National Post (Latest Edition)
Freeland proud to be ‘earnest and idealistic’
DEPUTY PM NOTES BELIEVERS IN LIBERAL DEMOCRACY ‘HAVE HAD A RUDE AWAKENING’
I DID GO TO HARVARD AND OXFORD. HAVING SAID THAT, I’M FROM NORTHERN ALBERTA AND MY DAD IS STILL A FARMER THERE, AND THOSE ARE THI NGS THAT ARE VERY MUCH PART OF ME TOO. I’M A VERY GRATEFUL DAUGHTER OF ALBERTA. — CHRYSTIA FREELAND
❚ Bistro Praha
10117 101 St, Edmonton, Alberta
Prague egg salad $ 14.95 House special $ 16.95 Glass of house white $ 9.50 Cappuccino x 2 $ 9.90 Green tea $ 3.95
Total ( includes tip) $70.19
The deputy prime minister discusses U. S.- Canada relations, multiculturalism and political correctness in this profile by our partner, the Financial Times.
Lunch with Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, who is widely tipped as Justin Trudeau’s heir, was always going to be faintly surreal. Not only was she my former boss, as the FT’S onetime deputy editor and U. S. managing editor, she has also conducted many Lunches with the FT herself. Her subjects include Gloria Steinem, the American feminist, Lawrence Summers, the former U. S. Treasury secretary, and one or two Russian oligarchs with whom Freeland — our Moscow bureau chief during the Yeltsin era, when their like were running riot — decidedly did not hit it off.
I am aware Freeland will be the only interviewee to have also sat on my side of the table — and so will doubtlessly anticipate every conversational gambit. They say a fair interviewer approaches their subject blind. In Freeland’s case, my eyes are wide open, or at least they have been most of the time. When Freeland was my boss many years ago, she once unexpectedly breastfed her newly born baby in front of me. I applauded her modernity and lack of fuss. This is exactly how things should be. But I have never studied a ceiling or carpet with quite that level of diligence.
We meet at Bistro Praha, a somewhat faded restaurant in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, the province where Freeland grew up. It was founded by a Czech émigré and quickly became a hub for the windswept city’s central European immigrant communities. Among them was Freeland’s late mother, Halyna, who was born to Ukrainian refugees in a U. S. displaced person’s camp in postwar Germany. Freeland’s parents divorced when she was nine. Her father, Don, still lives on his farm in Peace River, 480 kilometres north of Edmonton.
As Canada’s high- profile foreign minister in the previous Liberal government, Freeland traversed the world. In her new job as Trudeau’s deputy since Canada’s election in October, Freeland will need to spend a lot more time in places such as her native Alberta. Though the parallel is inexact, Alberta and Saskatchewan are Canada’s rough equivalent of the left-behind areas in the U.K. and the U. S. that endorsed Trump and Brexit. Freeland is also minister for intergovernmental affairs, which in practice means quelling the growing resentment of Canada’s western provinces against the “Laurentian elites” — so named after the Saint Lawrence River that runs through where most of the eastern establishment lives. The somewhat hyped spectre of a Canadian split between the fossil- fuel- exporting west and the carbon-tax-loving east has been dubbed “Wexit.”
I am seated at a corner table when Freeland arrives, dressed in a red suit and a silk red scarf with a chinoiserie motif. She is flanked by two young aides, who eat at a nearby table. There is no security. It strikes me that it would be inconceivable in Washington for a senior politician — still less the vice- president — to walk in off the street without a security detail. Who knows: maybe the Canadians are saving up for Harry and Meghan’s protection ( our meeting took place before the pair stepped down as senior royals).
Freeland, whose diminutive stature belies an energy that would put a nuclear plant to shame, immediately throws a wrench in the proceedings. It turns out that today is Christmas Eve for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to which Freeland belongs. It is a day of fasting. She cannot eat before evening. “I’m going to cheat by ordering a cappuccino,” she says. Since Freeland, 51, has frequented this place for 40 years, we agree that she will order for me. She chooses a Prague egg salad to start and a glass of Californian sauvignon blanc. “You must try the Prague egg — it’s one of the bistro’s specialties,” she says. I am reminded of what Chrystia was like as a colleague: she is always in charge and it happens in a hurry.
I question whether Freeland’s background provides such a big advantage in the context of her job. Neither Alberta nor neighbouring Saskatchewan elected a single Liberal in October. Freeland, who represents a constituency, or “riding”, in central Toronto, must somehow negotiate a trans- mountain pipeline to export Alberta’s heavily carbonized oilsands without breaking Trudeau’s pledge for Canada to lead the fight against global warming. How can she square that circle? “I’m very aware I represent a very urban riding and I’m delighted to,” says Freeland, with the painstakingness of a highly ambitious politician. “Also I did go to Harvard and Oxford. Having said that, I’m from northern Alberta and my dad is still a farmer there, and those are things that are very much part of me too. I’m a very grateful daughter of Alberta.”
My “starter” has arrived. It looks large enough to end at least five Ukrainian Greek Catholic fasts. The sauvignon blanc provides a crisp antidote to the mound of egg, potato, mayonnaise and caviar before me.
Can you please one half of Canada without alienating the other, I ask. Freeland answers guardedly. “Yes, we do have to take action on climate change,” she says. “At the same time we also need a strong economy and we understand the reality that fossil fuels are part of the Canadian economy and the world economy.” But how can the world slow climate change if Canada keeps exporting so much carbon, I interrupt. “What I would say is my dad could not live or get around without a pickup truck, and his combines need to run on fossil fuel,” she says. “We’re the 10th- largest economy in the world and predicted to become the eighth largest partly because of immigration. But we’re realistic. Even if all Canadians ceased emitting carbon we wouldn’t move the dial. A big part of our task needs to be leading the multilateral challenge.”
Sensing perhaps that I am underwhelmed, Freeland points out that Trudeau has vowed to plant 2 billion trees. That sounds like a lot, although a similar number of Australian trees must surely have burnt in the past few weeks. Freeland also stresses that she does not drive a car (she is often spotted on her bike in Toronto). I realize that she has only just been handed this portfolio — some might call it a poisoned chalice — and is tiptoeing carefully.
Talking of chalices, another of Freeland’s roles is to continue overseeing U. S.- Canada relations. As Canada’s chief negotiator for the 2.0 version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — a rehash U. S. President Donald Trump insisted on — Freeland did not endear herself to the president.
She won plaudits in Canada for eking out a deal that did not damage the country’s interests. She even befriended Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, who has dined at Freeland’s home and plans to visit her father’s farm. But Trump is not a fan. “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada,” he told a press conference in September 2018. “We don’t like their representative ( Freeland) very much.” According to the Washington Post, Trump said at a private dinner that Freeland “hates America”.
What tips does Canada have for coping with Trump, I ask. Freeland gives a scrupulously diplomatic response about how the two countries share the longest non- militarized border in the world. In some places all that marks the U. S.- Canada border is a flowerpot. “People don’t really comment on the Canada- U. S. relationship because it’s so boring, but it’s a real historical triumph that we can get along with such an asymmetry [ of power],” she says. And yet Trump has been very rude about you, I remind her. Doesn’t that complicate your task? Freeland pauses. “Look, the people whose good opinion I rightly seek are Canadians,” she replies.
From her wariness, I imagine that Freeland thinks I’m strewing landmines in her path. It feels like a good moment to ask about her transition from journalism to politics, which she once described as a move from “snark” to “smarm”. How did she pull that off ? At this point my main course lands with a thud. It includes serried ranks of Hungarian sausages, a mountain of sauerkraut and foothills of Ukrainian dumplings.
Freeland visibly warms to the new topic. Her word rate shoots up. “The journalistic instincts die hard,” she replies. “There was a moment when I was with Prime Minister Trudeau in Washington and we had a meeting with Mitch Mcconnell ( the U. S. Senate majority leader) and after the meeting I took the prime minister by the arm and said: ‘ Can you believe what Mcconnell just said? That is a scoop. That is a fantastic story. Nobody knows that.’ The PM looked at me and said, ‘ Chrystia, you’re not a journalist anymore’.” What did Mcconnell say, I ask. “I can’t tell you!” she says.
I HAPPEN TO BE UKRAINIAN- CANADIAN. WHEN I MOVED TO TORONTO I HAD AN INSTANT COMMUNITY OF CANADIAN-UKRAINIANS. THERE’S A CU LTURE THERE THAT MY KIDS CAN IMMEDIATELY EXPERIENCE IN EDMONTON OR SASKATOON. OR THE SAME FOR SIKH CANADIANS.
Freeland believes that strong journalism will be critical to the survival of liberal democracy, the defence of which she describes as the “defining political challenge of our times.” Many of her closest friends are in that line of work, she says. This obviously includes Graham Bowley, her British husband, who works for The New York Times and is also a former FT colleague. “At the same time there is an inevitable tension,” Freeland adds. “When I first became a politician and I was giving a telephone interview, my husband Graham used to write on a sheet of paper: ‘Remember: The reporter is not your friend’, because I tended to think of them as friends.”
But surely you think of me as a friend, I protest with a hint of a subtext. “No, that’s very true,” she hastily replies. “It’s a good question. I don’t know. If you and I were having an off-the-record conversation with glasses of wine I might permit myself to be a little bit less precise in my language.”
I am holding a glass, I point out. Freeland laughs. “Journalists always have excellent access to the world, so I want to ask you about things after this tape is turned off,” she says. I say that we are paid to be skeptical, whereas politicians have to be professional optimists. “I like to think I’m skeptical but I’m not cynical,” Freeland says. “This is a very Canadian thing. I’m earnest and idealistic. I’m very patriotic. For example, I think Canada today is the world’s strongest liberal democracy.” This is a bold claim, but it strikes me as plausible. Canada has more immigrants than most democracies yet it has just re- elected a pro- diversity government. What does Canada have that, say, the U. S. lacks? Freeland cites The Jungle Grows Back, a book by Robert Kagan, the American author. “I believe that public support has to be constantly cultivated,” she says. “We need to keep watering the garden. The fact that you ran four times last week doesn’t mean you don’t have to run four times this week to stay healthy.”
Multiculturalism is what makes Canada strong, she says. She cites John Buchan, the British novelist who was Canada’s governor- general in the 1930s. “He gave a speech to the Ukrainian- Canadians and he said, ‘Be good Ukrainians, and by being good Ukrainians, you will be even better Canadians,’” Freeland recounts. “I happen to be Ukrainian- Canadian. When
I moved to Toronto I had an instant community of Canadian- Ukrainians. There’s a culture there that my kids can immediately experience in Edmonton or Saskatoon. Or the same for Sikh Canadians. These networks are national.”
Much of Canada’s demand for refugees comes from civil society, which she describes as a “pull.” Groups of Canadians can band together to sponsor refugee families. They have to show they have raised enough money to carry the family for a year. This gives incomers an integrational hook that many other democracies lack. “There’s nothing ideological about this approach but it works,” she says.
I point out that some people, notably Jordan Peterson, who is Canadian and who is leading a viral campaign against political correctness, say multiculturalism has gone too far. They recoil, for example, when Trudeau uses words like “peoplekind,” a neologism with which he rebuked a woman last year whose question had included the word “mankind.” They say Trudeau’s government is addicted to virtue-signalling. “I think that’s 100 per cent unfair,” Freeland rejoins, voice rising. “The prime minister is sincerely very progressive. He is sincerely a real feminist. For him LGBTQ rights are a core belief, as is Indigenous reconciliation. The accusation of virtue- signalling presupposes you’re not actually doing it.”
There is a rich seam of controversy in the topic of Trudeau’s political correctness. Time is short, however. We have been talking for almost two hours. Most people in Canada think Freeland is destined to be prime minister. Aware that I am unlikely to get a straight answer, I tell Freeland that the last time I asked a politician whether they coveted the crown was Boris Johnson in an onstage interview last April ( just three months before he replaced Theresa May). “Well, I’m bound to say there isn’t a vacancy,” Johnson told me. “Exactly,” Freeland says after I relate the story. “There isn’t a vacancy. Canada has a terrific prime minister, and we’re lucky to have him.”
I suspect I will elicit more interesting thoughts if I ask Freeland about Vladimir Putin, her bête noire. In 2014, Putin banned Freeland from entering Russia in retaliation for Canadian sanctions after his annexation of Crimea. As far as she knows, the ban still holds. Isn’t Putin winning his war on liberal democracy, I ask. “Absolutely not,” says Freeland, who has lost all trace of tentativeness. “My view about authoritarian regimes in general is that they are very brittle, including Putin’s regime.” Trump is not exactly a friend to Ukraine’s new government, I point out. Freeland cuts in. “We (Canada) are helping as much as we can.”
She then embarks on a passionate disquisition about the robustness of Ukraine’s democracy. An aide halts her to say they are late for another meeting a few blocks away. “Over the past two or three years, we — the believers in liberal democracy — have had a rude awakening,” Freeland continues.
“You have to keep watering the garden, seed every spring and harvest every fall, and notice the jungle is encroaching. But it’s important to realize that at the end of the day gardens are a lot better than jungles.”
I struggle to rustle up some professional skepticism. As a fan of gardens, I cannot help nodding in agreement. Before Freeland can alight on another topic, she is whisked off by her aides. I note that they are proceeding on foot and without security.