Chrystia Freeland, a foreign minister for the Donald Trump era

Justin Trudeau's cabinet shuffle thrust the hyperconnected Freeland, a hardliner on Russia with deep ties in official Washington, into the spotlight

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Call it the Trump pivot—or maybe, more accurately, the Trump double axel—as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle spins both toward and away from the temperamentally unpredictable Donald Trump. By booting Stéphane Dion from cabinet and giving Russian hardliner Chrystia Freeland a beefed-up Foreign Affairs portfolio—one that includes the NAFTA trade deal—Trudeau signalled Canada is open for business with Trump on bilateral trade, but closed for business on international files like Russia and—with his new ambassadorial appointment—on China, too. It’s a tough manoeuvre to pull off.

There are few more qualified and capable politicians than Chrystia Freeland. Her work wrapping up the European free-trade deal was relentless, emotional and, in the end, effective. The Alberta-born, Toronto-based MP is a Rhodes Scholar, the bestselling author of a book called Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, and the former managing editor of Thomson Reuters. She has lived in the U.S. and Russia, and speaks Russian, Ukrainian, French and Italian. There is no one in the Trudeau cabinet more familiar with the corridors of power in Washington than Freeland, a crucial network as the Trump administration prepares to rip up  NAFTA and kickstart an era of Buy American protectionism.

“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,” Trudeau said on Tuesday in an almost euphemistic description of Trump’s erratic Twitter habit, which, I assume, now functions as a form of “diplomacy.”

RELATED: Everything you need to know about Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle

Trudeau went on. “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 and the broad range of trade issues that we’ll be facing with our friends and neighbours south of the border.” That would be softwood lumber, steel, NAFTA, energy and, well, everything else included in our two-way, $800-billion-a-year trade relationship. Over to you, Minister Freeland.

You might argue that Freeland is plugged into the wrong side of the Washington political world. As an acolyte of the economist Larry Summers, she’s publicly associated with the progressive side of the political agenda, which she’s defended on many appearances on U.S. television. But in the U.S., success and fame trumps partisanship, and Freeland’s rise to a certain degree of celebrity has meant she has genuine connections to the people she dubbed the “super rich”—some of whom will work in Trump’s administration. That’s her ticket. She’s used to that crowd, and Trudeau was right to let her keep the NAFTA file. Trudeau needs Washington contacts now that his pal Obama is gone, and while his team has met with the Trump advisers, I’ve been told by sources that most of it is still at a very preliminary level. The hyper-communicative and connected Freeland will carve her way through Washington and send a strong and necessary signal that Canada is a partner, not an opponent, on trade.

MORE: What Canada’s trade policy should like under Trump

Freeland is now one of the most powerful people in cabinet, alongside Finance Minister Bill Morneau, but her big test will come when she sorts out her relationship with her U.S. counterpart: the current nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The former CEO of ExxonMobil managed to scrape by last year on a salary of US$27 million, and is, by any estimate, the very definition of the Freeland plutocrat. You can bet Tillerson will get a copy of her book before their first meeting.

Freeland has got to find a way to work with the U.S. on the NAFTA issue and make sure she doesn’t alienate the Trump people with high-minded talk about elites. As Trudeau has already signalled, she will try to connect the two governments with their focus—from opposite sides of the political spectrum—on the middle class and those who feel left out by the elites. If nothing else, the shared hypocrisies of a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar and a CEO worth $250 million talking about representing the poor might also form a bond, but maybe it is too early in the year for that kind of cynicism. In any case, if it doesn’t get tense between them on NAFTA—and that’s the biggest issue facing this country in 2017—it might when they turn to another issue on which they do not see eye to eye: Russia.

Freeland is a hardliner on Russia, so much so that Putin banned her and 12 other Canadians from entering Russia in 2014, after she openly criticized his illegal annexation of Crimea. During the Harper and Obama years, this kind of sanction was a badge of honour and it still is for Freeland, but it’s suddenly become problematic. Trump is deeply entangled in a controversy over his relationship with Putin and Russia—more deeply by the day as new, unsubstantiated allegations keep emerging—and the mystery as to why he appears so keen to warm relations. Tillerson has a long business record in Russia, and dealing specifically and profitably with Putin. He argued against Russian sanctions during the Crimean crisis, saying in 2014, “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective.” Freeland was banned from Russia because of her stance on sanctions. They could not be more different on the file.

When asked if Freeland’s hard line on Russia will be a liability, Trudeau gave a cryptic answer. “As to how she gets along with Russia, well, she speaks fluent Russian.” Yes, that’s true, but didn’t come close to answering the question. What it signalled is that Trudeau doesn’t seem to care if it does. He is not going to bend on the issue of Russia, specifically vis-a-vis the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, to curry favour with Trump, and he signalled that he doesn’t expect Freeland to do that either. “We continue to stand strongly with Ukraine and we’re very proud of the military support that we’re giving to Ukraine,” Trudeau said. “[We] continue to condemn in no uncertain terms the illegitimate and illegal actions of the Russians in Ukraine, in the Donbas and the Crimea.”

Freeland is passionate about Ukraine, speaks the language to her children at home, and is hardly the person willing to toss Ukrainian sovereignty on the pyre of realpolitik. Still, she was more inviting than the PM about kickstarting a new era of dialogue with Russia, or at least unfreezing the sanctions against her. “I lived in Moscow for four years and really, really enjoyed it,” she said on Tuesday. “I have a really deep love for the Russian language and Russian culture. I am a very strong supporter of our government’s view that it is important to engage with all countries around the world very much, including Russia.” As long as she doesn’t go there, of course.

Outside of Freeland—and she is the big headline—the cabinet shuffle indicated Trudeau is doubling down on his internationalist, progressive worldview, one in stark contrast to the Trumpian agenda. While Trump is threatening a trade war with China, Trudeau appointed veteran minister John McCallum as his new ambassador in Beijing, signalling he wants to deepen trade and ties. Just a day before, the Liberals overturned a Harper government cabinet order to quash a deal for a Chinese tech company to buy a Canadian technology business on the grounds of security concerns. The Liberals want more business with China; Trump is saying he wants less. On Russia and China, Trudeau and Trump are totally at odds.

RELATED: Trudeau’s pitch for Brand Canada in a Trumped-up world

The immigration portfolio, vacated by McCallum, is another example of Trudeau the anti-Trump. By appointing the former Somali refugee Ahmed Hussen as the new minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, Trudeau is making a statement about where Canada stands on the most divisive issue in global politics. Hussen is the very embodiment of open borders, diverse identities and multiculturalism, ideas under tremendous attack post-Brexit and post-Trump. Hussen is the first Somali Canadian minister, and his experience coming to Canada at the age of 16 will have both symbolic and, as he reforms our immigration system, practical power.

Of course, the shuffle was not all wins for Trudeau. If it was a response to the rise of Trump, it was also a response to the fall of Brand Liberal, as promises go by the wayside and controversies over fundraising remain. He wants to shift focus, but he can’t.

Trudeau’s much ballyhooed prediction of democratic reform was first put in the hands of Maryam Monsef, who bungled it badly. Forced to apologize for her condescending and inept answers on the file, she proved to be the wrong person for such a difficult portfolio and was rightly moved out. That she landed as the minister for the status of women was fortunate for her, as it will not be seen as the demotion she deserves—but merely as a way of getting her out of the spotlight. We will hear very little from Monsef in the year to come, which is how the Liberals want it, for now. First-time Burlington MP Karina Gould, one of the three rookie MPs elevated to cabinet Tuesday, will take the job, but the Prime Minister lowered everyone’s expectations. There was no longer his promise to end the first-past-the-post system. Instead, Trudeau made a much more benign, vague promise to improve Canada democracy. “I continue to be committed toward renewing our electoral system,” he said. Yup. Okay. This big electoral promise will end with a whimper, not a bang.

RELATED: Who is Karina Gould?

The truth is, the real Trudeau shuffle started when David Akin of Postmedia asked about the PM’s recent holiday on Bell Island, the private paradise belonging to the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili people. Conservative MP Andrew Scheer asked the ethics commissioner to investigate if the conflict of interest rules were broken, given that the Aga Khan’s foundation lobbies the government for foreign aid money and receives tens of millions of dollars for its efforts. Trudeau was visibly uncomfortable, and he shuffled and waffled. “The Aga Khan has been a long-time family friend,” Trudeau began, knowing full well that the ethics rules make exceptions for politicians who stay at residences belonging to their friends. Mind you, if the friend heads an organization that lobbies the government for tens of millions of dollars, it could be a problem. The PM pressed on. “He was a pallbearer at my father’s funeral. He has known me since I was a toddler and this was our family vacation. As for the conflict of interest commissioner and ethics commissioner, I look forward to answering any questions she may have.”

Look forward to answering to the ethics commissioner? Not so sure about that. Akin pressed the PM on who else was on the trip, and the Trudeau shuffle continued. “This was a, this was our family vacation and I will answer any of the questions that the ethics commissioner has for me, and we will have more, you know, I’m sure more discussions about this in the coming weeks.”

You bet we will, sir. Turned out MP Seamus O’Regan, party president Anna Gainey and other Liberals spent the week on the island. The lack of transparency on the PM’s vacations is baffling, and has quickly become a self-inflicted wound, similar to the cash-for-access fundraising issue. The legalities may be technically correct, but the perception is awful. When I asked the PMO why they are so reluctant to disclose basic information about the Trudeau vacation—information that inevitably comes to light and makes the PM look like he’s hiding something, they sent me this: “We do not disclose the locations of their vacations prior to their departure in order to protect the privacy of the PM and his family.” Hardly a good explanation as to why the Aga Khan trip and the people on it were kept hidden.

The cabinet shuffle is an attempt to change the channel on this and the cash-for-access controversy. So is Trudeau’s upcoming middle-class, coffee klatch tour, but the PM can swap a dozen more ministers and swallow two gallons of Tim Hortons coffee, and it won’t get rid of the bitter taste of entitlement until he ditches the fundraisers and becomes more open on his family holidays.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congrats Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congrats Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Finally, a word about Dion, who I have criticized many times before, even dubbing him Minister Freelance when he continually went off message and contradicted his colleagues. For 21 years he has been a hard-working, honest, and diligent public servant. The former Liberal leader made his name as a fighter for Canadian unity, and he was the first mainstream politician to put environmental issues at the core of a federal campaign. He was bold, relentless and never backed down. For all that, he ought to be highly respected, as good politicians of all stripes who serve must be. Yet his genuine intellect did not make him a good team player, nor did it help his abysmal communication skills or his inability to master retail politics. He was, sadly, something of a political klutz.

Dion sent out a cryptic message that he is now considering the offer the PM gave him to take up a genuinely important diplomatic post, and he may yet serve in it and perform very well. Dion is a political hammer, the kind of politician who can smash a single problem given the right direction. But the jobs he had as both leader and minister of foreign affairs were jobs requiring a political Swiss Army knife, a multi-tool for the various challenges, and he never had those options. Freeland does, which is why she’s in and he’s out. It is a brutal thing, politics, but the stakes are too high for sentimentality.

This cabinet shuffle is the start of Trudeau 2.0, a trade pragmatist trying hard to figure out what kind of internationalist he can be in a new world order, a world where he is hardlining Russia, courting China, and trying to make a deal with the most unpredictable leader the free world has ever seen. No doubt the Prime Minister has got lots more shuffling ahead.

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