At a meeting last June between U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Canadian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, the different political realities in which the two powerful women live was evident before they even walked into the building.
Ms. Yellen rolled up to the downtown Toronto meeting location in a convoy of ominous black SUV limos. All around were security personnel, giving off a conspicuous aura of people you don’t want to mess with.
Ms. Freeland arrived alone. On her bicycle.
When Ms. Yellen asked Ms. Freeland about what her security detail had to say about her biking to a high-level bilateral meeting, Ms. Freeland told her that they didn’t say a thing.
“I don’t have a security detail,” she said.
It’s a story that Ms. Freeland has told proudly since then. It speaks not only to an ideal of a kinder, gentler political climate in Canada in which senior elected officials feel safe enough to move about without drivers and armed escorts, but also to Ms. Freeland’s own self-image as a public figure.
She embraces the notion that she can mingle with her constituents. She relishes having people on the street (or the store, or the jogging path) approach her away from the handlers, the spin doctors and the bright lights – and boasts about those encounters after they occur. It’s more than her personal preference; it’s her political brand.
But after a frightening incident last weekend in Grande Prairie, Alta., in which Ms. Freeland and a few female staffers were cornered in an elevator by a large, angry man screaming hateful profanities at the DPM, she may have little choice but to change that. Which would be a shame, both for her and for Canada.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government will consider increasing security for members of Parliament, saying “the aggressive, bullying, hate-filled tactics of a small number of people is causing us to have to rethink the freedoms that we’ve had as parliamentarians.”
At a separate public event, Ms. Freeland said only that “I always follow the advice of the RCMP” regarding her security needs. “I’ll continue to follow their advice.”
Back in June, I chatted with Ms. Freeland about her free-wheeling tendencies. Yes, she confirmed, she bikes alone – staff meet her at her next meeting or event, but no one comes along for the ride. No, she confirmed, her team isn’t super happy about it.
But the time alone is important to her, both personally and professionally. It clears the head, provides some alone time, gives her a sense of normalcy and control of her life. (Who wouldn’t want that, right?)
She acknowledged there are dangers. A couple of times, she has been “doored” – knocked off her bike by a careless driver opening a car door into her path. She has simply called her staff on her cellphone from the curb, to explain why she was about to be late for the next meeting.
I’ve known Chrystia Freeland off and on for the past 22 years (full disclosure, she was one of the people responsible for hiring me at The Globe and Mail). I don’t always agree with her politics and policies, but there are two things I can say without doubt. One, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve met. Two, she is pick-yourself-up-from-the-pavement tough.
She is not easily intimidated – not by people who didn’t take her seriously as an impossibly young deputy editor at The Globe, not by people who doubted her decision to enter politics, not by political adversaries and international trade negotiators and world leaders.
She leans heavily on what even her critics and opponents acknowledge are remarkable communications and people skills. “Charming” is a word that comes up a lot. This is her strength, and her shield.
But the video of that Grande Prairie encounter – taken and proudly posted on social media by the perpetrators of the attack (and it was an attack) – was downright terrifying. As nasty as it was, it is too easy to imagine that it could have been so much worse. Ms. Freeland was fortunate that this attacker was armed with a video camera and not a weapon, that his assault stopped at verbal. This time.
I’m as charmed as anyone by the romantic notion that the number-two leader in our country, its most powerful economic policy maker, can share a bike path with a food delivery guy and chat in the check-out line with a soccer mom. It’s lovely. But in the political climate that is gaining an increasing foothold in Canada, perhaps it’s foolhardy.
That is both tragic, and counter to our interests. Our Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister should have open communication lines with everyday Canadians, to see the impact of key economic worries and government policies from the ground level. Isolating our leaders behind security barriers is only going to weaken policy, and increase alienation from policy makers.
Unquestionably, safety must come first. But once free and open dialogue with members of the voting public becomes a risk rather than a virtue, we’ve lost something important. And not just for Chrystia Freeland. For all of us.
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