Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, front, leaves a news conference after touring Tree Island Steel, in Richmond, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, front, leaves a news conference after touring Tree Island Steel, in Richmond, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

NAFTA drama earns Chrystia Freeland CP’s Business Newsmaker of 2018

That white-knuckle ride in 2018 has earned Freeland the title of Canada’s business news maker of the year.

There will be drama.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took pains to predict that in a lengthy August 2017 speech that spelled out Canada’s goals at the start of the North American Free Trade Agreement talks with Mexico and the volatile Trump administration.

“I chose my words really carefully because you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to anticipate that there would be moments of drama,” Freeland recalled in an interview.

“We knew there would be moments where we had to fasten our seatbelts, and I think what was important was to be mentally prepared for those moments, and not to be knocked off course by them.”

Ultimately, Canada’s foreign minister led the country’s efforts to salvage a new North American free trade deal. That white-knuckle ride earned Freeland the title of Canada’s Business Newsmaker of the Year for 2018.

She was the runaway choice of 81 per cent of editors surveyed by The Canadian Press. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was second with nearly 10 per cent.

Jeff Labow, an editor with the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, said Freeland “undoubtedly kept her cool amid all the Trump tweeting, lying, changing his direction and ended up with a deal that can be lived with.”

Hugo Fontaine, business editor of La Presse, said Freeland was the “face and the voice” of the Canadian negotiating team.

Read more: Freeland says corners could not be cut with U.S. arrest request of Huawei exec

Read more: Canada led joint G7 statement condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine: Freeland

Freeland led a spasmodic negotiation that was coloured by the personal insults U.S. President Donald Trump hurled at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and, ultimately, at her. But Freeland said she was never shaken from her “core conviction” — “what I truly felt from the minute that the president was elected” — that a deal on NAFTA was possible.

“One of our colleagues said to me that somehow I seemed always to be a little bit serene. I wouldn’t say I was serene, but I was always confident.”

Freeland was blindsided when Mexico and the U.S. reached a side deal in August, threatening to sideline Canada unless it joined by the end of September. Freeland cut short a three-country European trip and diverted to Washington where she would spend the better part of the next month on the turf of her American counterpart, United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Trump had already injected an unprecedented level of drama into the talks. There was his ever-present threat to rip up NAFTA, his post-G7 insults calling Trudeau “very dishonest and weak,” his frequent broadsides against Canadian farmers and supply management. He imposed punishing tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum and swung a Sword of Damocles threatening to add a 25 per cent tax on all Canadian autos entering the U.S.

In late September, days before the U.S.-imposed deadline, Trump told a freewheeling news conference that he was “very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wasn’t surprised to hear complaints about Canada’s negotiating team, led by Freeland.

“When you’re in a tough negotiation and the other guy complains about the quality of your negotiators, or how tough your negotiators are, that’s not a reason you should be changing your negotiator,” the prime minister said in an interview.

“That’s a reason to buy your negotiator a beer at the end of the day.”

At the time, Freeland held her powder.

Looking back, Freeland said she laid down some markers for herself, and for Canada, early on. She began making preparations for NAFTA as soon as Trump was elected — two months before her promotion from the trade minister’s job to a retooled foreign affairs portfolio that put her in charge of Canada-U.S. trade.

Trump may have had the Art of the Deal, but Freeland had Steve Verheul, Canada’s chief negotiator. Freeland and Verheul played hardball together to nail down the final version of the Canada-EU trade deal in late 2016, travelling to the nether regions of Belgium to stare down a restive constituency known as the Walloons, who were threatening to veto seven years of negotiations with a Byzantine set of constitutional powers.

Heading into NAFTA, Verheul told Freeland they had to remember an important lesson they had learned. “The worst thing in a trade negotiation is to have a weak or uncertain counterparty because then you can’t get a deal,” the minister recalled. “What you actually really want at the other side of the table is someone who is really smart. Because then, at the end of the day, they will be able, together with you, to identify that win-win landing zone.”

Freeland calls herself an “economic determinist.” That boils down to: “if something makes economic sense, it tends to happen.”

So Freeland kept her focus on Lighthizer. The strapping septuagenarian may share Trump’s protectionist ideology, but he was divorced from the drama of his president’s bluster.

“Bob, at the end of the day if you made a logical case to him, a logical case about why something was in his interest to agree to, he would understand that.”

To this day, Freeland said there are things that she and Lighthizer still disagree on.

“But he is a real pro and it became clear to me, I would say pretty early on, that notwithstanding the very great, great differences in our starting positions that he was a guy we would ultimately be able to do a deal with.”

Late in the evening of Sept. 30, as Freeland was with the team assembled in Trudeau’s office across from Parliament Hill, Canada and the United States ended the suspense and announced their 11th hour deal.

Exactly two months later, Freeland was at the G20 summit in Argentina. She and Lighthizer, along with their Mexican counterpart, Ildefonso Guajardo, stood behind the three North American leaders as the new trade pact was formally signed.

Trump reached out to shake Freeland’s hand.

“He made a point of that, after the signing. I was always very clear that there would be moments of drama,” Freeland recalled.

That was all well and good, but she reminded herself of yet another cold, hard fact.

“I am paid in Canadian dollars. I work for the people of Canada. And the people whose interests I try, heart and soul to earn, are Canadians’, and it is their judgement to which I answer,” she said.

“That’s the judgement that matters to me.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Image/ Metro Creative Connection
County of Wetaskiwin responds to Alberta Energy Regulator’s decision on Directive 067.

On April 7, 2021 the Alberta Energy Regular (AER) announced a new edition of Directive 067.

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,516 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

Central zone has 1,849 active cases

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It’s not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he’d been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

Police are still looking for suspects, and have called in their forensics experts to help

There were six additional deaths across Alberta reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,926 since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Doses of the Moderna COVID‑19 vaccine in a freezer trailer, to be transported to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pfizer to increase vaccine deliveries in Canada as Moderna supply slashed

Moderna plans to ship 650,000 doses of its vaccine to Canada by the end of the month, instead of the expected 1.2 million

Most Read