At this point, Chrystia Freeland is the Winston Wolfe of Canadian politics. You remember Mr. Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, who arrives to clean up the carnage committed by two hitmen with the words, “I solve problems.”
Perhaps the federal Liberals’ woes are not so viscerally horrifying as those faced by Winston Wolfe (“… a corpse in a car, minus a head, in the garage.”) But in political terms, they are not far off. The Liberal government is facing yet another ethics investigation, and are led by a Prime Minister who has already been found to have twice breached ethics regulations. It somehow lost a finance minister, Bill Morneau, in the way that a child in winter loses a mitten – no one is quite sure how it happened. The government has prorogued Parliament, putting in limbo the committee looking at the ties between Liberal leadership and the WE Charity it had contracted to run a $900-million youth volunteer program. All this in the middle of an economy-crushing, soul-crushing pandemic.
It smells, in technical terms, to high heaven. Along comes the new Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, to spritz some cologne on this porker. If anyone can do it, she can. Ms. Freeland has already Winston Wolfed this government out of a number of dicey situations. She oversaw the renegotiation of the trade agreement formerly known as NAFTA, cannily steering around the human hurricane that is Donald Trump (who once told a private meeting of donors that Ms. Freeland “hates America”).
During the coronavirus pandemic, in her former job as deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs, it was Ms. Freeland’s Herculean task to co-ordinate responses with the leaders of the provinces. She turned out to be the premier-whisperer, soothing even the huffiest of conservative egos and getting the job done. “I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford, not previously known as the leader of the Liberal Party fan club. “She’s amazing.” Interestingly, Germany’s Angela Merkel also proved adept at wrangling the leaders of her country’s 16 states into consensus action on the pandemic, one of the reasons it has weathered the crisis so well.
Not only has Ms. Freeland accomplished all this, she’s also done it while avoiding the taint of scandal that follows this government in a Pigpen-ish cloud. She hasn’t even needed the hankie Winston Wolfe used to clean the last bits of matter from his hands. If she’s so good at fixing things, why isn’t she in charge of ensuring that things don’t get broken in the first place? It’s my experience that if you get a group of progressive women together and you’re discussing politics, the conversation eventually goes this way: “You know who should be prime minister?” “Well, yeah, duh.” That’s followed by a long and sad silence, and more wine.
I was thinking about this while watching the news conference after Ms. Freeland’s swearing-in as Finance Minister (astonishingly, she’s only the second woman to run the finances of a Group of Seven country, after France’s Christine Lagarde). She stood behind Justin Trudeau’s right shoulder, clearly elated, occasionally scribbling notes on a pad like the former journalist she is. I wondered if and when she’d ever be out in front herself, choosing her own cabinet.
Will it ever happen? I honestly don’t know. We have a problem with female political leadership in this country. Please don’t come at me with your myths about fairness and progress. Currently, there is one (1) female premier in Canada, Caroline Cochrane of the Northwest Territories. None of the major federal parties are led by women (although Jo-Ann Roberts is the interim leader of the Green Party). We’re okay with women being handmaidens to power – enabling it, smoothing its passage, standing at its shoulder – as long as they’re not at the controls themselves.
It’s been 27 years since this country briefly had its first and only female prime minister, the highly accomplished Kim Campbell. The Conservative party was already in a nosedive when Ms. Campbell took over, and it crashed and burned in the election of October, 1993. (University of Toronto political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin characterizes women who take over parties in crisis as “imperilled leaders” and it’s an unfortunately common occurrence.)
Ms. Freeland might not want to take over the controls any time soon, since fuel seems to be streaming out from under the Liberals’ wings. Right now she has the monumental task of rebuilding our economy in a fair, equitable and green way, while also pulling women, disproportionately disadvantaged by the coronavirus, back into the work force.
When I interviewed Ms. Campbell last year about women’s political leadership, she said: “It’s a two-edged sword. If you’re too strong, you run afoul of people’s vision of what a woman should be. And yet, if you’re not tough enough people think you’re not up to the task of leading.”
On the toughness front, Ms. Freeland leaves no questions hanging. She was willing to enrage the Saudi Arabian government when she spoke out in favour of jailed women’s rights activists in 2018. The same year, she infuriated Mr. Trump in his own backyard when she gave a speech denouncing authoritarian leaders. (“Truth matters,” she said. “Competence and honesty among elected leaders and in our public service matter.” Weirdly, the U.S. President took this as a swipe.) On the other edge of the sword, she’s shown her ability to persuade, cajole and empathize her way to common goals – the traditionally “feminine” suite of political tools.
In any case, she has a full set of the necessary skills. Chrystia Freeland is ready for Canada. Is Canada ready for her?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.