Ottawa

The smiley, friendly, cunning François-Philippe Champagne

The foreign minister has a deep Rolodex and ambition to match. Now does he have what it will take to guide Canada through a period of unprecedented global change?

It’s 1999. A fresh-faced lawyer just shy of 30 walks into the headquarters of a major European transportation company in Stuttgart, Germany. “Where’s your boss?” asks one of the higher-ups that greets him. “It’s me,” he says. “I’m the head of the delegation. I’m the one in charge.”

The suits say: “Are you kidding?”

Ahead of a business deal worth nearly US$500 million, ABB, the company the young lawyer represents, and DaimlerChrysler, whose doors he has waltzed into, had agreed four lawyers would sit at either side of the table. The young man walks in to see 20 counsel opposite. He utters: “Either you ask 16 people in this room to leave, or I pack up and go right now.”

They say: “Are you serious?”

“I knew at that time I was risking my life, or at least my job,” the man recalls a couple of decades later, now just shy of 50. But the gamble paid off. He won their respect. The transaction was finalized. “In life, sometimes you need to do what you believe is right.”

That’s the story that comes to François-Philippe Champagne’s mind when he is asked about the proudest moment in his whirlwind private career, the years he spent in Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom after studying law in the United States.

It is a telling anecdote not because of the dollar figure or the corporate bigwigs, which make it sound like an episode of Suits, but because it has an atmosphere of David vs. Goliath.

Canada’s foreign minister is a man who believes, deeply, in any person’s ability to defy the odds. Champagne will wax on at length about “the power of one” and “the pyramid of success”—a base of skill, topped with ambition and capped off with a lot of luck. He could have had a career in motivational speaking. But he is shrewder than his leadership talking points or happy-go-lucky personality imply.

Like anyone in his position, Champagne is a mouthpiece for the positions of his leader, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never seemed seized by foreign policy. And unlike his predecessors, this foreign minister has little ownership of Canada’s most important relationship, that with the United States—Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, has been trusted to maintain the Rolodex she built while closing a new NAFTA.

But Champagne is nonetheless the guy in the room, or, more accurately, the guy on the smartphone, as Canada navigates a time of unprecedented global upheaval. There are plenty of Goliaths. The way Champagne handles them—from Canada’s troubled relationship with China to global economic uncertainty during the pandemic crisis—will have a material effect on Canada’s position in the world.

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Champagne had spent his law studies at the Université de Montréal focusing as much on student politics as on his grades—they were “probably average”—so he didn’t expect much when, in his early 20s, he visited the post office and mailed in a US$50 application to a renowned law school in Ohio.

But not long after, he found himself driving to Cleveland in a Volkswagen after Lewis Katz, who founded the Case Western Reserve University’s LLM program, recruited the young Quebecer into one of its first cohorts.

One of the things Katz, now retired, found charming about Champagne, when they met, was that he sounded a lot like Jean Chrétien. In 1993, when Chrétien was elected prime minister, Champagne, who shared his hometown of Shawinigan, was making himself “very popular” in Cleveland.

Even then, Katz could see Champagne had the desire to follow in the prime minister’s footsteps.

“I thought eventually he would return to Canada and stand for election. It just seemed the natural thing for him to do,” Katz recalls. “I used to kid around and talk about Canada as our little brother, to tease him. And François had a point to prove.”

READ MORE: Is Justin Trudeau finally showing some backbone on China?

When Champagne was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the law school in 2018 and gave the commencement address, he named another professor, Henry King, as one of his heroes. King was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, helped author the International Criminal Court’s charter, served as chief counsel of the Marshall Plan and helped conceive NAFTA.

King, who had died a decade earlier, wasn’t just a hero to Champagne, but a friend, says Katz—“he used to call him ‘Frenchie.’”

Katz, too, maintained a friendship with Champagne over the years. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Katz wrote to the then-parliamentary secretary for finance saying, “my God, what are we going to do?” Without missing a beat, Katz says Champagne joked that he could always seek asylum in Canada. “He said, ‘I will personally meet you at the border and escort you across.’”

It was at Case Western Reserve that Champagne befriended a lawyer who recruited him to a job in Switzerland, launching an international career that would see him recognized as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2009.

“Travelling the world has pretty much been the story of my life,” Champagne says. “When I left, it was with a clear intention to come back and serve. But I wanted to have a different kind of journey than others.”

It was at a rendez-vous with the World Economic Forum that he befriended fellow Canadian Patrick McWhinney, now CEO of a Boston-based conflict management company, Insight Partners.

“Within a few meetings he was likely the most well-known, best-liked new Young Global Leader in the group. I think it’s something about his genuine interest in people, as opposed to what you see often, which is a tactical interest in people,” McWhinney says. “It was very clear to us that if he didn’t pursue a role in public life that would be a waste of his talent.”

McWhinney tells a story about their travels together in Tanzania. Their group visited a village where they learned that a local nonprofit had found a way to manufacture solar-powered lights to replace toxic wood-burning fires inside huts. Later, McWhinney found out Champagne bought and donated enough lights for the village’s entire population. “He didn’t do this trying to get some accolades. He didn’t publicize it,” he says.

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The archetypal underdog often has a humble beginning. “I always felt a real privilege to come from a small place,” Champagne says, before a question about his childhood elicits what can only be described as his life story. (The man likes to talk.)

He moved in with his businessman father in Shawinigan at 15, for Cégep, after a childhood spent visiting the city of 50,000 on the weekends and staying with his mother in Quebec City, an hour away, during the week. It is where his oldest friendships are rooted. It is where he met his high school sweetheart, Anne-Marie, who he would reconnect with decades later. They now live together with her two daughters, 13 and 15.

In the interim years Champagne mainly lived and worked outside of Canada. Closer to his electoral run, like many liberal-minded types (including cabinet colleague Catherine McKenna) he attended what is perhaps akin to a mid-career leadership camp at the Banff Forum in Alberta, becoming the think tank’s co-president.

But when he decided to run for politics Champagne figured he should spend some time back home in his riding of choice, Saint-Maurice—Champlain. “My riding is bigger than Belgium,” he pronounces, hours after a former official warned Maclean’s that “you’ll hear him talk about his riding and how it’s bigger than Belgium.”

In 2013, Champagne quit his job overseas in London and moved back to Shawinigan to start a two-year, full-time campaign ahead of the 2015 election. He was so active that “at some stage I think people thought I was the MP,” he says. He had the backing of the federal Liberals and the support of Chrétien, who’d since become “somewhat of a mentor,” Champagne says. (They still talk, but Champagne doesn’t always follow the former PM’s advice, he says. Paul Martin, with whom Chrétien is famously at odds, also has “very high regards” for the minister, says his office.)

Left in the dark about Champagne’s activities was Lise St-Denis, the incumbent Liberal MP. Six months after being elected as part of the NDP’s 2011 “orange wave,” she had crossed the floor to the much-smaller Liberal Party and sat with many of its veterans in the House of Commons.

“I never heard about it. I didn’t know at all,” she says of Champagne’s politicking, speaking to Maclean’s in French. “Was I consulted? Never. Did he talk to me? Never. … He completely ignored me.”

St-Denis had made it clear that at 75, she didn’t intend to stand for election in 2015, so the door was open for Champagne. Still, she resents that for all his reputation of being conciliatory, he never gave her the time of day. She claims his greatest interest seemed to be befriending the city’s richest and most influential. “He wants to be prime minister. He was saying it from the start,” she says. “It’s not a politician that cares about people. It’s a politician that cares about power.”

Champagne’s side of the story doesn’t quite match. “I think she was a bit surprised by this young new guy coming up,” he says. “She was graceful enough to leave me enough space to start meeting people.”

One of those people was Michel Angers, mayor of Shawinigan since 2009 and a long-time acquaintance of Champagne’s father Gilles Champagne, who was the president of a prominent local business, Bionest Technologies. (For a time, François-Philippe sat on its board.)

“He is a political beast like we rarely see. When he is here, he spends the totality of his time meeting people everywhere. We sense that he loves what he’s doing profoundly,” Angers says of the junior Champagne. He says it’s no secret the riding enjoys having a high-profile MP, and through Champagne he has clinked glasses with a variety of cabinet ministers.

Angers says Champagne tries to stay connected to the people who elected him. “He always takes time to call back to where he’s from. Kind of in the image of Chrétien, a ‘little guy from Shawinigan.’”

People often ask Champagne whether he, too, would like to be prime minister, Angers says. “Not just in Quebec. I’ve met other people elsewhere in Canada who talk about it. He is extremely respectful of the current hierarchy, but if you ask me if he’s of the right calibre to be prime minister? I say without hesitation: yes.”

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It did not take long for Champagne to climb the ranks within the Liberal caucus when Trudeau won his 2015 majority. For two years, he served as parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. He was promoted to the international trade file in early 2017.

Champagne’s tenure as trade minister was “uneven,” says University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, who was Trudeau’s first foreign policy adviser.

Although Champagne’s biggest achievement was to close a new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 12-country deal, the twists and turns of its negotiation were a source of frustration and embarrassment.

When Trudeau famously missed a TPP meeting at the 2017 APEC conference in the Philippines, offending Japan in particular, much of the scrutiny fell on Champagne for seeming out of step with the PM. There was a clear “miscommunication within government,” Paris says. “It was a bumpy ride and it was unclear how that was going to turn out.”

Behind the scenes, former colleagues insist, it was Champagne’s tireless advocacy that saved the deal from extinction. Some of that advocacy happened around the cabinet table, say former officials, as other ministers had worried that closing the deal would harm NAFTA negotiations.

Champagne was shuffled into the infrastructure file in July 2018. Under a Liberal government keen to make itself visible ahead of an election, Champagne approved a huge volume of projects and attended a dizzying number of ribbon-cutting events across the country.

Behind the scenes, he proved an effective negotiator on major projects, says one former official. “With big global contractors, he could take them to task and really, really press them to get the work done,” the former official says.

After last fall’s election, Champagne was appointed foreign minister and thrown into crisis mode almost immediately.

In January, a Ukrainian airliner crashed in Tehran with 55 Canadians and 30 permanent residents on board. “I think the government as a whole handled that extremely well and [Champagne] was central in that effort,” Paris says.

Champagne came out swinging in his demands for an investigation, using stronger language even than the prime minister and rallying other nations to support the plea. He is still “vigorously” pushing for the black box to be analyzed, he says, and until he sees that happen is not entertaining the idea of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran. The focus is narrow: “I can really assure you that the lens I’m looking at is to seek justice and reparations. It’s really step by step, and so far they have not honoured the commitments they’ve made.”

In March, with COVID-19 spreading like wildfire and countries closing their borders without notice, Champagne formed an ad hoc ministerial group with a list of countries including France, Germany and Brazil, that has “met” by phone nine times. And he led a department-wide push to repatriate some 40,000 Canadians, phoning airlines and foreign ministers personally as part of the effort.

“Sometimes I thank Prime Minister Trudeau for appointing me in November. That gave me at least a couple of months to gather as many cell phone numbers of foreign ministers as I could, which proved to be very, very useful in times of crisis,” says Champagne.

“I texted colleagues things that you would not have imagined were necessarily possible or acceptable in the diplomatic world. I broke a lot of conventions and a lot of probably long-established procedures. … In times like that, you just need to be guided by what you believe is right.”

He’s no stranger to that. A second former official recalls that during Canada’s brief exploratory trade talks with China, while Champagne was foreign minister, he took a variety of tactics that were “well outside of protocol,” despite the formal approach of the Chinese. He’d say: “‘Alright, I’m jumping in the car with the Chinese minister, and we’re going for a late-night negotiating session. Throw my bags in the trunk!’”

Much of Champagne’s time is currently spent campaigning for Canada to secure a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. His pitch to foreign ministers, especially of smaller nations, is that Canada, as a traditional mediator, can use the seat to amplify the voices of its allies. Still, at a time of global turmoil the emphasis on this campaign by Champagne and Trudeau has seemed to many critics to be more of a vanity project—or a domestic political win, given that Canada lost a bid for a seat in 2010 under Stephen Harper.

Champagne also has high-minded ambitions for Canada to be central to a “revamp of the international world order” that will emerge post-COVID-19—with multilateral institutions being reformed so they are “fit for purpose,” and Canada exploiting new strategic relationships in the Pacific.

The minister claims that other countries have been reaching out to him with praise for how “trustworthy, open and predictable” Canada has been during the pandemic. He says he often “reminds” his international colleagues of Canada’s past achievements: predecessor Lloyd Axworthy’s treaty against landmines, his spurring of the “responsibility to protect” human rights principle, Lester Pearson’s leadership on peacekeeping before that.

Confronted with the fact Canadian participation in some of those initiatives is at a low—as of April, Canada has 35 military and police stationed at UN peacekeeping missions, putting it below countries such as Kazakhstan, Namibia and Lithuania—Champagne insists Canadian “impact” is still high.

Although he can list recent interactions with UN colleagues at the drop of a hat, Champagne expresses few specific world-building ambitions.

To be fair, it is very early in the minister’s tenure, and events have given him more than a full plate. But the vagueness of his strategic roadmap also speaks to a Liberal government that has often struggled to see beyond immediate crises, and a prime minister whose interest in foreign policy outside of the U.S. comes second to domestic concerns at the best of times.

If there is limited vision to his marching orders that does not prevent Champagne from creatively interpreting them. The second former official says he has spent his ministerial career so far learning “how long your rope is and whether you can hang yourself with it.” He has a better sense, now, of what he can get away with and “ask for forgiveness” later.

Though he may prefer to skip official channels, staff at Global Affairs Canada generally like Champagne and appreciate how vigorously he approaches the tasks at hand. Employees who spoke to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity say he is an effective communicator who listens to advice, although some are doubtful he is an intellectual heavyweight.

Champagne is more present than some of his predecessors, they say, calling up ambassadors more often, taking lunch at the headquarters cafeteria and touring the building to meet with staff and discuss what he learned from the latest trans-Atlantic text message conversation.

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Without prompt, several people close to Champagne expressed a reporter would be “hard-pressed” to find anyone who didn’t think he was of good character.

It is true that even opposition politicians have nice things to say about him: “He’s a convivial guy. He’s someone who likes to get along well with others,” says Garnett Genuis, a Conservative MP who serves as critic on the Canada-China relationship.

“But I also think that that creates some other kind of problems for a foreign affairs minister,” Genuis adds. “I worry a bit about that conviviality.”

Champagne and the Liberal government have been repeatedly criticized for their “soft” approach, in Genuis’s words, to China (aka Goliath).

Champagne, although managing to utter “Taiwan” eight times during an interview with Maclean’s, hesitates to elaborate on China’s human rights abuses, aside from saying they are raised in his conversations. He expresses his concern for Hong Kong, as China attempts to legislate away its autonomy, but doesn’t bite on the idea of sanctions.

That Canada has not used stronger language to denounce the treatment of Uighur Muslim detainees in so-called “re-education camps” is a major source of frustration for critics. Asked about whether he specifically raises that issue with his Chinese counterpart, Champagne only says: “Sure. Sure. We talk about human rights. That’s why I believe in engagement.”

And with a decision yet to be made on whether Canada will allow Chinese company Huawei to lay down infrastructure for 5G networks, despite allies including the U.S. banning its technology due to security concerns and warnings from Western intelligence agencies including Canada’s own, Champagne has no time for the theory that Canada is biding its time—waiting for an extradition decision on Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, or for China to release detained Canadians. The extradition and the 5G decision are, he says, “completely unrelated.”

Even Roland Paris, Trudeau’s former adviser, thinks the approach could be more forceful. “The government has been very cautious, but given China’s aggressive recent actions I think they could afford to be a bit more critical.”

The clearest expression of the reason for this caginess comes as Champagne responds to such criticisms. “When it comes to China, you have to be smart and principled, and that’s what I’ve been adopting. Because the only lens that I’m looking at is whatever action we take needs to be with the interest and the objective to get the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”

It is no secret that the release of two Canadians arbitrarily detained by China more than 500 days ago is the government’s priority. And there is an obvious fear that should Canada explicitly provoke China, other Canadians, including in Hong Kong, could be at risk. During a time when Trudeau’s government has struggled to switch out of reactive mode and articulate a clear policy on China, it is not difficult to believe that that is indeed the “only lens” the Prime Minister has clearly tasked Champagne to operate with.

The minister’s associates are confident that he is capable of moving mountains to achieve a goal. They warn against taking him at face value and assuming a lack of depth.

“People thought, ‘he’s just a friendly, smiley guy. I guess that’s his only trick, right?’” says the second former official. “But it’s not the antithesis of being tough and determined. And in fact, he uses his charm and his determination to get results. And when there is a clear, agreed mandate and mission, he will be like a dog to a bone.”

Underneath the people-pleasing attitude and lifetime of Rolodex-building is some evidence of cunning. Some evidence that in his “pyramid of success,” Champagne tries to leave as little to luck as possible.

As with all things, the proof will be in the pudding. But take it from the minister and what he describes as one of his proudest moments. In a high-stakes situation, at a time when he needed to prove himself, he risked a major deal and his own job to stand up to a bully that was trying to play by different rules. The question is whether he will be prepared to do that again.