The tenacious Chrystia Freeland

The Negotiator

She didn’t plan to become democracy’s last best defender, but one doesn’t really plan for Donald Trump. Inside the globe-trotting, crisis-quashing world of Canada’s tenacious foreign minister

By Jason McBride| Photography by Markian Lozowchuk
| November 21, 2017

This past June, Chrystia Freeland, barely five months into her job as minister of foreign affairs, stood and made a speech in the House of Commons. It was a long speech, more than 4,000 words, and it took her 45 minutes to deliver. It was also a provocative one. Freeland argued, in wonkish, historical, dramatic detail, that the shared values and institutions that have governed the Western world since World War II were imperilled. And that it was up to Canada to help restore that order, both diplomatically and militarily. “Seventy years ago, Canada played a pivotal role in forming the postwar international order,” she said. “We are now called—by virtue of our unique experience, expertise, geography, diversity and values—to do this again, for a new century.” Freeland distanced Canada from an American administration that, to put it mildly, had already retreated from its international commitments. The orange-hued elephant in the room was not named. But here was someone who is in many ways Trump’s complete opposite—devoted mother, former journalist and church-goer, dauntingly intelligent and relentlessly capable, friend of George Soros and foe of Vladimir Putin—telling the president to take his isolationist agenda and, well, what’s the most diplomatic way to tell someone to take a long walk off a short pier?

It was a major address and an illustration of how much sway Freeland holds in Trudeau’s cabinet. As foreign minister, she has an unusual portfolio: she is responsible for international diplomacy but also oversees trade relations with the U.S. (François-Philippe Champagne, minister of international trade, handles all the other trading partners.) Leading trade and humanitarian missions from the EU to Myanmar, Freeland has emerged as an effective, energetic envoy.

After she finished her speech, she and Trudeau hugged like proud parents at their kid’s elementary school graduation. The next day, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, not typically a Liberal cheerleader, called Freeland’s message breathtaking. Former prime minister Paul Martin was similarly effusive. “If Parliament could hit that level every day,” he said, “it would be wonderful. That’s a speech that will be studied in universities around the world.” Freeland had a hit on her hands. And it was a hit that, like any pop star, she was going to play the hell out of. She repeated its message several times over the ensuing months: at a citizenship ceremony at the ROM, during an Invest India luncheon at the Royal York, at the announcement of new federal funding for science research at U of T and on a panel at the Women in the World Summit. We are living in a complicated age, Freeland said, where liberalism—equality, the importance of government, international co-operation—is under threat. And that threat is not coming from the developing world but rather from some of the Western world’s richest democracies. “We are resisting that as a country,” she said of the drift toward isolationism. “Canada really believes in an open society.”

Chrystia Freeland with Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons
In June 2017 after delivering a foreign policy address in which she staked out a more muscular role for Canada in the age of Brexit and increasing U.S. isolationism. Reuters

The sentiment would have fit nicely on a bumper sticker, if she had a place to put one. But neither Freeland nor her husband, the New York Times journalist Graham Bowley, owns a car. In fact, when she’s home, Freeland rides her bike to work, no matter the weather. Her vehicle of choice is a cherry-red Linus that her father, Don, bought her for Christmas a couple of years ago. This past September, we went cycling together, and her outfit was somewhat less partisan in colour: black, knee-length leggings, maroon Asics running shoes, a gumball-blue helmet and a heather-grey T-shirt that said “Walmer Road.” Recently, someone shouted at her for not wearing a helmet—she’d forgotten it that day—and then quickly added, “Minister, we need you to keep your brains!” But few people recognize her on the road. There’s no RCMP security detail, just her burly aide-de-camp, 28-year-old André Capaldi, leading the way on his fixie. This past June, when Freeland and her family were in Alberta, she borrowed her dad’s old beater, a 1986 Ford Taurus, to take the kids camping in the Rockies. “In any Third World country, the minister of foreign affairs wouldn’t go tent camping with a 31-year-old car,” Don said to her. “They’d have four Mercedes and six bodyguards.” Chrystia replied: “That’s why they’re Third World countries.”

Chrystia Freeland with her husband and children
With her husband, the New York Times writer Graham Bowley, and kids Natalka, 16, Halyna, 12, and Ivan, 8, during a camping trip in Banff last summer

She bikes for the same reasons that most cyclists do: it’s more efficient, good exercise, cheaper, better for the environment. But cycling, as she does to high-profile events that most politicians would, at the very least, cab to, is a symbolic gesture, too. It signals that Canadians live in the kind of safe, progressive and open country she portrayed in her June speech. She is fond of saying that modesty is one of Canada’s greatest strengths, and few things in the world of politics are as humbling as ducking into a bathroom to shake out your helmet hair before speaking to a room full of diplomats and multimillionaires.

A disarming, strategic blend of modesty and confidence is a Freeland specialty. “I’m very conscious that it’s important not to confuse what I feel is a really strong moment of patriotism with anything about me personally,” she said to me, talking about the pride Canadians seemed to feel after her speech. But then she told me about flying to Winnipeg and an agent at the gate stopping to thank her for the speech. In August, as thanks for her upcoming work on NAFTA, her butcher comped her sausages and ground beef. Whether she likes it or not, this moment is about her. Many members of Trump’s administration have spent their time in the White House jumping on the grenades the president has lobbed. Freeland has the equally unenviable task of trying to somehow replace the pins, while also tending to the ever-shifting array of geopolitical crises that jeopardize Canadian interests at home and abroad. What kind of helmet does that require?

I first met Freeland in late August, at her Victorian row house in Summerhill. She had just put a chicken in the oven and was squeezing in an hour-long conversation with me before she got on the phone with her counterpart in Peru. A couple of days later, Indigenous activists in that country seized oil facilities operated by the subsidiary of a Canadian company, and Freeland already had her hands full: suspected Islamic extremists had killed two Canadians in Burkina Faso, Venezuela was collapsing, there was increasingly unnerving sabre-rattling in North Korea, and the NAFTA renegotiations had just kicked off. Freeland’s days follow no predictable pattern—when not on her bike, she’s in the air, heading to Ottawa or Washington or Beijing or Brussels. Her various offices (constituency, regional, parliamentary, kitchen) are scattered around the province.

It was therefore surprising—and somewhat reassuring—that when Freeland answered her door, she looked like the most taxing thing she’d endured that day was a hot yoga class: barefoot, hair up, dressed in a pale-blue T-shirt and loose, paisley-patterned pants. She appeared rested, even serene, and, partly an effect of her five-foot-two height, about a decade younger than her 49 years.

Despite the postal code, the house is surprisingly modest. In the cramped living room, every surface was covered in books, board games and homework. Freeland’s two daughters, 16-year-old Natalka and 12-year-old Halyna, both of whom are students at UTS, were sprawled across the furniture, reading. (Her eight-year-old son, Ivan, was at day camp.) Paintings by Ukrainian artists, all from Freeland’s late mother’s collection, hung askew on the walls, and while the windows had rods and hooks, they had no curtains. Housekeeping seemed an afterthought. It was a humblebrag of a home, really, projecting, intentionally or not, a cabinet-ministers-are-just-like-us vibe. But, of course, they are not. The family switched routinely between English and Ukrainian (Freeland also speaks French, Russian and Italian). Halyna had her nose buried in the plump third volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. There are few other households that Wilbur Ross, the U.S. secretary of commerce, calls directly.

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In her public appearances, Freeland reminds me variously of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and the smarter-than-thou, motormouth TV producer played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Up close, she was warmer than that earnest, striving caricature suggests, more curious, an exceptional listener. We sat in the cluttered kitchen and she served watermelon and roasted peaches. As she spoke, Freeland was rarely at rest—in one moment, she leaned over the table to make her point; in another, she curled up in a banquette, resting her feet on the wall. When she went off the record, which she did from time to time, it was not to disclose any state secret, or even a controversial opinion, but to spare someone’s feelings.

Chrystia Freeland in the kitchen of her Summerhill home
Freeland in the kitchen of her Summerhill home

When Freeland first entered politics, she was impressed by how easily her fellow MPs connected with people. She recalled an early caucus meeting where, she said, it felt like a race to see who could say hi to the receptionist first. In her estimation, Trudeau excels at such quick, easy intimacy, but four years into her life as a politician, it was something she was still working on. “For it to be effective,” she said, “it has to be really authentic. You have to be focused on that person in the moment and really be with them.” She looked at me with an intensity that made us both self-conscious.

Freeland’s friend Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard and treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, describes her as a rare blend of the sophisticate and the saint. “There are people who are very smart and very cosmopolitan,” he told me, “and there are various people who are anchored in values of goodness and decency. But there aren’t that many who are both.” Indeed, few people outside of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination are so perfectly the product of their upbringings. During World War II, Freeland’s maternal grandparents fled Western Ukraine after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. Her mother, Halyna, was born in a German refugee camp. The family immigrated to Western Canada, where Halyna was one of just seven women in a class of 64 at the University of Alberta’s law school. There she met Freeland’s father, Don; they married, and Chrystia was born in 1968; her sister, Natalka, two years later. Family was, and is, immensely important on both sides, but when Freeland was nine, her parents divorced. Don stayed on the family farm in Peace River, while Halyna moved to a Ukrainian feminist socialist co-op in Edmonton that she helped found. Chrystia spent time with both parents—summers and holidays on the farm, the rest of the time on the co-op. Freeland was a bookish kid—“too studious,” Don said, laughing—and he constantly urged her to get outside. Once there, on arduous cross-country ski trips or hikes in the Rockies, she learned that complaining would get her nowhere. “ ‘Perestan myavkaty’ means ‘no whining’ in Ukrainian,” Don said. “I only know it because I heard her mother say it a lot.”

At Harvard, Freeland studied Russian history and literature, and returned to her grandparents’ homeland as an exchange student at the University of Kiev, just in time for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Working as a fixer for Bill Keller at the New York Times inspired her own reporting on the region, and, after completing her master’s at Oxford in just a year as a Rhodes scholar, she embarked on an ambitious, globe-hopping career in journalism. She worked first as a super-stringer for London’s Financial Times, becoming the paper’s eastern European correspondent before heading up its Moscow bureau. “She was a good comrade, to use the Soviet word,” her FT boss and colleague, John Lloyd, said. “She backed you up a lot.” Freeland became the Globe and Mail’s deputy editor at 29, returned to the FT where she met Bowley, and became managing editor of all U.S. bureaus. Before Trudeau came knocking, she was the digital editor at Thomson Reuters in New York. Along the way, she published two books, Sale of the Century, about Russia’s rocky shift from communism to capitalism, and, in 2012, Plutocrats, a broad primer on the rise of the global super-elite. The book was dedicated to Freeland’s mother, who had died five years earlier.

By that point, Freeland had also made many powerful and wealthy friends, among them Soros, Summers and David Thomson. If there was criticism of Plutocrats, it was that she had become too chummy with the set she was profiling, too quick to view income inequality through their lens. In New York, the legendary litigator and multimillionaire David Boies and his wife, Mary McInnis Boies, hosted a book launch party at their home; Geoff Beattie, then president of the Thomson family’s private holding company, attended and then threw one in Toronto a month later.

Don Freeland had finished up harvest a couple of days early, so he flew to New York for the first party. Over a glass of wine, he half-jokingly suggested that Beattie invite Justin Trudeau, who had just announced his bid for the Liberal leadership, to the Toronto party. Don himself had once run, unsuccessfully, for the provincial Liberals in Alberta in 1979 and was an early fan of Trudeau’s. “I thought he could win,” Don said, bluntly. Beattie did invite him and, to Don’s surprise, Trudeau showed, along with two of his closest advisors, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts. It was the first time Trudeau and Freeland met. They spoke for about 20 minutes, and while they got along well—Plutocrats provided Trudeau with good talking points about the shrinking middle class—Freeland didn’t really think she’d see him again.

In Plutocrats, Freeland writes about the “lucky job-choice club”—being an early employee at a company that prospers dramatically. One of her examples is Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg—they were at Harvard together and are still friends—whom Freeland describes as the world’s most successful female executive. “The skill that made her fortune is the ability to understand where the action is,” Freeland writes.

In the summer of 2013, few people would have said the Liberal party was where the action was. Certainly not Freeland. Manhattan was home, and while her journalistic career had stalled somewhat—she presided over the expensive overhaul of Reuters’ digital news hub, which eventually tanked—she had other major projects in the works: a biography of Soros and, along with Summers, a book about the consequences of technology and globalization. But when Bob Rae resigned his Toronto Centre seat, Trudeau, by then Liberal leader, asked Freeland if she would consider replacing him. In many ways, she was his ideal candidate: a woman from a province where the Trudeau name was a dirty word, with economic positions elastic enough to be considered, depending on your point of view, both neoliberal and neo-Marxist, and with a Rolodex thicker than his own.

Freeland turned him down. The idea was attractive, but she was conflicted: Bowley had recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan, and the family was finally settled. Natalka, then 12, wrote an impassioned essay on why the job would be a bad idea. Freeland eventually confided in Trudeau about her uncertainty and, to her surprise, he was sympathetic. “I’ve had a lot of male bosses,” Freeland said, “and I had never talked about my personal life that way with one. Most women would say, ‘Never tell a male boss you’re not going to do something because of your kids. That’s the ultimate no-go.’ ” As it happens, Trudeau had once written a similar plea when his father wanted to move the family from Ottawa to Montreal. He offered to talk to Natalka. “He took the argument seriously,” Freeland said. “It wasn’t just about calming me down or winning me over. It was clear he meant it, and I thought, this is a really good guy.”

It helped too that the other men in her life were encouraging. Bowley said that, were he in her place, he would jump at it. Don, meanwhile, was sending his daughter nightly emails exhorting her to run. “Your country demands you do it,” he wrote in one. But it was the memory of Freeland’s mother that finally settled the matter. Halyna had been a lawyer and grassroots activist. In addition to the co-op, she had started a feminist bookstore, helped pass the Matrimonial Property Act in Alberta, and returned to Ukraine to draft its constitution and criminal code. She had run, also unsuccessfully, for the federal NDP. Freeland admired her fierce commitment to social justice and feminism. “She was really all about being in the trenches and being committed to actually doing stuff for people,” Freeland said. As a journalist, Freeland wondered, was she living the kind of life her mother had lived? Was she a good person, too? “I thought, ‘Okay, here’s your chance to roll up your sleeves and make the world a better place, to do something for Canadians.’ I felt I would be too much of a schmuck if I didn’t do it.”

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The list of Canadian journalists turned politicians is not particularly long or auspicious. Michael Ignatieff? Pamela Wallin? Mike Duffy? But in her first by-election, in 2013, Freeland squared off against the NDP candidate Linda McQuaig, another well-known journalist and someone who had also spent many years analyzing income inequality. Then, in the 2015 general election, the NDP ran yet another journalist against her, this time Jennifer Hollett, a former Much-Music host and fellow Harvard grad. Freeland beat both.

Chrystia Freeland celebrating her 2013 by-election victory with daughters Natalka and Halyna
Celebrating her 2013 by-election victory with daughters Natalka and Halyna. CP Images

In early 2014, she published an essay on Politico entitled “How I Gave Up on Snark to Become a Canadian Politician.” In it, she cleaved her professional life in two: journalism and politics. Or, as the title suggests, snark and smarm. In her formulation, which she borrowed from the gossip site Gawker, snark meant cynical, hostile, contemptuous judgment—the domain of journalists and other professional critics. Smarm, however, was a hallmark of optimists, motivational speakers and Canadians. “If your job is to build something,” she wrote, “if you are an entrepreneur, a mayor, an architect—you need to be a cheerleader, a believer, a seeker of consensus, rather than a finder of fault. Personal style aside, your guiding imperative is to be creative, constructive, to find a way to make things work, rather than to look for reasons they can’t—in short, to smarm.”

Though Freeland was back in the land of smarm, being an opposition MP also meant she was still a bit of a snarker. “Having made this big shift,” she recalled, “and then to still be a critic and have your job be criticizing the other guys—that part I found frustrating.” Her frustration didn’t last long. Trudeau proved Don Freeland right—he won a majority in 2015, and Freeland vaulted from backbencher to international trade minister.

As it turns out, being the kind of journalist she had been—or, more accurately, the kind of journalist and author and mother and spouse she had been—had prepared her for the job. She’d been multitasking, with singular energy, for over a decade. Now, she includes her kids as frequently as possible in her work: all three kids sometimes join her in Ottawa; Natalka and Halyna volunteer at her constituency office. On weekends, when Freeland’s home, the family’s Saturday routine is an over-achiever’s reverie. She and Bowley dispatch the kids by cab to a Ukrainian school in Etobicoke for four hours. While they study, their parents go for a long run—Freeland had completed two half-marathons and was training for a third when we met—and then they grab brunch at Rose and Sons on Dupont and subway home. Becoming a politician, many of Freeland’s friends and colleagues told me, hasn’t really changed her much. John Lloyd recalled meeting her for dinner in London early in the spring. There were a number of people there, including the foreign ministers of Lithuania and Estonia. “I noticed that she was more commanding than before,” Lloyd said. “But I doubt if she’s ever had much doubt about herself or her capacities.”

Should Freeland write another book, Trump’s election provides her with a narrative that nicely, if nightmarishly, dovetails with her first two: the world’s most famous plutocrat is now the leader of the so-called free world, and it appeared his election was rigged by the world’s most famous oligarch, Vladimir Putin. (In 2014, Putin banned Freeland from Russia, along with the likes of John McCain and John Boehner.) But there is also no one in the Canadian government who better understands what a Trump presidency would mean—to Canadians, to the economy, to women—than Freeland, who replaced Stéphane Dion at Foreign Affairs in January. In Trump’s first 150 days as president, his foreign policy moves were swift and unsettling—he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, attacked NATO allies for what he considered their inadequate defence spending and announced he would bail on the Paris climate accord. If Trudeau had to figure out how to shake hands with Trump—and all that entails, metaphorically—Freeland had to figure out how to dance with him. Other leaders offered clues. “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” Angela Merkel said at a May campaign rally. Better, maybe, to find other dance partners.

Chrystia Freeland with Ivanka Trump, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde and others following a Women20 Summit panel discussion in Berlin
With Ivanka Trump, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde and others following a Women20 Summit panel discussion in Berlin in April. Getty Images

Freeland outlined her June foreign policy speech on her BlackBerry during a flight from Alaska to Seattle following a meeting of the Arctic Council. Louis St. Laurent and Lester B. Pearson provided inspiration. In speeches, both men had specifically referred to Canada’s relationship to the U.S., and Freeland wanted to talk about how that relationship, especially now, needed to be addressed, too. Like Merkel, Freeland charted a course for Canadians that did not necessarily require U.S. participation. She listed some of Canada’s greatest foreign policy successes, our hand in the formation of the IMF, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the G20. She argued that Canadian diplomacy sometimes required hard power. She maintained that women’s rights were at the core of Canada’s foreign policy. She reiterated the commitment to both free trade and trade unions. In a particularly Freelandian touch, she talked about family, specifically her paternal grandfather, Wilbur, and the reasons why he, and tens of thousands of other men like him, enlisted to serve in World War II. It was a vision of Canada as muscular, confident, commanding, influential. “I think sometimes in our haste to see ourselves as a middle power,” Freeland said to me, “Canadians can understate, really, how significant we are. Canada is a G7 country. Depending on how you count, we have the world’s 10th-largest economy. The Canadian economy is larger than Russia’s, something I pointed out to Rex Tillerson recently at a NATO meeting.”

Chrystia Freeland with her U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during an August 2017 meeting in Washington at the start of NAFTA negotiations
With her U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during an August 2017 meeting in Washington at the start of NAFTA negotiations. Getty Images

When Trump foisted a renegotiation of NAFTA on the Liberals, that became part of her portfolio, too—but this wasn’t Freeland’s first free trade negotiation. Several months earlier, she had triumphantly helped finalize the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in Europe, and had proven a shrewd negotiator. “She’s not a wallflower,” said Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, who first met her during the CETA talks. “She comes across as likable, but she’s tough as nails.” Steve Verheul, who led the CETA talks and who now leads the NAFTA renegotiation, also first met Freeland when he briefed her on that agreement, and found her “unusual” as a trade minister. “She got into the details as few ministers ever do,” he said.

Negotiating any trade agreement is arduous enough, a balancing act that inevitably alienates almost every segment of the political spectrum. But with Trump threatening to tear up NAFTA, suddenly the Liberals had an opportunity to both protect Canadian access to U.S. markets and defy the president’s America-first rhetoric. “This is the most protectionist U.S. administration since the 1930s,” Freeland said to me. In response, Freeland formed a bipartisan, 13-member “Team Canada” advisory council, stocking it with figures as diverse as Yussuff, Tories James Moore and Rona Ambrose, and NDP strategist Brian Topp. She chose to view the renegotiation as a way to modernize what she called “an extraordinary success story,” and ventured to add new chapters on the environment, labour, gender and Indigenous communities. While Trump began agitating for the renegotiation in February, Freeland, as trade minister, had been laying the groundwork when NAFTA was just a campaign issue. Throughout the first half of 2017, an enormous team of Canadian officials, including mayors and ministers, fanned out across the U.S. in hundreds of meetings designed to bring on board their American counterparts. “I think we’ll be successful,” Yussuff told me. “The Americans think they’re holding all the cards, but they’re delusional.”

Chrystia Freeland at the White House in February 2017 for a roundtable discussion on the advancement of women entrepreneurs and business leaders
At the White House in February 2017 for a roundtable discussion on the advancement of women entrepreneurs and business leaders. CP Images

By mid-October, however, after the fourth, and most arduous, round of negotiations, Yussuff’s optimism seemed misplaced. The U.S. had introduced several so-called poison pill proposals that neither Canada nor Mexico would accept. The ambitious timetable initially agreed on—a complete renegotiation by year’s end—was abandoned. When I spoke to Freeland just before the round, she was measured. “Trade negotiations take a long time,” she said. “These are detailed, finicky things, and in some ways, the modernization takes longer because the relationship is already in place. It’s like playing Jenga—if you remove one block, you have to be careful of all the different consequences.” Of course, every game of Jenga ends the same way, no matter who removes the final, calamitous block.

If NAFTA does implode, Freeland will likely face some blowback, something she has largely avoided to date. In early March, however, news reports revealed that her beloved grandfather, Michael Chomiak, had run a pro-Nazi newspaper in Poland. While the allegations were true, Freeland quickly dismissed the story’s sudden ubiquity in the media as a Russian effort to destabilize the Canadian government. Even if Russia was involved, Freeland’s failure to explicitly confirm or deny the allegations made some journalists queasy. Was her judgment around Ukraine and Russia sound? Was her ambition so overweening that she would cover up her family’s past? When I asked Freeland about it, her normally chipper demeanour cracked. “I have been very clear about this,” she said, frostily. “The research into my grandfather’s activities during the war has been entirely done by my own family, and published by my own family, and that’s research I have personally supported.” She wouldn’t provide any specific evidence she had about Russian involvement, but she did offer this: “I may be privy to some information that is not publicly available.”

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Freeland’s silence on other matters has rankled colleagues, too. “She says nice things, but when you look at what she and her government have accomplished, it’s a massive letdown,” the NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière told me. One example: in early August, video revealed that Saudi Arabia’s rulers were using Canadian-made armoured vehicles against civilians. Freeland quickly called for an investigation, but a couple of months later there seemed to have been no action at all. When I asked her about this in early October, she said the investigation was ongoing, but that no new permits had been issued to Saudi Arabia for vehicles, firearms or other weapons exports since the investigation began. Another critic, former NDP strategist Robin Sears, suggested that, just as Trump is a black hole that absorbs everything around him, so too has NAFTA become an all-consuming preoccupation for Freeland. When I put it to Freeland, she shook her head. “The high stakes of NAFTA have given us more prominence,” she said. “Countries want to talk to Canada because they want to know what’s going on with our economic relationship to the U.S., and that gives us an opportunity to raise other issues that are important to us.” She then rhymed off a few of those issues: Venezuela (Canada is part of the so-called Lima Group, a handful of mostly Latin American countries committed to combating Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship), North Korea (Freeland met with the country’s foreign minister in August) and Myanmar (Canada, she claims, was one of the first to describe the attacks on the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing). Women’s and LGBT rights also remain a priority, she said, and the secret mission to rescue several dozen persecuted gay men from Chechnya is still the most vivid, bold and honourable example of her foreign policy muscle. “We are a meaningful player in the world,” Freeland said.

Chrystia Freeland at an October meeting of the Lima Group, after announcing sanctions for 40 Venezuelans accused of abuses of democracy
At an October meeting of the Lima Group, after announcing sanctions for 40 Venezuelans accused of abuses of democracy

On the afternoon of our cycling tour, Freeland arrived at the Royal York, ducked into the bathroom, stuffed her biking gear into a MEC pannier and emerged transformed: black sheath dress and matching pumps, perspiration blotted, lipstick applied. Capaldi held her helmet, which held her BlackBerry. She also did her best to hide a burgeoning cold. She’d felt it coming on the day before and that morning took a rare opportunity to sleep in—Bowley made the breakfasts and school lunches for the kids—but her bike ride was punctuated by a nagging cough. When I asked what she did when she got sick, she said, with a Terminator-like defiance, “Getting sick is not an option.” In the hotel’s Concert Hall, she took a seat beside her friend Prem Watsa, the billionaire investor often referred to as Canada’s Warren Buffett. She didn’t sit for long. Aside from the brief speech she gave, there were other friends to hug and selfies to pose for, which she did with Trudeau-esque frequency.

At the end of the day, she had to make one more stop, a visit to the set of the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience. We rode down to Showline Studios at Carlaw and Lake Shore, where we were greeted by the show’s executive producer, Ivan Fecan. Koreatown is part of her riding, and Fecan, a fellow Ukrainian-Canadian, is a friend and constituent. As we walked through the studio’s lobby, Freeland paused, then doubled back to shake hands with the receptionist.

On set, again in her T-shirt and leggings, it took a few moments for anyone to recognize her. Once they did, the room oozed with smarm. Freeland talked about how important the show was, how much her kids loved it, how committed the Liberals are to the CBC. Jean Yoon, the actor who plays Umma, thanked Freeland for her work in Chechnya. When Andrew Phung, the actor who plays Kimchee, appeared, Freeland yelped, “Kimchee!” She posed for pictures. Fecan then gave her some signed DVDs that she later gave to the South Korean foreign minister. She asked Fecan if he had sold the show to any other countries and offered to help in any way she could, volunteering our embassies for parties and such. Cultural events were good “soft power,” she said.

It occurred to me soon after meeting Freeland that her job is difficult in part because her days are relentlessly shaped by events beyond her control. But Carolyn Bennett had said to me that Freeland was so capable because she was in charge of her life. Maybe that tension was energizing. Maybe it was a metaphor for the country right now. We got back on our bikes and then rode up Sherbourne. It was uphill all the way to her house, where she had yet another meeting. She was late and rode quickly. Her cough seemed to have disappeared. She raced through a red light, and another cyclist yelled at her. I tried to keep up. She didn’t look back.

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