Almost anyone who has crossed paths with Chrystia Freeland will recognize Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in the portrait that a Kyiv-based KGB officer drew more than three decades ago, of a then-20-year-old Canadian agitator causing grief for the Soviets.
Frida – the code name Soviet intelligence sources had given Ms. Freeland, who was at the time a Harvard University exchange student in Ukraine – was “erudite, sociable, persistent, and inventive in achieving her goals,” according to a report by the KGB’s Colonel A. Stroi, which was contained in the Soviet secret police’s archives and was recently unearthed by Duke University professor Simon Miles.
The Soviet Union was already in its death throes by the time Ms. Freeland arrived in Kyiv in the late 1980s. But the energetic Ukrainian-Canadian from Alberta did her part to accelerate its demise by – in her own words – working “with pro-democracy and environmental activists” in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, even though she was officially there to study the language.
The emergence of this KGB report will only serve to enhance Ms. Freeland’s mystique as she continues her seemingly unstoppable ascent in Canadian politics. She long ago surpassed her colleagues in Justin Trudeau’s government to become the closest thing to a prime minister-in-waiting that Canada has had since Paul Martin served as Jean Chrétien’s finance minister. Only, while Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin were bitter rivals, Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Freeland appear to be joined at the hip.
With the Prime Minister having grown so dependent on her, Ms. Freeland now has nearly free rein to pursue her own ambitions. But what might those be? Will she begin to distinguish herself from her boss as she moves closer to a leadership run of her own? Will something resembling a Freeland Doctrine emerge as Canada’s current Minister of Everything (re)defines herself for Canadians?
A review of her political career to this point might be instructive. More than four years ago, for instance, Ms. Freeland – then minister of foreign affairs – gave a sweeping speech in the House of Commons that seemed to suggest she intended to take Canadian foreign policy in a bold new direction amid an apparent breakdown in the liberal international order.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Ms. Freeland said, referring to growing U.S. isolationism under then-president Donald Trump. “For Canada, that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”
However, those lofty ambitions went almost entirely unfulfilled under Ms. Freeland, and by her successors at Foreign Affairs, François-Philippe Champagne and Marc Garneau. The speech would come to encapsulate the qualities of the Trudeau government that infuriate Canada’s allies – specifically, its tendency to preach from on high, rather than engaging or committing.
Would Ms. Freeland have acted differently had she been prime minister? Ms. Freeland’s behind-the-scenes efforts in 2018 and 2019 to apply international pressure to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro through the Lima Group indicated she was willing to expend Canadian diplomatic capital for a good cause.
But the initiative fizzled. And Canadian foreign policy entered a state of paralysis after the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in late 2018, as the Trudeau government avoided taking any stand that might further sour Canada-China relations.
Then, after softening up the prickly U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, during the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement, Ms. Freeland – as intergovernmental affairs minister – began to put her people skills to work on the conservative premiers who had gone to war against the Trudeau government’s carbon tax. Before long, even Ontario Premier Doug Ford was singing her praises. When she was named Finance Minister after Bill Morneau’s resignation, Mr. Ford could hardly contain his enthusiasm for his “good friend.”
That ability to turn her natural enemies to mush remains Ms. Freeland’s signature talent as she moves closer to the top job. Before she gets there, however, she faces what promises to be a wrenching post-COVID fiscal moment of truth as the income supports that have kept millions of individuals and businesses afloat for the past 18 months are wound down.
So far, Ms. Freeland has not seemed concerned about the legacy of federal debt that will forever have her name attached to it. She has insisted that Canada’s debt remains sustainable as long as the rate of economic growth surpasses the rate of interest on federal bonds. But she may not be able to rely on that assumption for long.
And that may force her to become even more inventive in achieving her goals.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.