The unlikely alliance of Chrystia Freeland and Doug Ford. Insight,
How Chrystia Freeland and Doug Ford forged an unlikely friendship in the COVID-19 fight
Canada’s deputy prime minister has found therapy in an unexpected source in the midst of a global pandemic.
Chrystia Freeland’s “therapist,” as she calls him, is Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and he sees their conversations the same way.
“He and I have actually come to describe one another as each other’s therapists,” Freeland said in an interview this week. “Some of the daily struggles that we go through are quite similar and so sometimes when we talk we’ll just say, ‘This is our therapy session.’ ”
Ford, who makes no secret of his admiration for Freeland these days, laughed when asked how this mutual counselling works.
“We’ll talk for God knows how long at nighttime, and discuss every issue you can possibly think of, and we laugh at the end,” Ford said.
“We just feel like a thousand pounds are off our shoulders.”
It’s a friendship forged through the toughest times that either of these politicians — and the country — has ever faced. Only last fall, Freeland and her fellow federal Liberals made Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier a daily target on the election campaign trail, calling him everything that Canada didn’t want in power. Ford himself used to say that defeating Justin Trudeau was his ultimate aim.
But a bigger enemy — COVID-19 — has brought Canada’s governments together in a remarkable degree of daily co-operation. A lot of credit is going to Freeland for managing those relationships — phone call by phone call, from early morning to late at night. (Her staff now works in two shifts to keep up with the demands on their boss; Freeland works both shifts.)
Ford can rattle off a list of all the things he likes about Freeland. “Chrystia is just tough as nails. The iron lady. I’m telling you, just a wonderful person. Has a big heart, but she’s no nonsense as well.”
One of the promises Freeland made to all of Canada’s premiers was that she would be
available to them on the phone whenever they need to talk, as long as they don’t mind her calling them late at night. She finds each of the premiers helpful in their own, unique way. Ford, for instance, has thrown his vast networks of contacts into the battle.
“I just get out there and dust off the old black book of all the medical essential services,” Ford said. “So, we get a lead that someone might have surgical masks … I make sure I call her and say, ‘Hey, I got a lead here and here’s another lead.’ And then she’ll jump on it.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who’s also been generous with public praise for Freeland, understands how the federal government works better than most, having sat at the cabinet table in Ottawa for nearly a decade.
“He is very, very smart,” Freeland said. “When Premier Kenney explains some of the challenges that any federal government faces structurally, which he knows, that carries a lot more weight than if I say that.”
Freeland says she’s telling these premiers things that she’s not telling the public or the media. “I will say to them, ‘Look guys, I’m going to tell you this, but it’s not for public consumption yet,’ ” she said. “No one has broken my trust.”
It’s hard to believe that Freeland was a rookie politician not so long ago — a respected journalist recruited in 2013 to run in Toronto after Justin Trudeau won the Liberal leadership. Her career in cabinet has gone from global to local, much like the virus now running rampant throughout the world. In the first term, Freeland was the world-travelling global affairs minister and expert Canada-U.S. negotiator of a new North American free trade deal with Donald Trump’s America. After last fall’s election, she became deputy prime minister, charged with bringing her bargaining skills to Canada’s fractious domestic landscape.
As it happens, that NAFTA experience keeps popping up in the current crisis. The automakers and union leaders so involved in that negotiation are suiting up to get pandemic supplies churning through Canadian industries. When Canada-U.S. border issues needed to be resolved to contain the virus, Freeland knew who to call and how to get things done.
These days, though, NAFTA feels like a lifetime ago for Freeland.
One of the last acts of Parliament before it abruptly adjourned in mid-March was the quick, uncontroversial approval of the new trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico. It was a moment that drove home to Freeland just how rapidly her world was changing.
“The fact that the ratification of NAFTA was actually a footnote also really made clear to me that we were operating in a new universe with a new hierarchy of national priorities,” she said.
Freeland is keeping up a personal pace these days that is even more existential and frenetic than the trade saga. She’s in Ottawa most of the time, on the phone and in meetings, though she still is finding time for a daily run. Her husband, New York Times writer Graham Bowley, has grounded himself in Toronto. The three Winnipeg aunts who have been taking turns minding the three children were sent back home to safeguard their health. Freeland remains close to her 75-year-old father, Donald Freeland, and talks to him every day at his home in Alberta.
It is when she talks about her elderly family members that Freeland suddenly gets a catch in her voice. She says she’s never been scared for herself during this crisis, but this virus’s particular threat to older people stops her in her tracks.
“Ever since I entered politics, (my aunts) have taken turns living in my home in Toronto and taking care of me and my children and I’m thinking of the particular danger that they now face.
“That does terrify me, and it has made me appreciate in my own personal life how important my elders are,” she said. “They are being asked to make particularly great sacrifices in terms of physical distancing.
“So I would like to say to Canada’s elders, we love you and we need you. Your wisdom is so essential to your families and to our whole country, and we are going to do everything we can to protect you.”
Freeland strives every day to present herself and the government as the face of reassurance. She has become the steady centre of Ottawa’s operations — the chief operating officer of pandemic response.
When Trudeau went into self-isolation in mid-March, right at the outset of the pandemic, it created an odd inside-outside division of labour between the prime minister and his deputy. Trudeau stayed inside at Rideau Cottage, working the phones, while Freeland did all the outside work — chairing news conferences and the pared-down cabinet meetings on Parliament Hill. “Call me later,” Trudeau told her at the end of a recent call. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Trudeau and Freeland now handle cabinet sessions as a tag team — the prime minister, on the phone, sets out the agenda and herds all the other ministers calling in to Ottawa. Freeland, meanwhile, sits at the head of the cabinet table with the skeleton staff of ministers who are in the capital at any one time, and manages the speakers’ list. She also reportedly — and helpfully — describes facial expressions of ministers present around the table, so that fellow members of the cabinet have an idea of how the words are going over with the team.
Those observation and reporting skills were honed in her previous life as a journalist, and Freeland believes that her first career has been invaluable with her second one — especially in a crisis.
“Reporters generally like working on deadline — they like urgency,” she explained. “They like focusing on big, complicated things where they need to bring clarity to them.” Her skills as an editor also help. “Editors have to make a lot of decisions very quickly. They have to be ruthless about what’s important and what’s less important and they have to be very focused on where they deploy the resources of their team,” she said. “They have to be able to have kind of quick conversations that are direct and candid.”
Like every good journalist, Freeland is always on the lookout during this crisis for what she doesn’t know.
“Good journalists never believe something just because they read it somewhere,” she said. “We always want to talk to the person. We all want to talk to primary sources.”
Whatever happens, this will be the story that defines Freeland’s career.
Her new friend and therapist, the Ontario premier, believes that the trust built among governments in this crisis will last well past the pandemic and that’s in no small part because of how Freeland has tackled it. “When you go to war with someone and after the war is over, you still continue a strong bond,” Ford said, “because you shared an experience that a lot of people haven’t been able to share.”