, including Canada’s dispute with China. Tensions flared nearly a year ago after Canadian authorities arrested a senior Huawei executive on an extradition request by the U.S. The Chinese government has since detained two Canadians on allegations of stealing state secrets and has blocked some shipments of agricultural products from Canada.
Freeland has also been responsible for Canada’s lobbying efforts for a seat on the United Nations Security Council — viewed as a key foreign policy objective for the Trudeau government.
Before moving to foreign affairs, Freeland helped finalize Canada’s trade deal with the European Union.
“She’s really not just the rising star, but the star of the Liberal Cabinet and more generally the Liberal Party,” said Daniel Béland, who is director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada.
He said her new title of deputy prime minister is likely a way for Trudeau to compensate her and maintain her high status in the Cabinet. Intergovernmental affairs, he added, is viewed as a notch “slightly below” foreign affairs.
Champagne most recently oversaw Trudeau’s infrastructure portfolio and, before that, the international trade file. Béland said Champagne will have to prove himself because he lacks Freeland’s international profile and is little-known outside his home province of Quebec — and notes that the move sends a broader signal.
“They are sending the message in a way that maybe [foreign affairs] is not as much a priority for them as domestic issues,” he said.
Trudeau, he added, has lost some of his progressive aura internationally after images of the prime minister wearing racist makeup surfaced during the election campaign.
Champagne may also be called on to settle a dispute with Saudi Arabia, a key partner for Canada in the Middle East.
Relations between the countries soured in 2018 — and the source of the conflict was tied to Freeland’s Twitter feed.
A series of tweets from Canadian government accounts — including Freeland’s account — criticized Saudi Arabia over its arrest of women’s rights activists. The tweets called for the activists’ release, and the public condemnation angered the kingdom, which responded within days by removing the Canadian ambassador and bringing home its own envoy from Ottawa. The regime also stopped new trade and investment deals with Canada.
The Canadian tweets drew criticism from some foreign policy experts and political foes; Conservative MP Erin O’Toole called Freeland’s move “immature diplomacy.”
As for Freeland’s other new title, Canada hasn’t had a deputy prime minister since Anne McLellan held the position in 2006 under then-Prime Minister Paul Martin.
“The position is almost purely symbolic. It is a title, not a portfolio like most other Cabinet positions,” said Emmett Macfarlane, a political scientist from University of Waterloo.
“The answer as to why we have gone so long without one is that it is a largely unnecessary position. It was only created in 1977 under [then-Prime Minister] Pierre Trudeau. It comes with no specific set of functions, it is not set out in law.”
Macfarlane said giving the title to Freeland seems designed to make her move look lateral instead of a demotion.
Lauren Gardner contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
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