Heather Mallick: Chrystia Freeland plays a winning hand
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, likely winner of Canadian of the Year, should that prize exist — we don’t really do unadulterated praise in this country — is as steadfast and thoughtful as ever after captaining her team through 2018.
For it was a rough year, was it not, full of shock, mendacity, and a presidential brain disconnected from the server (my words, not hers). As she told a packed audience at a Women of Influence gathering in Toronto on Monday, Canada had a lot on its plate. It always has.
“If we stand tall, we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” she said, and took the room on a supercharged tour of human rights won through courage and effort: the Famous Five winning “person” status and voting rights for most Canadian women; her own mother a pioneering feminist in 1970s Alberta; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; Ukraine’s fight for freedom; the Syrian White Helmets; Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; gender equality in the federal cabinet; federal equal pay rights; and Canadian support for educating women and girls internationally.
Freeland is an unusual political speaker in that she doesn’t rely on chirpy generalities — I call them “boneless chicken” — without names, facts and a specific structure. A former journalist, she relies on information and interpretation, never talking down to her audience.
At Q&A time, she was asked how she coped with stress during NAFTA negotiations with a nation that must always “win,” even with allies, which is not a win at all. Male politicians are never asked about work stress. I do think their lives, and ours, would be better if they were.
Freeland runs or cycles whenever she can, which may partly explain her energy, the sense that she is on a daily runner’s high. In the negotiations “cauldron,” she did not read daily reaction, which “helped me stay centred and do the right thing.” She relied on her famously well-researched staff and her pit crew of a journalist husband and three kids. And as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, father of three, said when he invited her to enter politics, “We do our jobs not despite our children but because of our children.”
Post-event, I asked Freeland if she had 2019 advice for people who felt hopeless after 2018’s chain of fools and catastrophes. “I totally understand people who are worried about some of the directions the world is going in today,” she said. “There are reasons for us to be worried.”
Her favourite reading is Robert Kagan’s new book, . “It makes the case that world democracy is not the natural resting state of humanity. It’s more like a garden. And we have to constantly keep cultivating it, constantly pulling the weeds, constantly watering the plants. And every year you have to do it again.”
I think of Venezuela, or those eerie photos of Cyprus’s postwar UN buffer zone, abandoned to nature since 1974. What does discarded life look like? A Miss Havisham landscape where trees slither into crumbling hotel rooms and prickly pears swallow chain-link fences.
Kagan tracks the roots of American detachment from the world it had helped police since the Second World. President Roosevelt said in 1943 postwar planning that if the U.S. did not “pull the fangs of the predatory animals of this world,” they would “multiply and grow in strength.”
So the U.S. and its allies did good things followed by disasters — Iran, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia — that disgraced military interference. But the drive to tyranny never stopped. “Liberalism, prosperity, stability are constantly being eroded or undermined by enduring forces of habit and history and elements of human nature … including the overall incompetence endemic to all human activity,” Kagan writes. “There are signs all around us today that the jungle is growing back.”
“Despair and concern are only productive if they are a spur to action,” Freeland tells me. “I am not an advocate of mindless optimism but analyze what you are worried about and why, and think about what you can do. Today, we are really, really lucky to be Canadian and that carries an obligation to speak out for other people who are less lucky.”
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick