Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reshuffled his cabinet on Tuesday, naming free trade champion and fierce Kremlin critic Chrystia Freeland as the country’s top diplomat.
The move comes ahead of the January 20 inauguration of US president-elect Donald Trump, whose opposition to trade deals and open admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin stand in stark contrast to the positions of previous US administrations.
Freeland, who helped reanimate the free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union last year as international trade minister, will replace veteran Liberal politician Stephane Dion as minister of foreign affairs.
Dion announced Tuesday that he is quitting politics. CBC News reported that Trudeau offered Dion the position of Canada’s ambassador to Germany and the European Union, but he has not indicated whether he will accept.
“The honourable Stephane Dion has served his country in many different roles over the last 21 years with integrity and a fierce love of Canada,” Trudeau said in a statement.
“I know I will be able to continue to count on his wisdom and his tireless service,” Trudeau added.
Freeland’s priority as foreign affairs minister will be navigating Canada’s relationship with the United States, its largest trade and security partner, as protectionist sentiments take root in Washington.
Trump has vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico or tear it up completely if he can’t get better terms for the United States.
About 75 per cent of Canadian exports go to the US.
Freeland’s success in overcoming last-minute hurdles to signing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the EU and her mastery of the international trade file are seen as valuable experience in future relations with the incoming Trump administration.
Trudeau announced that Freeland retains the Canada-US relations file, including trade relations, in her new capacity.
Quebec MP François-Philippe Champagne, a businessman, lawyer, and international trade specialist, takes over from Freeland as Canada’s international trade minister.
The appointment of Freeland, a former journalist and expert on Russia and Ukraine, could further complicate Canada’s relations with the Kremlin.
Freeland, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin who calls herself a Ukrainian-Canadian activist, is among 13 Canadian blacklisted politicians banned from travelling to Russia since 2014.
When asked whether her activism in Ukraine could be a hindrance in bilateral relations, Freeland responded that her knowledge of Russia and the region will be a big asset.
“I know Russia well, lived in Moscow for four years and really, really enjoyed it and I have a really deep love for the Russian language and Russian culture,” Freeland told reporters in Ottawa.
“And I’m a very strong supporter of our government’s view that it is important to engage with all countries.”
Freeland added that it was up to the Kremlin to lift the ban on her travelling to Russia.
“We hope that the Canadian government will follow its stated intention to further re-engage with Russia in areas of common interest,” said Kirill Kalinin, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Canada.
In other cabinet changes announced Tuesday, former Immigration Minister John McCallum, a veteran politician who spearheaded Ottawa’s successful campaign to bring nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, will also leave politics to serve as Canada’s ambassador in China.
“The Canada-China relationship will be well served by such a strong presence from our government,” Trudeau said.
McCallum will be replaced by Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s first-ever MP of Somali descent and a rising star in Trudeau’s Liberal government.