Canada’s most indispensable minister

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and newly appointed Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Who do you turn to in a crisis? Chrystia Freeland.

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 election vowing to rip up the North American Free trade Agreement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau realized he needed a foreign affairs minister who had the gumption to stand up to him in the tortuous negotiations that were to come. Who did he turn to – then-Minister of International Trade (the junior portfolio of Canada’s Global Affairs), Chrystia Freeland.

She had already proven herself to be a skillful negotiator in reaching an agreement on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union. And it wasn’t easy. At one point, Freeland even walked out of the negotiations. And that proved to be the pivotal moment which turned the tide. She also reached a free trade agreement with Ukraine. That was easier going but proved very beneficial to both sides.

Her promotion to the senior Foreign Affairs Ministry strengthened Canada’s support for Ukraine and cleared the way for the passage of the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. Also known as the Magnitsky Law, this act authorizes the government to freeze assets and ban travel for officials who abuse human rights and are involved in corruption – like high-ranking Russian officials. It had been initiated by then-Senator Raynell Andreychuk. Freeland’s predecessor as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, had opposed such a bill. However, once he was gone, it passed both chambers of Parliament unanimously.

Last year, when Trudeau had his majority reduced to a minority, losing the popular vote and alienating western Canadians to such an extent that the Liberals were totally blanked in two provinces, he realized he needed someone who could mend fences with Alberta and Saskatchewan a lot better than he could. So, who did he turn to? Again Chrystia Freeland. She was appointed Deputy Prime Minister – a position that has been rarely filled throughout history and, in addition, allocated the portfolio of Intergovernmental Affairs so she could deal with the Conservative Premiers. This she did and achieved much better rapport with them than Trudeau ever managed.

And when, earlier this month, Trump decided to impose tariffs on Canadian aluminum, despite the fact this would cause economic harm to both countries, who was it who spearheaded Canada’s response? Not Trudeau. Once again it was our Chrystia.

She announced that Canada will impose dollar-for-dollar tariffs on U.S. metal products. What’s more, the targets will include numerous products made in swing states key to the U.S. president’s re-election. This includes paint dyes and aluminum waste, for which Michigan is a top exporter to Canada; refrigerators and bicycles, for which Wisconsin is the lead exporter; and aluminum powders and bars from Pennsylvania.

She also blasted the Trump administration — calling it the most protectionist in U.S. history, and called its rationale for new tariffs “ludicrous”.

“The United States has taken the absurd decision to harm its own people at a time when its economy is suffering its deepest crisis since the Great Depression,” she said.

“Any American who buys a can of beer or a soda or a car or a bike will suffer. In fact, the washing machines Trump stood in front of yesterday will get more expensive.”

Freeland further called the tariffs “unnecessary, unwarranted and entirely unacceptable,” adding that “a trade dispute is the last thing anyone needs” during an economic crisis.

So, when Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced his sudden resignation (some say he was forced out to serve as the scapegoat for the WE charity scandal), who did Trudeau turn to? Freeland once again.

While this is an historically significant appointment – the first time a woman has ever been named to that particular cabinet post, it comes during the worst economic crisis Canada has suffered since the Great Depression. Aside from a record unemployment rate of 13.7%, the highest since comparable record-keeping began in 1976, the federal government is ready to post a $343-billion deficit next year, or roughly 16 per cent of GDP, dwarfing any fiscal shortfalls previously seen in Canadian history.

So, Chrystia has her work cut out for her. But we are convinced she will tackle that crisis successfully just as she has tackled other crisis situations in the past. She is Trudeau’s – and Canada’s — most indispensable minister.

Although we believe that, given Trudeau’s propensity for getting himself mired in controversies involving conflicts of interest, he should step aside now, this is unlikely to happen. But it does look like he is grooming her to become his successor. This would be a rather new experience for the Liberal Party. In recent history, Liberal leaders were succeeded by their former rivals – Pierre Trudeau by John Turner, Turner by Jean Chretien, and Chretien by Paul Martin. Nevertheless, this is the case. Most likely Trudeau will choose to lead the Liberals through one more election, then step aside while he’s ahead. Should she decide to contest the leadership, Freeland would instantly become the front-runner.

One way or another, Chrystia’s time will come.