For more than a year of North American trade talks, Canada’s foreign minister faced off with a president and a White House that seemed willing to say or do anything to get a better deal.
President Trump threatened the “ruination” of Canada’s economy through auto tariffs. He slapped levies on steel and aluminum. He spewed hate over Twitter at the Canadian team.
With her country’s economy on the line, Chrystia Freeland stood her ground in the talks and showed restraint, sticking to Canadian talking points and only occasionally launching into a defense of the “rules-based international order.”
Her handling of the deal, which will be signed Friday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, earned her the respect of many but drew ire from Trump himself.
The pact, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, must still be ratified by each country’s legislature. Over the course of the talks, Freeland became, for some, a symbol of the split between nationalism and liberal multilateralism — and the growing political distance between Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the United States under Trump.
To many in Ottawa, Freeland represents the best of what Canada can offer: quiet competence, a cooperative spirit and a stubborn sense of what is just.
“Canadians know we were negotiating with a gun to our head,” said Derek Burney, who served as Canadian ambassador to the United States in the run-up to NAFTA. “To the extent that credit is warranted for the result, she stands at the head of the class.”
In the wake of the tentative deal, her fellow parliamentarians voted her the “hardest working” lawmaker of the year. Even the Conservative Party of Canada praised her dedication and smarts.
Foreign Policy magazine this year named her Diplomat of the Year. “You may feel today that your size allows you to go mano a mano with your traditional adversaries and be guaranteed to win,” Freeland said at the award ceremony. “But if history tells us one thing, it is that no one nation’s preeminence is eternal.”
Not everyone is charmed.
Some Canadian conservatives have been critical of her trade tactics, seeing her focus on gender, labor and the environment as superfluous, or her rhetoric as smug.
An opposition lawmaker, Erin O’Toole, said the government’s strategy amounted to “virtue signaling.” The leader of his party, the Conservatives, accused Trudeau and Freeland’s team of “bragging” about a bad deal.
In September, Trump lashed out at the Canadian team on Twitter. “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada — we don’t like their representative very much,” he wrote.
Yet, others on his team saw her as a worthy opponent.
“Minister Freeland’s close relationship and trust with Prime Minister Trudeau allowed her style of negotiating to be tough and tireless,” U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft said in an email. “Her level of understanding NAFTA and its complicated intricacies of each country was instrumental in Canada, U.S. and Mexico reaching a deal on time.”
U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said in an email that he “respected” Freeland. “She does an amazing job for Canada, and I consider her a good friend,” he said.
She came to the negotiating table by way of a Canola farm in Peace River, Alberta, where she was born. She studied at Harvard and Oxford, and she worked as a journalist in Ukraine, Russia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. (Freeland wrote for The Washington Post as a freelance writer when she was in Ukraine.)
Her first book, “Sale of the Century,” explored crony capitalism in 1990s Russia. It was at a book party for her second book, “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” that she first met Trudeau.
Not long after, he asked her to run for an open parliamentary seat in Toronto. She ran and won.
In 2015, as Trump was barnstorming his way to the Republican primary, Trudeau’s Liberals won a majority government on a promise of “sunny ways,” or positive politics.
Freeland jumped to a cabinet position as minister of international trade and set about negotiating a trade deal with Europe. When Trump won the presidency, she was promoted to minister of foreign affairs with a bonus role as trade lead for the United States.
“She was the right person, in the right place,” said Nik Nanos, a leading Canadian public opinion pollster. “She had the right temperament in terms of the dealing with the Americans, because she’s not to be pushed around — and it’s hard not to be pushed around by the Americans when their economy is 10 times bigger.”
Freeland delivered a sweeping foreign policy address in the lead-up to the negotiations that seemed to draw a line in the sand, promising Canada would fill the void on the global stage in the face of U.S. retreat.
“Canadians understand that, as a middle power living next to the world’s only super power, Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules,” she said, addressing Parliament, “one in which might is not always right.”
The speech was prescient. In March, Trump made good on his long-standing threats to throw his weight around, using a 1962 act to level tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum on national security grounds.
Because the goal was to target Chinese overcapacity, Canada and Mexico were granted exemptions. Then, in a move that changed the tone of the talks, Trump changed course, hitting Canada and Mexico with the levies.
Trudeau and Freeland retaliated dollar for dollar.
“We will not escalate, and we will not back down,” Freeland said.
But things got worse. At a Group of Seven summit of industrialized nations in Quebec in June, Trump became enraged over a comment from Trudeau, refused to endorse the communique — a joint statement from world leaders that touched upon climate change, jobs and tariffs, among other things — and tweeted insults from his plane at the Canadian prime minister.
In late September, after fraught talks, Canada, the United States and Mexico reached a tentative deal.
To mark the occasion, Freeland invited Lighthizer and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney to her Toronto home for dinner with her family.
The Canadian ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, described the mood that night as “cordial.”
“The relationship between Lighthizer and Freeland went through some ups and downs but ended up in a positive place,” he said.
“She cooked the meal herself and clearly enjoyed entertaining. It was a roast beef. Exceptional. Alberta beef,” he continued.
“There was no USDA prime there, I’ll tell you.”