Chrystia Freeland’s Dilemma

In confrontations with China, Saudi Arabia, human rights abusers and Donald Trump, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has taken the moral high ground as a defender of liberal democracy. Now the SNC-Lavalin scandal and the prospect of a vicious election threaten everything she stands for. Here, she talks to Leah McLaren about the perils of lost trust, why she stands by Justin Trudeau and how politics has changed her life.

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Chrystia Freeland stands with arms crossed

Photo, Arash Moallemi

Until the start of this year, Chrystia Freeland was Justin Trudeau’s most high-profile cabinet minister. That changed in February when Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general and minister of justice, said she’d been inappropriately pressured by the prime minister and his staff over the handling of bribery and fraud charges against Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Four senior government officials have since resigned, and Wilson-Raybould and her fiercest defender, fellow former cabinet minister Jane Philpott, have been kicked out of caucus. Now Trudeau is down in the polls, threatening to sue the leader of the Opposition and undoubtedly praying for it all to miraculously disappear. It’s his first major scandal and, for a fleeting moment, it looked like it might bring down his government. Given we’re in an election year, there’s a chance it still could.

For Freeland, the SNC-Lavalin affair could not have come at a more inopportune time. She’s spent the past two-plus years in what she describes as her dream job, managing a broad portfolio that’s included the epic challenge of renegotiating NAFTA. Since then, she’s been on something of a victory lap and is a sure bet for re-election. The mess had precisely nothing to do with her, yet, at the same time, it’s called all her principles into question. Freeland has described Philpott as a personal friend and Wilson-Raybould as a “valued colleague” with whom she personally consulted. Trudeau’s predicament puts her in an impossible position. How do you defend your boss as a progressive feminist leader when he’s just fired two female party members for publicly calling him out? If you are Chrystia Freeland, you do it the way you do everything: carefully and with breathtaking self-assurance.

“For me, what happened is really sad. I think for a lot of people it is,” she told me. Freeland made a point of attending recent caucus meetings, even though they came during her preparations for a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting. “There was a widely shared feeling that trust had been broken,” she said of the scandal, in particular Wilson-Raybould’s decision to release a surreptitiously taped phone call with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick to the House of Commons justice committee. “It’s just so important to be able to speak really freely in caucus—to feel that what you are saying is really just between you and the people in the room. You can’t have a candid conversation otherwise. And I think people didn’t feel that way anymore.”

The foreign affairs minister’s unwavering support for Trudeau is no surprise to anyone who knows her well. Her belief in the man—and perhaps more crucially, in his socially progressive, economically moderate political project—is not in question. What’s fascinating is her choice of words. The day after the judicial committee hearing in which Wilson-Raybould testified, Freeland gave an interview to CBC’s Ottawa Morning saying that while she supported Trudeau, she also believed her colleague had spoken “her truth.” By logical extension, this implied that the prime minister also had his truth and that was the version she agreed with. It was, she said to me upon reflection, “a phrase Ms. Wilson-Raybould uses about herself, which is why I and other people have used it in talking about her.”

Here Freeland was taking a perilous middle road in the partisan game of politics. Instead of making up a clear, concise one-sided narrative and sticking to it, she was admitting an unspeakable, untweetable, politically unpalatable fact: Sometimes, the truth is complicated.

Freeland has repeatedly said she respects both Wilson-Raybould and Philpott but also that her faith in her boss remains unshaken. When pressed on Trudeau’s feminist credentials, she has redirected to the issues, citing the government’s record on promoting women’s reproductive rights abroad, the workplace benefits of a gender-balanced cabinet and the prime minister’s personal support for her as a working mother.

To cynical eyes this might look like an exercise in studied ambiguity, but it can also be seen as Freeland’s attempt to speak her own particular truth. At this point, no one is disputing the facts of what was said and done over the SNC-Lavalin affair. What’s in dispute is the perception of the facts. And this, for Freeland, is a crucial distinction.

A former journalist, Freeland prefers facts over feelings. She cleaves to them, inhabits them and allows them to form her world view the way Donald Trump inhabits the world of Fox News. As she told me herself, “With facts, you either cite them or you don’t, but they still exist. The laws of gravity do exist. A trading relationship is in surplus or it is not.” It was economic facts that got her through the NAFTA negotiating process. Facts were what she relied on for confidence during all those months of unrelenting pressure—millions of jobs on the line, the national economy hanging in the balance, Trump’s unhinged Twitter posturing. “It was really hard negotiating with the Americans…but because of the economic facts, I knew ultimately we’d get there.”

However, in the game of politics there’s one thing even hard facts sometimes can’t compete with, and that’s a really good story. On Parliament Hill, as in history, you pick your story and you stick to it. Freeland has picked her story about Justin Trudeau, and she’s holding fast. As the campaign continues, she’s certain the facts will back her up.

***

You can actually feel the force of Chrystia Freeland’s ambition. It’s like a third party in the room (or a fourth, if you count the rotation of young, hyperefficient political aides who rarely leave her side). I’ve interviewed many smart, successful professionals, but Freeland’s drive is something else. There is a crispness in her manner but also a charming hint of chaos.

While Freeland is good with the public and has a natural ability to engage, she isn’t known for prioritizing constituency work. It’s hard to fit the community-centre barbecue circuit into your schedule when you’re negotiating trade deals and trying to save the free world. Perhaps this is why, when I visit her at her office in a downtown Toronto tower, it feels a bit like an abandoned set from a cancelled workplace drama. In the middle of the vast over-lit room sits a single potted plant and a big desk with nothing on it but a box of tissues and hand sanitizer. Outside the floor-to-ceiling window lies the city’s gloomy business district and beyond that the lake.

As we talk, it’s clear how deeply wedded Freeland is to her belief that here in Canada, things are fundamentally different (in a word, better) than basically everywhere else. She traces the current wave of political disaffection in Western countries to two major world events—the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crash—from which Canada was largely insulated. Because of this, she says, we are living in a country that is more ideologically resistant to the kind of political and economic divisions that gave rise to both Brexit and Trump. (Canada’s own burgeoning examples of grassroots anti-immigrant nationalism, and the upcoming election, will test her conviction.) It’s an optimism her critics complain verges on Pollyannaish, but Freeland insists that even in this age of uncertainty, the path for Canada is bright and clear and true.

After being elected MP for the riding of Toronto Centre in a by-election six years ago and then re-elected to the newly created riding of University–Rosedale in 2015, Freeland served first as minister of trade and then replaced Stéphane Dion in foreign affairs in 2017. During that time, she has passed landmark anticorruption legislation; aggressively called out rogue dictatorships; condemned acts of genocide, rigged election results and human rights abuses; renegotiated two crucial international trade deals; defended the rights of women on the international stage; and made a political point of offering safe haven to high-profile asylum seekers like the famed White Helmets of Syria, and Rahaf Mohammed, the teenage girl who fled her abusive family in Saudi Arabia. Broadly speaking, she’s set herself a single-minded mission: to use Canada’s influence to defend democracy on the global stage.

Crystia Freehand meets Rahaf Mohammad, four women in photo
Freeland meeting Rahaf Mohammed (centre) as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on January 12, 2019. The Saudi asylum-seeker’s case earned international attention. (Photo, The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

At the end of last September, Freeland announced she’d reached a deal for NAFTA (confusingly rebranded the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade agreement, or CUSMA). A few weeks later, she arrived at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, where she helped sign CUSMA into existence in the company of the prime minister and Donald Trump. The press conference between the two leaders was less than chummy, with the passive-aggressive use of first names and much grumbling from Trump about the “battle” of the negotiation process. Freeland, for her part, hovered above the fray, smiling her way to the bitter end like a relentlessly cheerful teacher presiding over a couple of sullen, bickering boys.

Like many highly effective people, Freeland thrives on chaos. Grace under pressure is her signature move. It’s one she executes with an almost eccentric lack of pretense—whizzing to meetings and black-tie events alike on a bicycle, sweat-wicking leggings under her ever-present uniform of a cocktail dress and pearls. Her role requires her to switch constantly between the practical reality of trade concerns and the more lofty ideals of international diplomacy. It can be a difficult, at times impossible, balance—especially when dealing with unpredictable foreign leaders. Take the controversy over a tweet last summer, expressing Freeland’s alarm at the arrest of the sister of an imprisoned Saudi activist. In a response that shocked the world, the Saudis cut all diplomatic and trade ties, and revoked the visas of thousands of Saudi students studying at Canadian universities.

It was widely rumoured that the writing of the tweet, which came from Freeland’s official account, had been a rash decision by one of her junior staff. In fact, an access to information request later revealed through government emails that it was part of a considered strategy undertaken by the minister’s office. “We take her Twitter very seriously,” says a senior member of her communications staff. Though, he admits, like everyone else, they were startled by the Saudi response. While at the time Freeland’s condemnation of the regime’s activist crackdown seemed a reckless move, she was vindicated and hailed for her courage and foresight just a few weeks later, after news broke of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

As Freeland’s friend and political mentor former prime minister Paul Martin told me, “Given the current state of world affairs, there are a number who would simply throw up their hands and retreat to the 1930s. But Chrystia’s not like that. She is a very strong advocate of international co-operation and collective action.”

The United Nations, the G7, the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank—none of these post-war political and economic institutions are without flaws in Freeland’s view, nor does she think we should take them for granted. Liberal democracy is a relatively new experiment, she says, one that was salvaged from the swamp of human history—just look at Europe before the wars. In order to avoid being sucked back into that primordial mud of tribalism and dictatorship, Freeland believes we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. “My family actually homesteaded, so I know about this,” she says, evoking a farming metaphor, one of her favourite themes. “One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my dad’s lap as he drove the breaking ploughs. And the work didn’t end there. We had to seed every spring, and fertilize and spray, and harvest every season. And then we had to do it over again. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that liberal democracy at home or the rules based international order are going to simply endure. If these are ways we want to live, we have to keep on weeding our gardens. I think, for a while, that is not something we all appreciated.”

***

If Freeland is an outlier, she comes by it naturally. Where her boss, Justin Trudeau, is a dreamy rich kid who floundered in adult life before finding politics, Freeland’s backstory is the polar opposite.

Freeland’s childhood was economically modest and intellectually rich. Her mother, Halyna Chomiak, was born in Germany and later immigrated to Western Canada, where she was one of only seven women in her law school’s 1970 graduating class. In Alberta, Halyna met and later married Don Freeland, a fellow law student and the son of a farmer. The couple soon had two daughters, whom they named after two of Halyna’s four sisters, Chrystia and Natalka. Halyna and Don took ownership of a piece of land near Peace River, a five-hour drive north of Edmonton, where they began the idealistic and back-breaking project of working the land themselves. As a child, Chrystia and her sister were bussed to the local primary school in Peace River. When she was nine, her parents separated. Halyna relocated to Edmonton, where she founded a feminist social co-op and set up home with her daughters. From then on, Freeland split her time between her father’s farm and Edmonton, where her mother practised law, held consciousness-raising meetings and was active in the Ukrainian-Canadian community.

By her own admission, Freeland was “a nerdy little girl.” She excelled at doing her homework—and still does. “I’m a big believer in the power that comes from being well-prepared,” she says. After high school she went straight to Harvard on a scholarship. She majored in Russian history and literature, and spent a formative year abroad at the University of Kyiv, just as the Communist experiment was beginning to fray.

Larry Summers, who would eventually become treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and a key economic advisor for Barack Obama, was teaching at Harvard at the time. Freeland turned up at his office one day because she had heard he’d recently been to Lithuania. “She wanted my economic assessment of the region, so we talked,” Summers says. “She struck me as very smart and purposeful.” They kept in touch over the years, and Freeland regularly sought out his advice on career matters and the economic issues of the day (she would also later ask Summers to write a monthly column when she was an editor at the Financial Times). “Compared to many people who operate at the highest levels, she shows a genuine interest in other people,” he says. He recalls being somewhat startled when, still in her 20s, she said to him, “You’ve been very helpful to me with my work. Now is there anything I can do to be helpful to you?”

After winning a Rhodes Scholarship and completing her master’s at Oxford, Freeland was hired by the Financial Times. The FT’s chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, was instantly impressed. “I don’t think I’ve ever met another person of that age with her particular combination of dynamism, maturity and intelligence,” he says. “She made quite an impact.”

In her early days at the FT she met her future husband, Graham Bowley, now an investigative reporter for the New York Times. Bowley, who’s British, grew up on a dairy farm in Leicestershire, and the two bonded over their shared rural background—an anomaly among staff at a white-collar London paper. Bowley later proposed to Freeland in a meadow on his family’s property. After she agreed, they changed into overalls and headed to the barn to do the milking.

From early on, their relationship has spanned distances: first Frankfurt and Moscow, and later the world. Freeland jokes that the Frankfurt Airport is, for her, “a really romantic spot.” Today the couple commutes from their family home in Toronto (Freeland to Ottawa and Bowley to New York). It sounds exhausting but, at this point, long-haul commuting is second nature to both.

Post-Glasnost, Freeland was tasked with heading the paper’s bureau in Moscow, where she gained a reputation as a gutsy reporter, asking questions few dared to during the post-Communist period of heady market euphoria (her first book, Sale of the Century, is about that extraordinary era in Russian history and was published to critical acclaim in 2000).

Freeland left the FT briefly in 1999 to take up a deputy-editorship at the Globe and Mail before bouncing back to the FT, where she stayed, moving up the ladder in various positions. In 2010, after what Wolf describes as “a bit of a bust-up” in the form of a demotion at the FT, she made a lateral move to global editor-at-large at Thomson Reuters digital, a job Freeland was reportedly good at but didn’t love.

Her second book, Plutocrats, about the rise of the global super-rich, was published in 2012. It garnered Freeland much critical praise and laid out an economic world view that was both a defence of classic economic liberalism and a warning on how its misapplication has led to the current wave of rising income inequality.

Justin Trudeau first met Freeland as something of a fanboy, attending a signing for Plutocrats. After winning the Liberal leadership, he spent weeks persuading her to run as a candidate in the by-election to replace former Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae. She politely and repeatedly declined. Her reason was simple: family. She has three kids, Ivan (now age nine) and Halyna and Natalka (14 and 18, respectively). Bowley had just come back from a long stint in Afghanistan for the Times.

But if Justin Trudeau has one uncanny political strength, it’s the gift of timing. When he came courting, Freeland was in a rare moment of career inertia in what had otherwise been a clear upward trajectory.

So she jumped.

While the path from journalism to politics is a perilous one lined with bitter disappointments and soiled reputations (from Michael Ignatieff to Pamela Wallin to Mike Duffy), Freeland has managed it seamlessly. One secret to her success is in her constancy. She has a rare willingness to return to a problem and unpick it, over and over again. Many of the issues that fascinated her both as a student and as a journalist (the fall of Communism followed by the rise of trickle-down economics and the eventual hollowing out of the Western middle class) continue to consume her as a politician today. The most poignant and personal of these is Russia. In 2014, Putin banned her from travelling to the region. The move was likely in retaliation for Freeland’s staunch opposition to the occupation of Crimea and her support for stiff economic sanctions.

Bill Browder, a writer and anticorruption activist, describes the ban as “a real badge of honour.” She is the only Canadian politician known to be the target of the kind of Russian interference that’s recently become a challenge for some U.S. politicians. A couple of years ago, Russian officials began trying to smear her by disseminating stories in the Canadian media and online that her grandfather, a newspaper editor in Krakow, was a Nazi collaborator (in fact, he published Nazi propaganda stories under duress during the occupation—something Freeland has long been aware of and has spoken openly about).

On the subject of fake news and election tampering, she says Russia is absolutely to blame, as are “some other players,” whom she declines to specify. The objective of these “malign actors,” she adds, is not necessarily to achieve any single specific outcome, apart from undermining democracy. “I really believe it’s to make us think, ‘Everyone is dirty. Every system is imperfect.’ The objective is to make us more polarized.”

***

The Freeland-Bowley family home is a narrow semi-detached Victorian row house near Toronto’s Summerhill subway station. When I arrived there last December, one of Freeland’s staff opened the door and told me to throw my stuff on a chair heaped with winter coats. The house looks furnished out of necessity rather than vanity, walls dotted with family photos and Ukrainian art. An enormous harvest table, scattered with a mess of books and papers, dominates the living area. A jumble of shoes and school bags overflows into the main room, where Ivan is plonking out a serviceable bit of Mozart on a stand-up piano that hasn’t recently been tuned. Freeland greets me from the sofa, where she’s perched amid a spread of documents. “I just need to listen to him practise, okay?” she says, waving me into the kitchen. I hear her give Ivan a firm-but-cheerful commentary in Ukrainian—the only language in which she speaks to her children—on his playing. As I pass, Halyna looks up from her homework and smiles.

The kitchen is cozy and student-level basic. The window looks out over a long narrow garden, littered with a cheerful array of sports equipment. A silver-haired woman in a brightly patterned sweater is wiping the counter. She introduces herself warmly as Freeland’s aunt Natalka from Winnipeg and offers me a cup of tea. Freeland and I squeeze into a small built-in breakfast nook. She wears a black cocktail dress and sips her tea. The double string of pearls rests at her throat, signalling the fact that she’ll be doing another event later—a Q&A with the New York Times chief White House correspondent at the Rotman School of Management on the University of Toronto campus.

As we talk, she pushes a plate of dainty French macarons across the table. “They’re homemade,” she says and then laughs. “By a friend, I mean. Not by me.”

During Freeland’s brief time as deputy editor of the Globe and Mail, in the early 2000s, I was a newly hired staff columnist. Although we didn’t work together directly, I remember her well. Her main job was running the Report on Business section, at the time a repository of almost exclusively conservative middle-aged white men. At 33, she was just a few years older than me and one of only a tiny handful of young female journalists in the newsroom. I would see her striding around the office in high heels and a miniskirt, sometimes with her infant daughter on her hip. She breastfed in her office and spoke to the baby in a bewildering stream of Ukrainian. In a buttoned-down environment like the Globe, she was a curiosity. As a manager, Freeland quickly developed a reputation for being demanding. She brimmed with energy and new ideas at a paper then primarily known for its unwavering resistance to change. Not everyone, to put it delicately, was a fan. On September 11, 2001, the editor-in-chief, Richard Addis, was stranded overseas, and Freeland was suddenly left in charge of the whole operation. I remember watching her, a tiny young woman in charge of a fractious newsroom on the most terrifying day in recent history, and thinking, “How does she not fly apart?”

When I tell Freeland this, she just smiles. For her, the memory of that time is clearly one of pure professional exhilaration. “I still have those front pages framed,” she says. And while 9/11 was a defining moment in her journalism career, it also incited the unforeseeable chain reaction of events that would eventually result in the daunting set of global challenges she faces today.

In 2002, after Freeland left the Globe and moved back to London to be the digital editor at the FT, her mother, Halyna, retired from law and moved to London to help raise her grandchildren so her daughter could focus on work. When the FT sent Freeland to New York to head up the U.S. bureau, her mother moved with the family. Not long after that, Halyna was diagnosed with sarcoma. She lived with Freeland and Bowley until her death 12 years ago at the age of 60. On the subject of her mother, Freeland softens. She clears her throat; the tears rise up but never quite surface. “My mom was a real feminist. She believed women should be allowed to have children and have jobs, and she wanted to support me in that.”

Freeland and Bowley muddled along with child-care arrangements for a few years after Halyna’s death. But when they moved back to Toronto and Freeland won her seat, two of her four maternal aunts—Natalka and Maria—drew up a child-care schedule. The deal was this: Whenever Parliament was in session, one of her aunts would live in her home to be with the kids so Freeland and Bowley (who is often on the road himself) were free to work and travel.

This multi-generational mucking in is something of a family tradition. Freeland herself was partially raised by her grandmother and aunts while her mother was a student. “For my mother, it was a personal decision to support me. But for my aunts, there was a political element too. It’s been a huge strain on them and their husbands and their kids. I’m really conscious of that and eternally grateful. But my aunts agreed it was an important thing to do and that they would support me to make it possible.”

By choosing politics, the main thing Freeland has given up is something she’ll never get back—family time. In 2012, her friend Carolyn Bennett, Liberal MP for Toronto–St. Paul’s, remembers being dispatched by Katie Telford, Trudeau’s campaign director during the 2015 election and current chief of staff, to keep Freeland warm on the idea of politics. “We met up, and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Chrystia, it’ll be fine. You can totally handle it with kids, etcetera.,” Bennett laughs. “She says now I was fibbing.”

Chrystia Freeland watches Trudeau, Nieto, and Trump, sign the USMCA, six people total
Freeland watching as Prime Minister Trudeau, then-Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto and U.S. president Donald Trump sign the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement, on November 30, 2018, during a G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. (Photo, The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

If Freeland was once wary of the demands of political life, since taking the job, it’s been full steam ahead. And then there’s the question of the future. On the delicate and well-worn subject of whether she aspires to one day run for the leadership of the party and become prime minister, Freeland is unsurprisingly circumspect. “I’m happy in my current job,” she says, adding that when she went into politics five years ago, she said she’d give it a decade.

But now, with Trudeau’s support wavering and the Liberal party showing fault lines, speculation over the next leader has already begun. If in October the Liberals end up with a minority government or lose power altogether, it could be Freeland’s moment to make a leadership bid.

Today, though, her job is to support the Trudeau vision. It’s a good thing they’re such a solid team. By any traditional measure, the meritocratic Freeland is far more impressive than Trudeau, a man quite literally born to the manor in which he currently resides. The prime minister lacks Freeland’s intellectual pedigree and natural eloquence, as well as her humble, rural roots. But if the PM is threatened by Freeland’s potential, he’s got a funny way of showing it. He has repeatedly used her as his ace and, even more crucially, let her take the credit for it.

Paul Martin, a man with a deep and personal understanding of the tensions that can crop up between a prime minister and an ambitious first lieutenant, says Trudeau’s promotion of Freeland is significant. “Trudeau’s support for her as she has spoken for Canada in the most important issues is a testimony to her skill, to her strength of will and to his confidence as leader,” he says.

Freeland’s provenance makes her something of a political marvel, but she’s not without weak spots as a candidate. Discussing the possibility of an upcoming photo op with her staff, I see a hairline crack in her otherwise serene public facade. She visibly stiffens, and her aide gives me a wan little smile as if to say, ‘What can you do?’ “Photo shoots,” she explains crisply, “aren’t really my thing.”

I grasp it at once: This is the bit she hates. The bit her boss is so effortlessly brilliant at. The dog-and-pony show. The hair and makeup. The earnest wardrobe discussions. The pressure to be fun. The posing and preening and willful projection of some kind of aspirational glamour or charisma that is utterly at odds with the big ideas and relentless toil that propels her forward in a constant, sleepless sprint from one end of the planet to the other. And yet, of course, it’s also inescapable. Even more inescapable, it must be said, because she’s a woman. The situation is not fair, or right, but that is the undeniable truth—as a woman in public life, Freeland can’t avoid it. But that doesn’t mean she has to like it. And she clearly does not.

As a minister, Freeland is notoriously hands-on. She insists on doing all her own research, eschews briefing notes, triple-sources every fact. It is, she admits, a reporter’s way of working. And while this sets her apart, it also presents problems. “Chrystia’s incredibly strong; she’s got great instincts and a rigorous world view,” says Dominic Barton, the former long-time head of McKinsey and Company, who has known and observed Freeland for years. “One area she could probably work on is the organizational side,” he says. “It’s important to understand how to scale yourself.”

This might be the final roadblock to her prime ministership: Freeland doesn’t scale. She’s exacting, consistent and uncompromising in her habits. But in politics, the perfect can be an enemy of the good. There’s a fine line between extreme conscientiousness and micromanagement, and Freeland likes to skate it. For her, it’s a necessity. “It’s how I develop confidence,” she says.

I ask Larry Summers, who knows a lot about running big institutions, if he thinks Freeland risks working against herself by being so uncompromising. He says it’s the right question but the wrong time. “We live in the age of authenticity,” he says. “And would you really want her to be any less authentic?”

***

The Freeland-Bowley kids like to joke that their mother is the only tiger mom in the world who’s literally never around. “They’re like, ‘No fair! We have to do all this stuff, but aren’t you supposed to be supervising us?’” Freeland says with a rueful laugh. In truth, you can see she takes family life very seriously, but she also expects her kids to fend for themselves. “I don’t know if it’s normal, but they’re pretty great about it.”

Like a typical mom, she likes to talk about the things her kids are doing, which is not to say the things they’re doing are normal. Natalka recently completed her first half-marathon and Halyna is working her way through the biographies of every U.S. president. (She’s currently on Woodrow Wilson.) During the NAFTA negotiations, Freeland and her family met for regular Sunday night dinners, in which each chapter in the trade agreement was addressed and debated in turn. Ivan insisted his mother ought to hire him as her lead negotiator—he was, she says, very insistent.

As we drink tea, Natalka wanders in from a run and pours herself a glass of tap water. She’s the picture of youth: ponytail, leggings, cheeks flushed pink, eyes dancing with mischief. Draining her glass, she says a polite hello and then speaks to her mother. Freeland introduces me, explaining how Natalka and I had actually met years before, in the Globe and Mail newsroom, when she was just a teeny, tiny baby.

The teen regards me with a deadpan gaze. “Well,” she says, “I guess that’s something you share with Vladimir Putin then, isn’t it?”

I laugh because it’s funny—and awkward. Freeland, of course, would never make a public joke about any world leader, especially Putin. But if she’s bothered by her daughter’s wisecrack, she doesn’t show it. Her face is implacable.

Despite her judiciousness, you wouldn’t accuse Freeland of being afraid to speak her mind. During the NAFTA negotiations, she participated in a panel discussion in Toronto entitled “Taking on the Tyrant,” at which she spoke freely about the rise of despotism in Western countries. Last June, while in Washington accepting her Foreign Policy Diplomat of the Year award, she gave a speech criticizing Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, which many Conservatives saw as imprudent. Freeland’s critics argue she’s more about rhetoric than results. They point to our increasingly strained foreign policy with major trading partners as evidence she’s been less than effective as a diplomat and a trade negotiator than her crusading image suggests.

Take the current debacle with China. Has Freeland’s willingness to speak out been a help or a hindrance to the interests of ordinary Canadians? She defended the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the United States’ request as vigorously as she condemned the subsequent arrest and detention of two Canadians (a former diplomat and a businessman) in China, as well as the death sentence for a Canadian indicted for drug smuggling. Her government then issued a high-risk travel advisory on China. Instead of quietly back-channelling for clemency, Freeland declared China’s actions “a threat to all countries.” Chinese government officials hit back, saying the minister “can’t help speaking without thinking.” Her Conservative critics would agree—charging that Freeland’s high-handed rhetoric has exacerbated, if not entirely created, today’s holy mess.

At the same time, in my research for this story I found even the most partisan Conservatives will grudgingly admit that as Liberals go, Freeland’s not the worst. “Trudeau’s got a lot of problems in his cabinet,” says Andrew MacDougall, former communications director to Stephen Harper, “but she’s not one of them.”

***

Freeland’s kids are starting to make noises about dinner. Aunt Natalka busies herself in the kitchen. Outside it’s dark; snow whips past the window in a thick horizontal blur. One of Freeland’s political staff orders the team an Uber while their boss bundles up. “It’s just a few blocks!” she says, heading off any objections to her cycling. A staff member runs over the details of the event as Freeland pulls on her gear. “Is there a room for me to change?” she asks. He confirms there is. She shouts goodbye to her kids and we all tumble out of the house, down the porch steps, into the blizzard.

Freeland doesn’t wait to see anyone off. Instead she jumps on her bike, pedals up the road and is swallowed by darkness.