Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has many important decisions to make as he prepares to unveil his new cabinet on Nov. 20, but none may be more important for Canada’s standing in the world than his decision about the foreign affairs minister.
The incumbent is Chrystia Freeland, whose most notable file during Trudeau’s first year was the successful resolution of negotiations on the new NAFTA. But she has distinguished herself on just about any file she’s managed, be it Russia and Ukraine or shaping a feminist foreign policy.
“Freeland is an outstanding member of the cabinet with extensive foreign experience and a proven record of success in as foreign minister,“ said Charles Burton, a former diplomat and sometimes critic of the Trudeau government who is now a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
“I really can’t imagine anyone stronger than Chrystia Freeland to entrust with Canada’s interests abroad so I hope that that’s the choice.”
Freeland is held in high regard by those outside the country as well.
Christopher Sands, the Washington-based director for the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Freeland’s pre-political career as an international journalist, combined with her work as foreign affairs minister, has given her a network and an influence unique among Canadian foreign ministers.
“All of that gives her something that’s almost irreplaceable. Whoever comes in, if they do replace her, will have to work pretty hard to gain the same level of influence that she’s managed to have,” Sands said.
But the momentum that Freeland has worked hard to build for much of the year on two key files — the detained Canadians in China and supporting democracy in Venezuela — may be in danger of stalling, partly as a result of the federal election and partly due to the length of time — four weeks — Trudeau is taking between election day and his cabinet swearing-in.
“We have lost momentum. It’s true,” said Burton. “I think recent statements by the Chinese government suggest a high degree of discontent with Justin Trudeau. I think they’d expected them to be much more compliant in their demands that he interfere in the judicial process.”
That judicial process, of course, is the pending extradition of Chinese national Meng Wanzhou from Canada to the United States.
Days after Canada’s election concluded, the Global Times, a tabloid-style English-language news agency controlled by China’s communist government, issued what Carleton University Prof. Stephanie Carvin described on Twitter as a “ransom note” when it tweeted: “Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau needs to take the initiative to set free Ms Meng Wanzhou. Once Meng gets back to China and reunite with her family members, frigid relations between Beijing and Ottawa will warm up.”
Just before the election, the Trudeau government appointed Dominic Barton as Canada’s ambassador in Beijing. On Friday, in Ottawa, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will formally receive the credentials of the new Chinese ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu. Payette will also receive the credentials of Orlando Viera Blanco, the ambassador for Venezuela’s interim president Juan Guaido.
Now, with the new ambassadors in place, all Trudeau need do is confirm Freeland as his foreign minister to regain Canadian momentum on both files.
“I think that it is likely but not certain that Chrystia Freeland would be reappointed to her position as foreign minister. She’s done a terrific job in that cabinet position,” said Lawrence Herman, a Toronto-based international trade lawyer.
Global News has obtained dozens of documents from Global Affairs Canada, via access-to-information requests, that show most of the discussions Freeland has had with Canada’s international partners and allies involve freeing two Canadians held by China and building global consensus behind Venezuelan opposition leader Guaido. Her aides confirmed that while activity on Venezuela has ebbed and flowed throughout the year, there has been a constant focus on China and the detained Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Still, Kovrig and Spavor are fast approaching their first anniversary in Chinese detention, while Guaido recently turned to China and Russia for help.
The documentary record obtained by Global News shows Freeland quickly started seeking international support for Canada’s position on China as soon as the “two Michaels,” as some in the department began referring to them, were taken into custody in December 2018.
A typical call was one she had with Stef Blok, foreign affairs minister of the Netherlands. A briefing note prepared for Freeland on Jan. 7 ahead of that call lists three top-line messages her officials wanted her to deliver to the Dutch about Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou and China’s subsequent detention of Kovrig and Spavor and the re-sentencing of a third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, who was already serving jail time in China for a drug offence, to a death sentence.
The top-line messages in that briefing note were:
- “This was not a decision related to our relationship with China.”
- “China’s reaction to the Meng case is deeply concerning, including the detention of two Canadian citizens. Such conduct harms China’s reputation and our bilateral dialogue.”
- “Canada greatly [appreciates] any and all messages of support from its allies and partners regardless of timing.”
The briefing note then encourages Freeland to make an additional point with Blok: “China, like Huawei itself, should have confidence that Ms. Meng will be treated fairly in Canadian courts. This is a key reputational issue for China. It is important that the international community stand up to such conduct.”
None of these “top messages” will surprise any Canadian who paid attention to the statements made in public at the time by either Freeland or Trudeau. In fact, they are completely consistent with her public statements at the time.
These top messages were repeated time and time again in phone calls and meetings Freeland had with international partners in the months leading up to the election.
A briefing note prepared for Freeland a Jan. 14 phone call with Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, for example, contained identical language to the Blok briefing note. In late January, there was also a call to Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.
And as Freeland pushed Canada’s agenda on China and, later, on Venezuela, she was having to accommodate “asks” from those she was calling.
Many of Poland’s “asks” are blacked out in the briefing note for the call with Czaputowicz, but it appears Poland’s interests at the time were more about Ukraine and the NATO battle group in Latvia.
Freeland was advised that Sweden’s Wallstrom would be pushing Canada to do more to fight climate change and promote human rights and democracy.
For a call in late December with French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Freeland is encouraged to stress the point that Kovrig’s status as a diplomat — he was on a leave of absence from his government employment when he was detained — had been violated.
“This should heighten concern regarding his detention,” the briefing note provided to Freeland reads.
Freeland placed a call to German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas shortly after Kovrig and Spavor were detained in December and spoke to him on the phone again on Jan. 31. The big focus of the January call was to build support for the Lima Group’s work on Venezuela. The briefing note for that call says Canada’s “key ask” was “that Germany continues to support interim president Juan Guaido and the National Assembly in the face of Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate new presidential term; and that Germany encourage further action by the European Union, including recognition of Guaido.”
But even though the late January call with Maas is mostly about Venezuela, Freeland was encouraged, as part of her top-line messages, to thank Germany for its support of Canada’s position vis-a-vis China.
By this time, Freeland is also having to reassure her allies about statements made by John McCallum, who was fired by Trudeau from his job as Canada’s ambassador to China on Jan. 25 for suggesting there was a political quid pro quo solution that could be pursued.
“There has been no political involvement in the process,” Freeland was encouraged to tell the German foreign minister. “Canada is conducting a fair, unbiased and transparent legal proceeding with respect to Ms. Meng, which includes the ability for individuals to mount a vigorous defence before a court of law.”
While China and the detention of Kovrig and Spavor seem to have remained Freeland’s top priority across all her international interactions for much of the first part of the year, her work with the Lima Group on Venezuela was also important.
She spent significant time working European contacts to put more pressure on the Maduro regime.
On Feb. 26, for example, she spoke to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy. The note prepared for Freeland ahead of that call listed a top-line message that read: “Canada encourages the EU to consider implementing further targeted sanctions to increase pressure on the Maduro regime.”
There were similar calls by Freeland in the late winter — often with a Venezuela-China one-two punch — to Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell and, perhaps most importantly, to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Global Affairs Canada was asked to provide the above briefing notes and others in midsummer, and some were released in September and October, most with mild to moderate redactions made by government censors.
However, briefing notes prepared for many of Freeland’s interactions with other leaders have not yet been released, despite requests for them in midsummer. Among those are phone calls and meetings with the foreign ministers of Denmark, Cuba, Mali, Ghana, Jordan, Portugal, Israel and Egypt as well as and followup midsummer calls with Pompeo and Mogherini.