18 January 2017 – Toronto, CA
by Alim Jiwa
After the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the Trudeau government resolved to ensure that the responsibility for managing Canadian interests in the United States fell into the hands of someone that is truly capable of navigating the new unpredictable political landscape. Chrystia Freeland, a respected figure from the media world that has an extensive and influential political and corporate network in the US, was deemed to fit the bill. Notably, however, the Ukrainian-Canadian former Minister of International Trade’s hawkish views towards Russia are likely to shape Canadian foreign policy in meaningful ways. As Canada prepares to send 450 troops to Latvia as part of 1,000 troop strong contribution to NATO’s Operation Reassurance and a new Russia-friendly Trump administration gets ready to take power in the United States, Prime Minister Trudeau has appointed a Foreign Affairs Minister who is banned from entering the Russian Federation altogether.
Indeed, Minister Freeland boasts a glowing resume for a potential steward of the huge and increasingly challenging Canada-US portfolio. Freeland is a distinguished journalist and author who is widely recognized and respected south of the border. The former editor of Thomson Reuters Digital in New York has frequently appeared on popular American prime time TV shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher, on which Freeland has opined on North American politics and issues pertaining to Russia. Furthermore, Freeland is the author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, a book about how the rise of this so-called “global super-rich” has led to a widening of economic inequality and a deterioration in the underlying social contract needed for neoliberalism to survive.
Freeland has personal relationships with many members of the world’s cosmopolitan community of influential billionaires—a large number of which, of course, make their home in the United States—and a strong understanding of their mindset. Some members of Trump’s cabinet with which she will be interacting, such as former Exxon Mobil CEO and soon-to-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, fit into this category. Additionally, Freeland’s success in saving the Canada-European Union Free Trade Agreement from the brink of failure reinforced Prime Minister Trudeau’s trust in her considerable political abilities. Trudeau will now rely on Freeland to find ways to protect Canadian interests, defend unique Canadian positions when warranted and build bridges between these two very different North American administrations. Only today, Trudeau appointed retired Lt. General Andrew Leslie to the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations in another effort to shore up American relations.
Freeland’s Russian Position
Nonetheless, Freeland’s status as a Ukrainian nationalist and fierce Putin critic is an elephant in the room that the Prime Minister scarcely addressed in the press conference following his cabinet shuffle last week. In 2014, Freeland was banned from Russia when she spoke out against the illegal occupation of Crimea, joining other prominent Canadian critics such as former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and current Official Opposition defence critic James Bezan on Moscow’s blacklist. During the press conference, the Prime Minister accurately pointed out, when questioned on her ability to deal with Russia, that “she speaks fluent Russian”. That statement, however, hardly does justice to the complexities that have now been brought to the forefront by her promotion. During the 1990s, Minister Freeland worked as the Eastern Europe correspondent for the Financial Times in Moscow and traveled to Russia frequently prior to her ban. Another one of Freeland’s books, Sale of the Century, chronicles the powerful billionaires that have emerged as key players in the post-Soviet Russian economy and polity. Freeland also once had the opportunity to interview Putin himself. All in all, the new Foreign Affairs minister is demonstrably well versed in Russia and its political and economic landscape. There is no question, however, that the Kremlin views her with considerable hostility.
The most pressing foreign policy priority of the Trudeau government is protecting Canadian interests from the incoming Trump administration, and Freeland’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs portfolio was motivated by this and not her positions on Russia. Nevertheless, her promotion is, unsurprisingly, not being welcomed by Russian authorities. Freeland has said she will uphold the Prime Minister’s principle of engaging constructively with all countries. However, when the Kremlin offered to remove sanctions that were placed on her and other Canadians if Canada repealed its own sanctions against blacklisted Russians, her office replied that: “there is no quid pro quo for aggression and illegal action on [Russia’s] part.” On Saturday, Russia’s state-owned Sputnik News posted an article online that called Freeland’s appointment a “catastrophe for Russian-Canadian relations.”
It is important to note that, in any case, there is significant domestic political incentive for Trudeau to pursue a strong pro-Ukrainian foreign policy. Canada is home to 1,251,170 Ukrainian-Canadians according to the 2011 National Household Survey, and members of this community care deeply about the security challenges facing their country of heritage. The previous Harper government was able to win its majority in 2011 in part because of the support it received from Canadians of Eastern European origin in Toronto-area ridings who appreciated his government’s hawkish positions on Russia. In fact, James Bezan twice personally delivered non-lethal military aid to Ukraine. Trudeau was able to capture many of these same seats from the Conservatives in 2015 and a Russo-skeptic foreign policy would help him solidify that support. Furthermore, Eastern European countries that are extremely concerned about Russian aggression, such as Ukraine and Latvia, have called on Freeland and the Canadian government to use their close relationship with the United States to pressure the incoming administration to refrain from cozying up to Putin too much. As Canada gets ready for Operation Reassurance and witnesses the rise domestically of a talented political star with strong hostilities to Russian expansionism, it is safe to say that Trudeau’s early drive to lower the temperature in Canada-Russia relations will fall by the wayside.
Feature Photo: “Canadian parliament buildings at night” – Wikimedia Commons, 2017
Inset Photo: “Chrystia Freeland at Indian Economic Summit, 2011” – Wikimedia Commons, 2017
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Alim Jiwa is an international public policy professional and commentator. His specialities are international conflict and peacebuilding and Canadian foreign policy. He holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Studies jointly awarded by the University of Ottawa and Saint Paul University and an Honours Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management with a Specialization in International Studies from Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs. He is currently based in Toronto, Canada and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org