12 Days of Feminists: Chrystia Freeland

This year, we're recognizing the women who showed up, raised their voices and fought for change. Here, Maureen Halushak celebrates Canada's minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland

A photo of Chrystia Freland in a red boatneck dress, holding a microphone

(Photo: Getty; photo illustration: Joel Louzado)

Last September, legendary editrix Tina Brown brought her star-studded Women in the World summit to Toronto, with a lineup that included Amber Tamblyn, Mira Sorvino and Justin Trudeau. The only guest to receive a standing ovation that day? Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs.

At the time, Freeland was on a short break from a “very intense” phase of negotiations for the 24-year-old trade agreement formerly known as NAFTA—and regardless of what you think of the eventual outcome, I think we can all agree that dealing with Donald Trump’s Republicans is no joke. In fact, Freeland became a source of ire for the American president during the negotiations, who noted that “we don’t like [Canada’s] representative much”—something that should be considered a badge of honour.

Calling Freeland a feminist is as “d’oh!”-inducing as observing the sky is blue. Now 50, she grew up, in part, in a feminist housing co-op that her lawyer mother co-founded in Edmonton. Earlier this year, Freeland tweeted that her mother’s “passion for gender equality and social justice” has been a major inspiration in her life—and that’s obvious from the very big role she has taken within Trudeau’s gender-balanced, feminist government.

As a politician, Freeland embodies that most millennial of buzzwords—authenticity—alongside another very potent quality: star power. Yup, I’m a fangirl—alongside the New York Times (which suggested she might eventually become prime minister), the Toronto Star (which referred to her as Canada’s unofficial deputy prime minister) and the Globe and Mail (writer Margaret Wente noted that Freeland’s future “looks brighter than of any Canadian woman in politics that I can recall,” albeit in a column with the very not-bright title, “Chrystia Freeland, warrior princess.”)

One of the main reasons I love Freeland is that she doesn’t seem afraid of being herself, critics be damned—and I’d argue that this putting-it-all-out-there approach to public life is *always* riskier for women. Back in 2016, after walking away from trade talks with the European Union, Freeland was very obviously—and very unusually, as far as politicians go—emotional in front of the press, leading a Conservative critic to suggest she needed “adult supervision.”  (Of course, when a new trade agreement was signed a week later, some said Freeland’s walkout may have saved the deal.)

Then, during the traditionally black-and-navy, buttoned-up NAFTA negotiations, Freeland showed up in her signature pearls and countless iterations of colourful sheath dresses, and was also spotted in an airport wearing a t-shirt that her three kids had made for her, emblazoned with the words “Keep Calm and Negotiate NAFTA.” (In other words, she took the cheekiness of Trudeau’s socks and dialled it up about a zillion notches.)

Post-deal, Freeland celebrated  by inviting the U.S. trade representatives over for a home-cooked Alberta beef dinner. Oh, and if you think there’s something reductive about a woman negotiating a massive trade deal  and then heading home to get dinner on the table, you’re missing one of the main tenets of modern-day feminism: women contain multitudes.

Of course, while NAFTA may be Freeland’s most well-known achievement of 2018, it’s most definitely not her only one.

In June, she was named Foreign Policy‘s Diplomat of the Year and used her acceptance speech to speak out about the dangers of a society where citizens are “vulnerable to the demagogue who scapegoats the outsider, the other, whether an immigrant at home or a foreign actor.” A key player in enacting the Trudeau government’s feminist agenda, she announced the creation of a new ambassador of women, peace and security  in September 2018, as well as $25 million in funding that will “help champion feminist-based aid programs and advocate for more female participation in peacekeeping and conflict-resolution.” She made the announcement at what is believed to be the first-ever summit of female foreign affairs ministers, which she co-hosted. At the same summit, Freeland also announced that she would co-chair a global network on women, peace and security in 2020.

Lest you forget, the federal government has pledged that 95% of its foreign aid will have feminist underpinnings—supporting initiatives that encourage gender equality and female empowerment—by 2021-22, making Canada only the second country, alongside Sweden, to fully embrace this approach to aid.

“Canadians are safer and more prosperous when more of the world shares our values,” Freeland has said in regard to what is officially known as Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.  “Those values include feminism and the promotion of the rights of women and girls.”

Can we get another standing ovation?

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