Chrystia Freeland at the Munich Security Conference, 16 February 2018.
Family and Early Life
Chrystia Freeland was born in Peace River, Alberta, to Donald Freeland, a lawyer and farmer, and Halyna (Chomiak) Freeland. Gerald Baldwin, a great-uncle on her father’s side, was a Progressive Conservative MP who was credited as the “father and grandfather” of the Access to Information Act.
Her Ukrainian Canadian mother, Halyna, was born in a U.S. Army–run refugee camp in Germany, and her parents fled Ukraine after the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Halyna Freeland stood for Parliament under the New Democratic Party (NDP) banner in Edmonton-Strathcona in 1988 and ran a feminist socialist cooperative.
Chrystia Freeland values her Ukrainian heritage. In her maiden speech in the House of Commons on 27 January 2014, she noted, “My mother was born in a refugee camp. Her parents, together with her and her three sisters, were grateful and delighted to find refuge here in Canada, like so many other Ukrainian Canadians.”
Chrystia Freeland attended T.A. Norris Middle School in Peace River and Old Scona Academic High School in Edmonton, Alberta. She was awarded a scholarship to attend United World College of the Adriatic in Italy from 1984 to 1986. She studied Russian history and literature at Harvard University, which included an exchange in Kiev just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1993, as a Rhodes Scholar, Freeland obtained a Master of Studies degree in Slavonic Studies from St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
Journalist and Author
Chrystia Freeland’s first experience in journalism was as a Ukraine-based freelance journalist for the Financial Times, The Economist and The Washington Post. She eventually served as an Eastern European correspondent for the Financial Times and headed its Moscow bureau. She was deputy editor of The Globe and Mail from 1999 to 2001 and then returned to the Financial Times as deputy editor and U.S. managing editor. In 2010, she moved to Thomson Reuters as managing director and editor of consumer news.
Freeland published her first book, Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride From Communism to Capitalism, in 2000. The book details the conflict between oligarchs and young reformers in the post-communist economy. In 2013, she published Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, which was widely praised for its incisive analysis of the concentration of wealth. The book won the 2013 Lionel Gelber Prize and the National Business Book Award. The Guardian called it a “very necessary book,” while the conservative National Post declared it “a clear-eyed account of the social and political implications of a class of super-rich who hold an increasing portion of global wealth.” In 2013, Freeland gave a widely viewed TED Talk on global income inequality.
Election to Parliament
Chrystia Freeland met Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau at a book signing in 2013. After Bob Rae resigned his Toronto Centre seat that June, Trudeau’s team convinced Freeland to run for the Liberals in the following by-election. Though initially reluctant, Freeland was eventually convinced to run by the idea of serving the country. “In all of our conversations, the idea of public service was very important to [Trudeau],” she said, “and it is to me, too.”
In the federal by-election on 25 November 2013, Freeland defeated the closest challenger, NDP candidate and journalist Linda McQuaig, with 17,194 votes (49.4 per cent) to McQuaig’s 12,640 votes (36.3 per cent).
The riding boundaries were later redrawn, and Freeland stood for re-election in the new riding of University-Rosedale in the 2015 federal election. Freeland defeated NDP candidate Jennifer Hollett by more than 11,000 votes, taking 49.8 per cent of cast ballots.
Chrystia Freeland and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau at the Chrystia Freeland Rally in Toronto, Ontario (2 October 2013)
Minister of Foreign Trade
Immediately following the 2015 election, Chrystia Freeland was appointed to Cabinet as Minister of International Trade. Around the same time, she was named one of Toronto’s 50 most influential people by Toronto Life.
In 2016, Freeland was involved in negotiations for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union. “Canada intends to be a leader on the principles that guide international investment in the 21st century, and I will be looking to collaborate further with like-minded partners in the days ahead,” she declared.
The European deal almost collapsed due to opposition from the Belgian region of Wallonia. After extensive negotiations, Freeland walked out of the meetings. “We have decided to return home,” she declared. “I am very sad. It is emotional for me.” Despite this, Freeland and Trudeau were able to broker a deal.
In February 2016, Freeland signed Canada to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, the agreement became defunct when the United States, under President Donald Trump, withdrew its signature.
In early 2017, the Liberal cabinet was shuffled, likely in response to the election of the Trump administration in the United States. Chrystia Freeland was promoted to Minister of Foreign Affairs but retained the Canada-U.S. trade portfolio, which included renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Negotiations with a mercurial new U.S. administration were tense. “This is the most protectionist U.S. administration since the 1930s,” Freeland told one journalist. In response, she formed a bipartisan advisory council that included Conservative politicians.
The U.S. introduced a number of “poison pill” demands that neither Canada nor Mexico would agree to, while Canada sought exemptions to tariffs on some items, such as steel. The protracted negotiations raised Freeland’s profile internationally, with a Maclean’s profile noting that she is “very, very smart and tough and isn’t prepared to be pushed around.” Negotiations on tariffs and the auto industry were particularly fraught, with the U.S. and Canada trading retaliatory tariffs on items such as cars, whiskey and ketchup.
On 27 August, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. and Mexico were cutting Canada out, which caused some panic. Despite this, Freeland and U.S. negotiator Robert Lighthizer were able to finalize a deal by the 30 September deadline. The agreement, called the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), contains new provisions regarding intellectual copyright and opened Canada’s dairy market to U.S. producers.
Freeland won much respect from Lighthizer, who told the Washington Post, “She did an amazing job for Canada.”
In May 2019, Freeland renewed pressure on the United States to remove the tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. On 17 May, the American government agreed to end the tariffs, while Canada in turn lifted its own countermeasures.
Foreign Affairs: Ukraine and Russia
Before Chrystia Freeland joined Cabinet, she had expressed criticism of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who many viewed as a Russian pawn. She also criticized Russian military involvement in Ukraine and the Crimea. In 2014, she wrote in a Globe and Mail article that “Canada should impose personal sanctions against Yanukovych and his political backers and freeze their assets.” After Canada imposed economic sanctions and travel bans on Ukrainian and Russian officials, the Russian government retaliated with sanctions on 13 Canadians, including Freeland.
In 2017, Freeland spearheaded the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, which authorizes the government to impose asset freezes and travel bans on those who abuse human rights and are involved in corruption. This legislation was viewed as a direct response to suspected Russian activity, including the 2006 and 2015 murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov, respectively.
When stories appeared in 2017 revealing that Freeland’s Ukrainian grandfather had edited an anti-Semitic newspaper during the Second World War, Freeland suggested that this was an effort to discredit her by the Russian government. She also pointed out that she had known about this for over two decades and had acknowledged it in a scholarly paper.
Tensions with Russia continued in March 2018, when Canada — among other countries — expelled Russian diplomats after the poisoning of a former spy in the United Kingdom.
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2018 in Davos, Switzerland (25 January 2018)
Foreign Affairs: Other Countries
In September 2017, Chrystia Freeland became the first Western leader to declare the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to be genocide, referring to the situation as an “ethnic cleansing.” In July 2018, Freeland worked with the United Kingdom and Germany to extract and resettle some of Syria’s White Helmets, whom she referred to as “courageous volunteers.” In contrast, Freeland and the Liberal government were criticized for not showing more support for the Uighur minority in Xinjiang in northwestern China. The Chinese government has been accused of oppression against activists like Huseyincan Celil, who remains in prison.
Canadian relations with China began to deteriorate in late 2018. On 1 December 2018, Canadian officials arrested a Chinese citizen, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, at the request of the U.S. government. Freeland defended the decision, stating that it was “in keeping with our international obligations.” The case led to a protracted diplomatic conflict between China and Canada.
Relations with Saudi Arabia also became strained. On 2 August 2018, Freeland called for the release of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and his family on Twitter. This led the Saudi government to suspend diplomatic ties and halt trade agreements. After the October 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Freeland condemned the probable involvement of members of the Saudi government in the murder. In November, she announced sanctions against 17 Saudi citizens who were suspected of being linked to the killing. In January 2019, Freeland made an appearance in Toronto to welcome Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, to whom Canada had granted refugee status after she fled an allegedly abusive situation in her home country.
In 2018 and 2019, Freeland also took a strong stance against the socialist Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela by endorsing opponent Juan Guaidó and imposing sanctions. This stance was criticized by some observers as geopolitical meddling.
Federal Election 2019
Chrystia Freeland was re-elected as Liberal MP for the University-Rosedale riding on 21 October 2019. It was a convincing victory, as she received more than half the votes in the Toronto riding. However, the Liberal Party itself lost support in most provinces and won 157 seats in total, resulting in a minority government.
Chrystia Freeland met her partner, New York Times investigative reporter Graham Bowley, while working at the Financial Times. They have three children, Natalka, Halyna and Ivan, and live in her riding in Toronto.
Awards and Honours
- Lionel Gelber Prize (2013)
- National Business Book Award (2013)
- Erik M. Warburg Award (2018)