The engines were revving on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plane, warming up on a Beijing tarmac for a flight to China’s southern industrial heartland, but one important passenger was conspicuously missing: François-Philippe Champagne.
Champagne, then Canada’s trade minister in December 2017, was left behind for what would be two days of intense closed-door meetings in the Chinese capital while Trudeau and his entourage decamped to their next destination.
For the next two days, Champagne was thrown into an intense set of talks, in an attempt to find some sort of way forward on a free-trade negotiation with China — an effort that ultimately failed.
Now, the unflappable and unfailingly upbeat Champagne is headed back into the thick of Canada’s thorny international relations as one of Canada’s faces to the world, second only to the prime minister.
Champagne, 49, may not have the name recognition that his predecessor Chrystia Freeland brought to the post as an author and ex-journalist in London, Moscow and New York, but his easygoing manner belies his own ambitious rise in business and international-trade law, which earned him a “Young Global Leader” award from the World Economic Forum.
Champagne has held the Quebec riding of Saint-Maurice-Champlain since 2015. It includes the city of Shawinigan, whose famous son, former prime minister Jean Chretien, is a personal hero of Champagne’s.
Champagne has also publicly and privately hinted he might one day aspire to the same job Chretien once held.
In January 2017, Champagne took over from Freeland in the trade portfolio, tasked with delivering a massive trade deal among Pacific Rim countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“Champagne’s experience with the skirmishes over TPP and Canada’s first ill-fated venture into trade talks with the Chinese is good experience for some of the continuing battles he will be facing — especially when it comes to the Chinese,” said Fen Hampson, of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
Shortly after, Trudeau shuffled his cabinet again and put Champagne in charge of infrastructure spending.
In an interview after the shuffle, Champagne joked about how he had banned the word “spend” at Infrastructure Canada, because money it deploys is an investment, and talked about a need for the government to “move from numbers to impact.”
And then a short while later, he also showed he can be blunt. “It’s about doing things better and smarter,” he said about getting infrastructure dollars out the door.
Champagne often held roundtable meetings with local officials during his countrywide travels, and rarely missed a gathering of Federation of Canadian Municipalities officials. FCM president Bill Karsten said Champagne’s ability to build relationships with big-city mayors and rural reeves was evident.
“He put a lot of focus and his trademark energy into consistent, direct federal-municipal communication and partnership, including giving out his own cell phone number, which undoubtedly caused some anxiety for staff on both sides,” Karsten said.
“No matter how difficult it might be to meet in person or how complicated the logistics were, he (was) willing to do whatever it took to make a conversation happen.”
Now, those skills will be put to a new test as Canada’s place in the world has never been quite so precarious, from its relations with China to unprecedented threats facing the world’s institutions and traditional alliances — from NATO to the World Bank to the European Union.
Roland Paris, Trudeau’s first foreign-policy adviser, called Champagne “smart and dynamic,” adding the new foreign minister will need every ounce of those capacities to meet the significant challenges that await him.
“He will need to deal with the situation with China, clarify and co-ordinate Canada’s broader Asia strategy, work with the trade minister to diversify and expand Canada’s trade,” said Paris, of the University of Ottawa.
Canada also faces an uphill battle for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, a vote for which will take place in June for a term that would begin in 2021. Canada faces stiff competition for the two available seats.
Colin Robertson, a retired diplomat and foreign-affairs analyst, said Champagne will have to “run very hard and with a strategy and a campaign plan” if he hopes to land the seat and make up Norway’s and Ireland’s head starts.