Chrystia Freeland had what she thought would be the final chat with Justin Trudeau about running for the Liberals in July 2013. On the phone from her Manhattan home, she again turned him down.
It was part of a process that began eight months earlier when she met Trudeau — then a leadership hopeful — at a Toronto signing for her book, Plutocrats.
She and Trudeau clicked immediately. Both are extroverts and natural politicians who share similar views. He loved her book and its theme of the hollowing out of the middle class — so much that it would become his campaign bible.
Afterwards, his top people, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, kept in touch with her. In fact, the wooing of Freeland and her star power was an intricate dance. It was subtle, sophisticated, and, it would appear, with no big move until necessary.
It became necessary in June 2013 when Bob Rae gave Trudeau, by then party leader, a heads-up that he planned to resign his Toronto Centre seat.
A couple of days later, Freeland was in Ottawa for a speech and met Trudeau for breakfast. No pressure. Instead, she says Trudeau wore flip-flops on a Saturday morning and “asked me if I might be interested” in running to replace Rae.
Back home, she mulled it over for a month before telling Telford and Butts that, regretfully, she couldn’t accept.
They asked if Trudeau could call her in New York.
Freeland made it clear to them that were she single, instead of married with three kids, she would accept in a heartbeat. She was ready to give up her top-tier job in journalism for Thomson Reuters, but wouldn’t compromise on her family.
She explained that to Trudeau but the phone call didn’t quite end as planned. Hers was, she admits now, a “soft no.” That meant, she says, she wanted to be sure he understood she took the offer very seriously and that it was an honour. He was sympathetic and she says she was impressed by how sensitive he was to the needs of family.
Trudeau’s most intoxicating argument for Freeland was the emotional appeal of serving the country. “In all of our conversations, the idea of public service was very important to him,” she says. “And it is to me too.”
She says Trudeau made it very clear “there were no guarantees.” It would be a “contested nomination” for the candidate to replace Rae. No promises about the byelection and none for the next general election.
There may have been “no guarantees” — and it was important it be seen that way — but there certainly would be high-powered help from senior Liberals.
She had more long talks with her family and decided it could work for everybody. Not long after, she accepted Trudeau’s offer.
On July 26, 2013, Freeland left journalism to join the Liberals. She won the nomination and the byelection in Toronto Centre that fall, becoming the first big “get” for Trudeau. Then last month, she won the redistributed riding of University-Rosedale in the Oct. 19 election.
Soon after, she had a date with a cabinet swearing-in at Rideau Hall and, at 47, became the new minister of international trade and head of the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations.
Her whole life, from its unusual beginnings on the Peace River, had been leading up to that point.
Memories from Alberta’s Peace River country make Freeland’s heart soar.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” she says, recalling the place where she was born. “It was magical.”
Alberta’s fertile northern frontier, 500 kilometres north of Edmonton, instilled love to last a lifetime.
“I remember coming home from working in the fields with my grandfather one day in the summer and he stopped and said to me: ‘You know, what I love most about the farm is that every field has a different view and every one is beautiful.’
“He loved the Peace River so much,” she says of John Wilbur Freeland. His father was John, so he became Wilbur — wartime flyer, rodeo bronc rider, boxer under the name “Pretty Boy Freeland,” lawyer and farmer.
Through him, she’s linked to her family’s homesteading past. He put her and her only sibling, Natalka, on a big brown mare named Princess when they could barely hang on. And when she was 12 and Natalka 10, he gave them horses for Christmas. When her mare got sick one winter, her dad let Misty stay in the basement.
But politics was bred in her bones. Both parents were lawyers, having studied law at the University of Alberta. Her father, Donald, ran for the provincial Liberals under Nick Taylor, a move his daughter calls a “suicide mission” in Alberta, and her late mother, Halyna Chomiak Freeland, ran unsuccessfully for the New Democrats. (A great-uncle, Ged Baldwin, was a crusading “Red Tory” MP.)
“I remember being surrounded by politics from the moment I was born,” she says.
Through her mother’s parents, Michael Chomiak and Alexandra Loban Chomiak, Freeland is rooted in the immigrant experience, the other major influence on her life.
The Chomiaks saw themselves as political refugees from Soviet-occupied Ukraine, and loved Canada.
“All my grandparents loved Canada but my Ukrainian grandfather was the most passionate,” says Freeland, who was born Christina Alexandra and adopted the name’s Ukrainian form. “I remember his kids once saying something mildly critical of Canada. He pounded his fist on the table and said he’d lived in six countries and Canada was the best in the world.”
Michael Chomiak was a lawyer and journalist before the Second World War, but “they knew the Soviets would invade western Ukraine (and) fled … and, like a lot of Ukrainians, ended up after the war in a displaced persons camp in Germany where my mother was born.”
Along the way Michael and Alexandra had six children, the last two born in Canada. They lived in poverty after they arrived; he couldn’t practise or go to law school and eventually worked for years as a lab assistant.
“(Their experience) had a very big effect on me,” Freeland says. “They had heated political discussions … They were also committed to the idea, like most in the (Ukrainian) diaspora, that Ukraine would one day be independent and that the community had a responsibility to the country they had been forced to flee … to keep that flame alive.”
From her mother, Halyna, a feminist and activist who used the law to fight for social justice, Freeland learned how strong women can be. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and she lived with both her mother and her father, who remarried: Carol Freeland says Chrystia once told her, “You’re my mother too.”
Halyna worked hard to have her two girls speak Ukrainian at home, telling them: “People in (Soviet) Ukraine aren’t allowed to speak it.” Her daughter honours the tradition.
It’s tough to corral Donald long-distance from Toronto to talk about his politician daughter. Finally, he calls from his pickup truck on his way home at dusk. He’s 71 and was “swathing” canola, working the 2,500 hectares that grew from just 12 hectares under the original Freeland homesteaders.
He broke up much of that acreage himself, riding a tractor that pulled a local Vegreville breaking plow, often with his little girl Chrystia beside him.
Donald is proud of both daughters, and says of Chrystia, “There was nothing she wouldn’t try … We always talked about social problems and it was always interesting.”
Recently, old friends and acquaintances, even Chrystia’s grade school teachers, have stopped him on the street or called to praise her political success.
One can almost see him grinning.
Lessons from the East
A mass grave holding thousands of Ukrainians murdered under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin before the Second World War helped change the course of Freeland’s life.
It was March 1989. She was 21 and a Harvard exchange student at the University of Kyiv. She worked as a “fixer” for New York Times reporter Bill Keller by setting up a visit to Bykovnya, near Kyiv, and translating for him.
“I saw how important Bill was to these people,” Freeland says of older Ukrainians who told him their stories. “I saw how they looked at Bill and how important he was in their lives … I’m sure he was a large part of why I became a journalist.”
For more than half a century, the line was that occupying Nazis were responsible for Bykovnya (also spelled Bykivnia) and other mass graves. Keller’s story was part of the unravelling of that fiction.
Freeland translated for people who’d seen tarpaulin-covered trucks move into the pine forests of Bykovnya at night and “puddles of blood in the road.” They knew the killings predated the Nazi invasion and believed the executions, there and elsewhere, were the work of Stalin’s secret police, precursors to the KGB. Now that they were old and frail, their voices were finally being heard.
A quarter-century later, Freeland sits in the Rosedale townhouse she shares with her husband, New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, and their three children. Freeland, petite at five foot two, is casual in jeans. She apologizes for her “messy” home but it’s more the clutter of a busy family at the end of a day. (The home’s $1.3-million price tag became the subject of media stories but she said she would “never apologize for having had a successful international career.”)
In a busy kitchen, she reflects on how her journalism path was set after Bykovnya. She graduated in history and literature from Harvard and began to freelance from Kyiv. “It was real work and I was impatient to get back to it,” she says, of why she earned her Oxford M.A. in Slavic studies as a Rhodes Scholar in only a year.
There could have been no better occupation for the young Freeland. She learned that the official story is often wrong. The lesson was to believe her own eyes and search for the truth for herself.
Freeland was stunned by a speech by U.S. president George H.W. Bush in Kyiv in August 1991, urging independence-minded Ukrainians to work with the hated Soviet Union — which would implode four months later. “It was a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. My Ukrainian grandparents had a better understanding of what was going on.”
She was unimpressed by a White House press corps that didn’t venture outside to gauge the public mood.
She took these lessons to the Financial Times, where she would run the Moscow bureau and later serve in senior management. She would also hold senior positions at the Globe and Mail in Toronto and Thomson Reuters in New York.
She met fellow reporter Bowley in London and connected because he, too, grew up on a farm. They married in two ceremonies for their families and went on to juggle career postings that meant their children were born in different cities — Natalka, 14, in Toronto; Halyna, 10, in London; and Ivan, 6, in New York.
Freeland also published two books — Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution in 2000; and, in 2012, bestselling Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Freeland is at ease talking with people and would likely ace the social game on Survivor. She’s made powerful friends and contacts that have made her even more valuable to the Liberal party. She referred to former U.S. treasury secretary Larry Summers as “my dear friend … probably the smartest person I know,” when introducing him to the annual Liberal convention in 2014.
“Many members of the global super-elite have helped me to understand their world and some have become friends,” she writes in Plutocrats. She cites David Thomson, 3rd Baron Thomson of Fleet and chair of Thomson Reuters, as an “important friend and teacher.” Geoff Beattie, then president of the Thomson family’s private holding company, hosted a book launch for Plutocrats in Toronto in November 2012. It was there that she met Trudeau.
By the time she left journalism at the end of July 2013, she had become a political insider, friends with Telford and Butts, now chief of staff and principal secretary in the PMO. The inner circle of Trudeaucrats around the boss is tight, and Freeland says Butts has a “no a——s rule.”
Perhaps her best contact was Margaret Trudeau.
“She’s really charismatic,” says Freeland. “She said, ‘I’m so glad you’re on my son’s team. I’m sure you’re very smart but I know you must have strong values too. My son must have thought (that) because it’s what he values: doing things for the right reasons.’ ”
The Trudeau revolution begins
At Trudeau’s swearing-in at Rideau Hall, his new international trade minister, barely up to his sternum, practically lifted him off the ground in an embrace.
Freeland, in her customary red dress, wore the widest grin and gave the biggest hugs of the day. She was ecstatic and not afraid to show it.
For that Nov. 4 ceremony, she sat with her 6-year-old son, Ivan, in her lap, smiling softly and whispering to him.
Freeland was clearly channelling her mother, Halyna. She was four-foot-ten, and called “the little communist.” She often quoted feminist icon Emma Goldman to Chrystia, and her favourite line was: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Her daughter is at the dance. Since her appointment, she’s been studying the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, signed by the Conservatives and released online during her first week on the job. With the fine print now revealed, there are more concerns about what Canadians may be giving up. She’s holding the hot potato along with her boss, and neither has said where they stand on a deal that can’t be amended by Parliament, only accepted or rejected.
Freeland was with Trudeau at the APEC conference in Manila last week when U.S. President Barack Obama, the TPP’s biggest booster, jumped the gun and said both the U.S. and Canada “would soon be signatories.”
She described her own political philosophy in Plutocrats as being “simply Canadian” and says Canadian culture will be important for her at the cabinet table. She believes Canadians must see their own lives reflected in their art and culture or they’ll think that real life is something that happens to other people and in accents other than their own (to quote an old Aussie B-movie).
After Manila, Freeland appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher, where she praised Canada’s policies on Syrian refugees before a panel that was at times condescending. The show at one point identified her as “prime minister of international trade.”
Freeland faces political challenges while trying to be, well, nice. So far, she’s lived in an essentially courteous world.
Halyna taught her to be aware and kind. When she was in an enrichment class at school in Edmonton, her mother said, “That’s wonderful but what about your friends who don’t get to go to enrichment classes? How do you think they feel? Don’t you think they would enjoy going?” She nudged her daughter into organizing a protest in grade school.
Halyna, who died in 2007, helped give her daughters the tools. Is it any wonder she accepted Trudeau’s offer to serve? Big Apple journalists who raised an eyebrow at the unexpected move surely didn’t know her.
But do we know her better?
“She surprised many soon after her arrival,” says Ottawa-based consultant Robin Sears. “Journalists rarely make the leap to politics successfully. She has — by choosing her topics, her messages and her events with caution.
“As with all the other ‘greenie’ ministers, however, how well she makes the move from opposition international policy guru to effective international trade minister is the acid test for her and for this government.”
The public can begin to gauge her mettle for themselves when a new Parliament opens on Thursday. The girl who grew up on a farm in Alberta and finally said yes to Trudeau will be sitting near him in the Commons — with the power to make a difference.