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In politics, the reward for strong performance in a difficult job is often an even harder job with tougher challenges. So it is for Chrystia Freeland, Justin Trudeau’s new deputy prime minister and envoy to the Liberal government’s two hottest trouble spots: Washington and the West.
As deputy prime minister and minister for intergovernmental affairs, Freeland has her work cut out for her in a way few ministers ever have, not least because her tasks straddle borders. She’s responsible for dealing with the madcap Donald Trump administration on trade while asserting Canada’s interests in an ever-shakier world political order.
Her domestic responsibilities are no less challenging. Along with helping to manage the Liberal minority government, she carries a special brief to fight growing unrest in the western provinces.
Freeland’s to-do list is long and complicated, with an early priority to wrap up ratification of the new North American trade agreement. But even with substantial public acceptance of the deal in Canada and support from Trump himself, ratification isn’t certain.
The trade agreement has been sucked into the partisan wars between Democrats and Republicans. Congress, preoccupied with the Trump impeachment process, has yet to approve it and probably won’t get it done this year.
On trade and so much more, Trump’s presidency has transformed the United States from a trusted partner and ally into an unreliable neighbour with a hair trigger. His administration has weakened NATO, undermined or abandoned treaties on trade, climate and arms control and cast doubt on Washington’s commitment to its alliances.
Most significantly for Canada, decades of amicable trade relations were undermined by Trump’s demands to tear up the 1993 NAFTA.
Freeland was serving as trade minister when Trump’s election in 2016 jolted her into the role of full-time crisis manager. When Stéphane Dion floundered as foreign minister in 2017, Freeland got the job, finalizing the European Union trade talks started by the previous Conservative government, then tackling the U.S.-Mexico negotiations.
While U.S. trade was her top priority, Freeland managed Canada’s responses to everything from Russian aggression in Ukraine to security in the Middle East and South Asia and the emerging power of China. She is a consistent advocate for the rules-based international order and a strident defender of human rights.
Freeland also has shown herself adept at staying out of the quagmire of chaos and “alternative facts” created by Trump and his enablers. She kept cool in the face of the president’s direct barbs at her, declining to reply in kind.
Freeland quarterbacked Canada’s “whole of government” approach to the trade campaign, with major help from the provinces and the business community. Given the difficulties of Trump’s trade agenda, if that’s even the right word for it, Freeland performed admirably. NAFTA 2.0 isn’t perfect, but I don’t know who could have landed a better deal under the circumstances.
So long as the mad king dominates U.S. politics, relations will remain complicated even as Freeland takes on a tricky domestic assignment.
Just weeks ago, her party was savagely rebuked by voters across much of Western Canada and confidence in the Trudeau government remains abysmal. The region’s oil economy continues to struggle.
Freeland, who grew up in Peace River, Alta., has to get out there, listen to people and figure out what their true priorities are. She knows they aren’t necessarily the same priorities as those of provincial governments or other sources of political noise. She needs to separate the real from the rhetorical.
Freeland then has to ensure her findings give meaning to Ottawa’s constitutional responsibility to make Confederation work for all Canadians.
The prime minister is no asset in the West, so Freeland will need to find other allies in asserting the region’s interests. Her augmented status as the undisputed cabinet No. 2 gives her political heft to get things done, but she’ll need all her diplomatic skills just to maintain the country’s uneasy peace.