Chrystia Freeland doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Two weeks ago, she landed in Washington for another round of tough NAFTA negotiations. She wore a white T-shirt that her kids had given her. On the back it said: “Keep Calm and Negotiate NAFTA.” On the front it said: “Mama ≠ Chopped Liver.”
Indeed she’s not. The proposed deal she helped to make is far from perfect, but it’s good enough, and in many ways it’s better than expected. And with an erratic bully in the White House, many Canadians feel we’re lucky to just avoid disaster. We can stop holding our breaths now.
Among the biggest winners in these trade negotiations is Ms. Freeland herself, who, over months of upbeat media briefings, became the face of the Canadian negotiating team. By now, she is certainly the most prominent female politician in Canada. She may also be the most popular federal politician, period. In a gushing profile last year, Toronto Life called her “democracy’s last best defender.” The New York Times, no less, suggested recently that she’s prime ministerial material.
How, then, did she handle her job as chief negotiator?
The detailed accounts have yet to be written. Meanwhile, some people think that she and the government made a mistake not going for a fast and early (and possibly better) deal. There’s also a sense that she let domestic politics interfere too much with her negotiating role. A good negotiator should be seen, but not heard from too much, until the deal is done. Ms. Freeland was seen and heard everywhere in her trademark sheath dresses and pearls, scooting through airports, bounding up steps, briefing the media. The only place she wasn’t popular was Washington, where her world view clashed markedly with that of the Republican negotiator, Robert Lighthizer.
Last year, as the negotiations began, Ms. Freeland got off on the wrong foot when she proposed to improve the previous free-trade deal by adding new chapters on the environment, gender and Indigenous communities. She even proposed that the United States should scrap its anti-union right-to-work laws. You may ask what gender theory has to do with trade talks. You may also ask why Canada is arrogant enough to think that it can preach to the United States on right-to-work laws. Lots of people think that all this moral preening was simply playing to the home crowd – and terribly misplaced during a huge trade negotiation. You can’t play to the home audience when you’re trying to get a deal done with the big, ugly American.
Since then, Ms. Freeland has deplored just about everything Mr. Trump stands for. In Washington last June, when she won the Diplomat of the Year award, she used part of her speech to deplore the rise of populism and to dump on the United States for the protectionist tariffs it had slapped on Canada. The remarks were undiplomatic, to put it mildly. Then, earlier this month, she made an inexplicable appearance in Toronto on a panel, Taking on the Tyrant, where she sat on a stage while a video compared Donald Trump to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Not surprisingly, the man in the White House was not impressed. “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiation style of Canada,” Mr. Trump griped last week. “We don’t like their representative very much.”
The truth is that moral preening and trade negotiations are a bad mix. Many people think these appearances were tactless, even dumb, and some trade watchers say her tactics have been less than helpful.
And in the final leg on Sunday night, Ms. Freeland was kept at home. This often happens in trade negotiations, when Mr. Big swoops in to seal the deal.
None of these missteps will matter much now that the deal is done. Both Justin Trudeau and Ms. Freeland will benefit from the relief that Canadians feel over catastrophes avoided. Ms. Freeland has cemented her reputation as Mr. Trudeau’s most able minister, the standout in a generally weak and mediocre pack. And she can wear her unpopularity in Washington as a badge of honour. Her broader goal is to make Canada a dedicated force for (Liberal-style) good in the world, and that will keep her busy. As for her own future, it looks brighter than that of any woman in Canadian politics I can recall. She’s a star and everybody knows it.