Toronto Star

A visit to Washington by PM-in-waiting shows hints of frayed ties between friends

- Edward Keenan

WASHINGTON—The presumed next chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, and the presumed prime minister-in-waiting of Canada, Chrystia Freeland, stood together in Washington last week with the White House in the background. What a picture: the sun shining, the weather comfortabl­y warm.

For now, each is the top finance official and deputy leader of their respective countries, and both are widely expected to climb even higher (Scholz sooner, Freeland sooner or later). Together they celebrated their global leadership on an internatio­nal tax accord, right in front of the most recognized seat of power in the world.

Well, not right in front. Between them and the U.S. president’s residence was an anti-pipeline protest — which wasn’t the perfect image for Freeland, whose government is suing to keep a pipeline open.

Freeland made some brief and bland remarks about the tax agreement, and quickly took questions in English and French about the U.S. border. Scholz took one question in German.

Then a voice shouted from the back of the pack of reporters.

One of the protesters, with a question of his own: “Any comments on Enbridge putting a pipeline through Indigenous land in the United States?”

Freeland’s assistant stepped forward and said that while the German vicechance­llor would take more questions, the deputy prime minister had to go. Freeland started walking across the park to leave as Scholz took another question.

But some protesters started shouting after Freeland, about the Indigenous children’s bodies found in graves in Canada, and about how oil spills don’t respect borders.

Freeland started walking faster, her arms pumping.

“F--- Canada!” they called after her.

It was one moment from a week in Washington for Freeland.

Many others were more pleasant. Representi­ng Canada at meetings of the G20, the World Bank and the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund, she was pleased to join an agreement on a global minimum corporate tax that will, among other things, make tax evasion harder for global giants including digital corporatio­ns — something Freeland has considered a top priority. She also took one-onone meetings with top finance officials from the U.S., U.K., South Korea, Italy and Mexico.

But here in the U.S. — where Freeland is no stranger, having studied at Harvard, worked in New York as a journalist, and been a frequent visitor to Washington during the renegotiat­ions of NAFTA when Donald Trump was president — there were also signs of a relationsh­ip facing strains.

Like those protesters cursing her, and the battle they represent. The Biden administra­tion, after cancelling the proposed Keystone pipeline that Canada’s government so ardently supported, has not rushed to Canada’s side in the Michigan government’s attempt to close Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.

Like the prolonged border restrictio­ns, during which the U.S. did not immediatel­y reciprocat­e when Canada reopened, and the sense emerged that President Joe Biden was more concerned about U.S. perception­s of the Mexican border than about the historical­ly familial relationsh­ip at the Canadian one.

Like the rising fervour for economic protection­ism that could see Canadian companies frozen out of U.S. government contracts and the emerging electric vehicle industry — Biden’s rhetoric has been stridently “Buy American” and members of Congress have been looking to enshrine that in law.

After four years of truculence under Trump, many expected things to be warmer by now under a new president. But despite his professed love of Canada, Biden has still not visited since his election as president. And Canada has not had a permanent ambassador from the U.S. since August 2019 — Biden’s nominee for the post is among the appointmen­ts held up in Congress.

Some experts who’ve long worked on cross-border issues express fear of long-term damage to the relationsh­ip.

As the Canadian government’ s minister-who-handles everything-important and presumed heir to the Liberal leadership, these are things Freeland has to confront on a visit to the U.S. — in high-level meetings and in appearance­s in public parks.

Someone asked me if Freeland’s background as a journalist shows in her communicat­ion skills as a politician. It does, but almost as if she learned from this side of the notepad how to avoid saying anything that would become a story. Former journalist Ralph Klein brought a city muckraker’s straight-talking, sometimes offcolour sensibilit­y with him when he became Alberta’s premier. When he was the federal Liberal leader, you could see Michael Ignatieff battling the competing imperative­s of his talking points and his desire to think out loud. By contrast, talking to reporters Thursday at the Canadian Embassy, Freeland spoke slowly — as if reading out a phone number she expected you to copy down — and pronounced sentences that sounded like they’d been workshoppe­d by a public relations specialist.

“Work needs to be done every single day, every single hour, on the Canada-U.S. relationsh­ip. It is necessaril­y an absolute priority for every government, and it’s a priority for us,” Freeland said. She made reference to the NAFTA renegotiat­ion, which she handled personally, as evidence the government she serves recognizes the importance of managing that relationsh­ip. “We know, frankly, it takes a whole-country approach … And that’s something that we continue to work on every day.”

It got interestin­g when she got more specific about that work. Asked about the Buy American provisions moving through Congress, Freeland said she was “very aware” of the proposals, and diplomatic­ally hinted at potential retaliatio­n. Part of her job in Washington this week, she said, was to “deliver messages.”

“It’s important for the United States to understand that procuremen­t is a reciprocal relationsh­ip,” she said “While it is certainly the case that Canadian companies can play an important, valuable role in government procuremen­t in the United States, it is also the case that U.S. companies benefit from government procuremen­t opportunit­ies in Canada.”

She noted that U.S. companies do about a billion dollars a year in business with Canada’s government. One might interpret the subtext: Nice deal here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it, eh?

“What Canada is saying to our partners is our procuremen­t opportunit­ies will be open to your companies just as much as your procuremen­t opportunit­ies are open to ours. And that is something that I discussed with the secretary of the treasury,” she said.

“Canada has a very effective, very close partnershi­p with the United States. As we should: our two countries share the world’s longest non-militarize­d border. Canada is the largest market for the United States, larger than China, Japan and the U.K. combined. Our relationsh­ip with the U.S. and the U.S. relationsh­ip with Canada is important to both sides,” she said. Even if that doesn’t always seem outwardly apparent from the behaviour of one side in particular.

Like Freeland said, part of the job is delivering messages: “That bilateral conversati­on,” she said, “is really critical.”

 ?? JIM WATSON AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland held meetings in Washington last week.
JIM WATSON AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland held meetings in Washington last week.
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 ?? EDWARD KEENAN TORONTO STAR ?? Asked about the Buy American provisions, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “very aware” of the proposals, and diplomatic­ally hinted at potential retaliatio­n.
EDWARD KEENAN TORONTO STAR Asked about the Buy American provisions, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “very aware” of the proposals, and diplomatic­ally hinted at potential retaliatio­n.

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