Chrystia Freeland leads Canada’s coronavirus fight

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is “the star of the moment,” one observer said.
(Brett Gundlock / Getty Images)

Last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her deputy prime minister and charged her with ameliorating relations between Ottawa and the rebellious provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Last month, he tapped her to lead Canada’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

And as the virus threat deepened, the government quietly established that if Trudeau falls ill, she would replace him at the helm of the government.

This is Chrystia Freeland’s breakout. It was her call to Vice President Mike Pence that set in motion the virtual closing of the Canadian-American border. She is at the front lines of Canada’s attack on the virus — and in the front row in government public appearances.

“She is the star of the moment,” said Donald J. Savoie, an expert on public administration at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick.


She is also the most prominent and consequential woman in Canada.

Described by Maclean’s magazine as “the minister of everything,” Freeland has the two toughest portfolios in Canadian politics and may be in line to be the country’s next leader even if Trudeau, who is in self-imposed isolation after his wife contracted the virus, stays healthy.

Canadian prime minister and wife
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie in December. She has tested positive for the coronavirus.
(Dave Chan / AFP/Getty Images)

The tendrils of power linking Trudeau and Freeland are increasingly prominent. Since the autumn she has been operating out of the same building across from Parliament Hill as Trudeau. Once Trudeau completed his remarks virtually closing the borders, he turned to Freeland to roll out a series of dramatic policy changes.

She approached all this with what might be called Chrystia cool and with an inclination for understatement. “I wouldn’t call it frantic,” she said in an interview last week as the House of Commons paused from debating an emergency financial package to address the crisis. “It is very busy.”

Very busy indeed. As she took over a new coronavirus Cabinet committee, she called for a “whole of country” approach to the threat, seeking to mobilize business, labor and civic organizations. She won the swift support of business leaders, who sometimes say the Liberals do not engage enough with the commercial sector.

Column One

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If it can be said that Freeland, 51, has arrived, it is in part because of her arrival back in Canada after a Rhodes scholarship and years as a foreign correspondent and editor in Kyiv, London, New York and elsewhere.

The author of influential books about Russia and global wealth disparities, she entered politics during the Conservative Party reign of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, winning a House of Commons seat in Toronto in 2013 and moving swiftly to prominence, becoming Trudeau’s minister of international trade two years later and, 14 months after that, taking over as foreign minister.

“Even people who had not read her books,” said Rohinton P. Medhora, president of the nonpartisan Center for International Governance Innovation, “could look to her and say: ‘If we get a government with her in it, there will be a change from the Harper years.’ ”



Chrystia Freeland was born in the remote settlement of Peace River in northwestern Alberta to parents who were lawyers in a community that then had a population of just under 5,400 and was five hours by car from Edmonton. Some relatives were Ukrainians who had spent time in a displaced-persons camp in war-ravaged Europe, some had homesteaded in the Canadian outback and pursued classic Canadian diversions that included riding in the Calgary Stampede.

Years later, she would sing to her three children in Ukrainian; she’s married to New York Times cultural arts writer Graham Bowley, who commutes to their Toronto home even as she commutes to her Ottawa battle station. It’s a frantic life but, according to Daphne Taras, dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University, “she’s a combination of very intense and very laid back.”

“It seems contradictory,” Taras continued, “but there she is, biking around town but looking crisp and great.”

But it was her Western ties rather than her metro persona that led Trudeau to task her with addressing discontent in two provinces that have long felt ignored by the federal government.

“The appointment reflected the main concerns of the government,” said Eric Marquis, Quebec’s assistant deputy minister for bilateral relations. “She’s one of the firefighters in Ottawa, putting out the flames. She’s the only one in the government who has the credibility to do that.”

‘She’s one of the firefighters in Ottawa, putting out the flames. She’s the only one in the government who has the credibility to do that.’

— Eric Marquis, assistant deputy minister in Quebec

For a native Albertan to address Western alienation is a challenge, said Michael Hawes, executive director of Fulbright Canada, “but she is a successful and purposeful politician, she has entered into negotiations that were difficult, she doesn’t suffer fools easily and she clearly has the ear of the prime minister.”

Having the ear of Trudeau is especially important now that so many voices are demanding attention. But Freeland’s prominence is a result of the tone and timbre of her voice — forceful but not frantic, intelligent but not incendiary. And it comes from loyalty.

Hers was an important female voice of support during the complex domestic SNF-Lavalin imbroglio, when Freeland sided with the embattled Trudeau after charges of improper prime-ministerial meddling in a justice issue that came from accusations by another prominent Cabinet member, Atty. Gen. Jody Wilson-Raybould. In a classic act of finesse, Freeland noted Trudeau’s “feminist” record but acknowledged that Wilson-Raybould spoke “her truth.”

Canada's prime minister and deputy
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Chrystia Freeland after she was sworn in as deputy prime minister in November 2019.
(Chris Wattie / AFP/Getty Images)

Indeed, diplomatic skills marked her period as Canada’s chief trade official and, then, its chief face in global affairs and at global conclaves. They also helped nudge the U.S. and Canada together in the move from NAFTA to USMCA, the new trade accord.

“Being told we had to renegotiate NAFTA was an existential crisis for us,” said Jennifer Welsh, who holds a chair in global governance and security at McGill University. “It required her to access a long list of constituencies — senators, House members, mayors — and she managed that well.”

It also displayed Freeland’s nationalist side. When she left Reuters in 2013 she told Time magazine that she “felt myself to be very Canadian.” That was a slightly surprising remark from someone who had cultivated an image as a citizen of the world.

But as the coronavirus surged through North America, Freeland’s sense of being Canadian surged as well.

“As a politician, and particularly a political leader in difficult periods — NAFTA, now coronavirus — I have come to feel a profound connection with the Canadians I serve, and a very deep responsibility to Canadians,” she said. “As a journalist, you feel a responsibility to your readers, but now there is a responsibility for me to be 1,000% emotionally invested.”

That nationalism became apparent in her willingness to take on the U.S. and its president, who imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. After the Trump administration said the tariffs were prompted by “national security” concerns, she responded by addressing the American people:

“I think what is important for Americans to understand is the justification under your rules for the imposition of these tariffs was a national-security consideration. So, what you’re saying to us and to all your NATO allies is that we somehow represent a national security threat to the United States.”

Then she added, mordantly: “And I would just say to all of Canada’s American friends ... Seriously?”

In the end, she won some of the market access that Canada wanted, though the agreement might have come at the expense of innovation sectors, particularly intellectual property and data management.

U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade accord
Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland with fellow negotiators Jesus Seade of Mexico, second from right, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, after signing an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement in December 2019.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Overall, her record has not been unblemished.

Critics said she paid too little attention to China and India. And as Canada renews its perhaps-doomed efforts to win one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council, some critics believe she did not engage in enough schmoozing with African leaders — a critical U.N. voting group.

She’s also won the enmity of Russian President Vladimir Putin and top Chinese officials. After she criticized government suppression of protests in Hong Kong — where 300,000 Canadian citizens reside — China cited her for making “irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs repeatedly, and grossly [interfering] in China’s internal affairs.”

“In an era when many politicians in democracies are accommodating autocrats and dictators, she is someone who stands up to them, sometimes to the detriment of her country,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of the Washington-based Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group. “She’s done it for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, on Hong Kong with China, and the rights of women activists who have been jailed in Saudi Arabia. Freedom and democracy are the core issues for her.”

Freeland drew inspiration from Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent (in office 1948 to 1957), who believed Canadian foreign policy should be governed by what he called “the rule of law in national and international affairs.” She won credit globally for speaking out in favor of the liberal international order — perhaps the only prominent North American official to do so — and she was not shy about the importance of using military force.

“Of course it must be a last resort,” she told the broadcaster CBC last year. “But I really believe in this moment today — when ... there are many threats to the liberal international order — it is precisely the democracies, it is precisely the countries that stand for values and human rights that also need to be ready to say we are prepared to use hard power when necessary.”


When Freeland, who had worked at the Financial Times, Reuters and the Globe and Mail, left journalism for politics, she took with her some of the tools of news gathering — the ability to assess situations swiftly, the instinct to distrust convention, the reliance on a searching examination before making a conclusion.

“I have always been a big believer in primary sources,” she said. “But at the same time, for decades I always tried to reach out to talk to independent experts with specific knowledge. I have been talking to doctors and to professors and also to business leaders and to union leaders.”

She also brought to her new role familiarity with the global movers and shakers, many of whom she profiled or knew from her days walking the corridors of power in Europe and North America.

Then-Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in August 2019.
(Sebastien St-Jean / AFP/Getty Images)

But for her, journalism provided both entree and limits. She prospered from the former and bumped up against the latter, and not a few in journalism believe she migrated into politics because she topped out of journalism at the relatively young age of 45.

And yet she was marked deeply by journalism. In a public discussion with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet last year, she attacked the notion that journalists were, as President Trump has frequently said, the “enemy of the people.” But she admitted, “That doesn’t mean I respond with joy in my heart to every single question I’m asked.”

Two years ago, during a meeting with Trudeau, she turned to him and said, “Prime minister, that is a scoop. No one knows that.” Trudeau looked bewildered, finally reminding Freeland that her journalism days were over. “Some of the instincts do die hard,” she told the CBC.

Like this one:

“Journalists are accustomed to working on deadline with incomplete information, and I think you cannot be a successful breaking-news journalist — covering collapse of the Soviet Union, for example — without understanding that sometimes you must choose speed over perfection,” she said. “That is the motto of every news desk in the world, and it is certainly something I have been saying to the members of our coronavirus Cabinet committee — that we need to act with agility and alacrity.”

The fatality rate for people infected with the novel coronavirus is estimated to be less than 1%, according to a new study. It’s 1.38% for those with COVID-19.

March 31, 2020

Jeremy Kinsman, then Canada’s ambassador to Russia, met Freeland in Moscow when she was a young journalist. Later he reconnected with her in Kyiv while her mother was helping Ukrainians draft their initial constitution.

But it was clear to Kinsman, if not to others, that she eventually wanted to return to Canada, which is not always congenial to the return of the prodigal. She, however, avoided the chilly homecoming journalist author Michael Ignatieff received when he returned from Harvard. He eventually became the Liberal leader and presided over the party’s 2011 federal election debacle, losing his own seat in the process.

“It didn’t happen with her,” Kinsman said. “The reason is personality and cleverness and the fact that she is a terrific communicator. She has come home and been very successful because people have seen her operations abroad as a star.

“She’s not bringing Canada some kind of glory she won abroad. She was the only one with the chops and chutzpah to deal with diplomacy in the age of Trump.”

Shribman is a special correspondent.