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Enough of Justin, we need to focus on DPM Freeland

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More and more Justin is fading into the background.

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If the Liberals are admitting their carbon tax plan won't impact climate change, why are we paying it?


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Lunch with Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, who is widely tipped as Justin Trudeau’s heir, was always going to be faintly surreal. Not only was she my former boss, as the FT’s one-time deputy editor and US managing editor. She has also conducted many Lunches with the FT herself. Her subjects include Gloria Steinem, the American feminist, Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, and one or two Russian oligarchs with whom Freeland — our Moscow bureau chief during the Yeltsin era, when their like were running riot — decidedly did not hit it off.

I am aware Freeland will be the only interviewee to have also sat on my side of the table — and so will doubtlessly anticipate every conversational gambit. They say a fair interviewer approaches their subject blind. In Freeland’s case, my eyes are wide open, or at least they have been most of the time. When Freeland was my boss many years ago, she once unexpectedly breast-fed her newly born baby in front of me. I applauded her modernity and lack of fuss. This is exactly how things should be. But I have never studied a ceiling or carpet with quite that level of diligence.

We meet at Bistro Praha, a somewhat faded restaurant in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, the province where Freeland grew up. It was founded by a Czech émigré and quickly became a hub for the windswept city’s central European immigrant communities. Among them was Freeland’s late mother, Halyna, who was born to Ukrainian refugees in a US displaced person’s camp in postwar Germany. Freeland’s parents divorced when she was nine. Her father, Don, still lives on his farm in Peace River, 300 miles north of Edmonton.

As Canada’s high-profile foreign minister in the previous Liberal government, Freeland traversed the world. In her new job as Trudeau’s deputy since Canada’s election in October, Freeland will need to spend a lot more time in places such as her native Alberta. Though the parallel is inexact, Alberta and Saskatchewan are Canada’s rough equivalent of the left-behind areas in the UK and the US that endorsed Trump and Brexit. Freeland is also minister for intergovernmental affairs, which in practice means quelling the growing resentment of Canada’s western provinces against the “Laurentian elites” — so named after the Saint Lawrence River that runs through where most of the eastern establishment lives. The somewhat hyped spectre of a Canadian split between the fossil-fuel-exporting west and the carbon-tax-loving east has been dubbed “Wexit”.

I am seated at a corner table when Freeland arrives, dressed in a red suit and a silk red scarf with a chinoiserie motif. She is flanked by two young aides, who eat at a nearby table. There is no security. It strikes me that it would be inconceivable in Washington for a senior politician — still less the vice-president — to walk in off the street without a security detail. Who knows: maybe the Canadians are saving up for Harry and Meghan’s protection (our meeting took place before the pair stepped down as senior royals).

Freeland, whose diminutive stature belies an energy that would put a nuclear plant to shame, immediately throws a wrench in the proceedings. It turns out that today is Christmas Eve for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to which Freeland belongs. It is a day of fasting. She cannot eat before evening. “I’m going to cheat by ordering a cappuccino,” she says. Since Freeland, 51, has frequented this place for 40 years, we agree that she will order for me. She chooses a Prague egg salad to start and a glass of Californian sauvignon blanc. “You must try the Prague egg — it’s one of the bistro’s specialities,” she says. I am reminded of what Chrystia was like as a colleague: she is always in charge and it happens in a hurry.

I question whether Freeland’s background provides such a big advantage in the context of her job. Neither Alberta nor neighbouring Saskatchewan elected a single Liberal in October. Freeland, who represents a constituency, or “riding”, in central Toronto, must somehow negotiate a trans-mountain pipeline to export Alberta’s heavily carbonised oil sands without breaking Trudeau’s pledge for Canada to lead the fight against global warming. How can she square that circle? “I’m very aware I represent a very urban riding and I’m delighted to,” says Freeland, with the painstakingness of a highly ambitious politician. “Also I did go to Harvard and Oxford. Having said that, I’m from northern Alberta and my dad is still a farmer there, and those are things that are very much part of me too. I’m a very grateful daughter of Alberta.”

My “starter” has arrived. It looks large enough to end at least five Ukrainian Greek Catholic fasts. The sauvignon blanc provides a crisp antidote to the mound of egg, potato, mayonnaise and caviar before me.

Can you please one half of Canada without alienating the other, I ask. Freeland answers guardedly. “Yes, we do have to take action on climate change,” she says. “At the same time we also need a strong economy and we understand the reality that fossil fuels are part of the Canadian economy and the world economy.” But how can the world slow climate change if Canada keeps exporting so much carbon, I interrupt. “What I would say is my dad could not live or get around without a pick-up truck, and his combines need to run on fossil fuel,” she says. “We’re the 10th-largest economy in the world and predicted to become the eighth largest partly because of immigration. But we’re realistic. Even if all Canadians ceased emitting carbon we wouldn’t move the dial. A big part of our task needs to be leading the multilateral challenge.”

Sensing perhaps that I am underwhelmed, Freeland points out that Trudeau has vowed to plant 2bn trees. That sounds like a lot, although a similar number of Australian trees must surely have burnt in the past few weeks. Freeland also stresses that she does not drive a car (she is often spotted on her bike in Toronto). I realise that she has only just been handed this portfolio — some might call it a poisoned chalice — and is tiptoeing carefully. 




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