by Paul Wells
Is Dion the best pitchman for Canada-U.S. affairs? A connected Freeland gets a second look
Count back from known events. Late this month the Trudeau cabinet will hold a two-day retreat outside Ottawa. The last time the prime minister summoned his colleagues for one of these occasional getaways, in Sudbury at the end of August, he gave a few ministers new jobs and shook up the committees that organize their work.
Is it time for a larger shuffle? Maybe. Final decisions are the prime minister’s, and his public daily agenda still says “Personal.” But senior Liberals say Trudeau is in a mood to make modest changes to his cabinet whenever trouble and opportunity intersect, rather than wait for an overhaul later.
Where’s the biggest trouble? On the morning of Jan. 20, trouble will be on Capitol Hill in Washington facing the chief justice of the United States, with his left hand on a Bible. At least I hope it’s a Bible his hand will be on. With this guy, who knows.
About the future, no more can be known. About Thursday, I can report that 300 people showed up at a lunchtime meeting of the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. The guest speaker was Chrystia Freeland, who for the moment is Trudeau’s minister of international trade. The topic of her speech was the intersection of trouble and opportunity.
“We are living in complex times,” Freeland said in French. Every word of her speech was in French, improvised at first and then read from a text, with good results. (She did say “gaucher unique” when she meant to say “guichet unique.” As a result, she seemed to be offering international investors a “single left-hander” instead of “one-stop shopping.”)
“Complex” doesn’t mean much, but she wasn’t shy about being more specific. “We’re living in extremely protectionist times, perhaps the most protectionist I’ve ever seen.”
Millions around the world are unconvinced that the modern economy works for them, Freeland said.
They take it out on “two easy targets: immigrants or people who look different and international trade agreements.”
And then there’s Canada, which keeps welcoming immigrants and refugees, and which last year concluded, knock on wood, negotiations toward a bold trade deal with Europe. For both policies, there is broad support across parties. “I am so proud of Canada now,” Freeland said. “Not of our government but of our country.” She thanked Stephen Harper and “my friend Ed Fast,” the former Conservative trade minister, for their work on the EU trade deal.
“Isn’t it impressive that in 2016, the year of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, Canada was sealing the largest trade agreement in our history?” But Freeland was not here only to run victory laps. “Opportunities offer themselves to us. But they won’t fall from the sky.”
The opportunity is to attract international investment and to encourage Canadian companies to export.
To double down on trade while others are recoiling. A week after Trump’s election, she said, she was on the phone to leading U.S. investors and CEOs, pitching Canada as a destination. More needs doing, she admitted.
At the news conference afterward, I said she seemed to be saying Trump’s election presents not only dangers but a chance for Canada “to mow the Americans’ lawn.”
“Well, I think you’ve put a few words into my mouth,” she replied. “But it sounds like I was generally intelligible.”
And indeed, she does think Canada’s “openness … represents very significant and distinctive opportunities for our country.”
Now, back to the trouble and opportunities at hand for Trudeau. StÈphane Dion is still young at 61 and has been travelling nearly non-stop – Beirut, Lima, The Hague and Hamburg in November and December alone. Reviews are mixed. He’s pushing files forward, including advance work for a peacekeeping mission in Africa and Canada’scandidacy for a UN Security Council seat. He is majestically skeptical of anything his colleagues try to sell him, a born Dr. No in a cabinet that’s short of them.
Rumours were flying about his exit from elected politics even before Trump was elected. Now is he the best pitchman and advocate for an open Canada, in the face of a highly unpredictable new U.S. president? In Ottawa, Freeland is getting a second look.
“That woman is one contact away from everyone in Washington,” a Liberal insider said this week.
The next move is Trudeau’s. But if he sees his economic agenda as worth defending, he’ll want to put its best advocate, Freeland, in the foreign minister’s post.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services