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women in politics

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

On a warm Sunday evening last month, Chrystia Freeland, Canada's International Trade Minister, held a barbecue in the backyard of her Toronto home for about 25 senior Ukrainian government officials.

They were in town for the Canada-Ukraine Business Forum, and Ms. Freeland could not attend the gala dinner. So she decided to invite them over to her place.

She got the hamburgers, her 15-year-old daughter, Natalka, did the roast potatoes and Stepan Kubiv, who is Ms. Freeland's counterpart in Ukraine, made a very traditional Ukrainian polenta-style dish.

"I realized with hindsight … my department thought I was completely insane," she said in a telephone interview from Lviv, Ukraine. She and the Prime Minister signed a free-trade deal with the Ukrainian government this week. "But I was oblivious, so I just pressed on … [it was] not a traditional form of government entertaining."

This is what work-life balance looks like for Ms. Freeland.

She is of Ukrainian descent; her three children speak Ukrainian – and her husband tries to. For her three kids, this was not just an interesting night, but one spent with their mother. For work purposes, it was good diplomacy.

In a federal cabinet full of high-achieving women, Ms. Freeland, 48, stands out. A former journalist and author, she speaks a number of languages, is a Rhodes Scholar and provides an Alberta connection important for Liberals, who are struggling to win seats there. She and her younger sister were raised by her mother in Edmonton; her mother died a few years ago. Her father had joint custody, and still lives in Peace River and farms canola. Her late Ukrainian grandmother, who came to Canada with almost nothing, figures prominently in her life.

Justin Trudeau recruited her to politics in 2013. She ran and won a by-election in Toronto, and served as the Liberal critic for international trade.

Since her appointment to the cabinet last November, Ms. Freeland has been to six continents – and some more than once. Over the past 10 days, she has been to China, Poland, Ukraine and Britain.

Showing up at meetings is one thing; actually sealing the deal is another.

Last week, in Shanghai, she met with six European trade ministers on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union. The recent vote in Britain to leave the EU has complicated matters significantly.

In addition, she met with her U.S. counterpart on softwood lumber. The previous agreement expired last October, but there is a one-year grace period for the government to get a deal or risk a costly trade war with the United States.

"It's a hairy beast of an issue and we're working on it," she said.

As for the recent agreement with Ukraine, it is as much about politics as about trade.

Yaroslav Baran, president of the Ottawa chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said there are "huge partnership opportunities" between Ukraine and Canada. But he said the agreement is a "highly political and symbolic move as well."

"All of the last several years were about democratizing, liberalizing, not just their government but also their economy and their trade," he said. "And these kinds of signs of encouragement are really important for that next generation of Ukrainians."

Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, sees the Ukraine deal as political. "You take the low-hanging fruit when it comes to free-trade negotiations. I have no criticism there."

Where he does have criticism is with two missed opportunities: achieving a deal on softwood lumber before the presidential race was in full swing, and convincing the European Commission that it could ratify the Canada-EU free-trade agreement on its own. It got caught up in post-Brexit EU politics; the requirement now is that each member state has a final say on ratification – and the deal could come apart if some members balk.

"These are early days," Prof. Byers said. "The point is that, as an incoming Trade Minister, she was in the unusual circumstance of having two windows that were open and about to close, and she didn't manage to achieve success on either of them."

However, Ms. Freeland continues undaunted. In addition to trying to figure out Europe and the United States, she is off again to Asia later this summer to try to open up the Asian markets.

What is more daunting is figuring out the kids. "Sometimes who is going to be taking care of all of my kids on any given day is more complicated than any trade agreement," she said.

When the House of Commons is in session, she has help from two of her aunts: Natalka, who lives in Winnipeg, and Maria, who lives in Edmonton. They take turns coming to Toronto. "My aunts are the mainstay, and we fit in the pieces," she said.

Still, she worries, like all parents, about whether she is doing a good job.

What has worked was having her kids make separate trips to Ottawa to see and understand what she does. "That was a successful thing," she said. "It's not always like that. There are a lot of frazzled moments."

Like last week, when she was doing laundry and on the phone with her officials at the same time, as she prepared for China. Her six-year-old son piped up that all of his underwear was so small it hurt. "I said, 'Oh God, what kind of parent [am I]?'"