Chrystia Freeland’s influence in the new Liberal minority government has been upgraded significantly with Justin Trudeau’s recent cabinet announcements.
She now serves in dual roles as deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs. Freeland will also play key leadership roles on the “agenda, results and communications” and the “economy and the environment” cabinet committees.
In addition to her new formal mandates, however, Freeland will likely have to face another ongoing problem in Canadian politics: growing resentment and anger directed at women politicians.
As deputy prime minister, Freeland is now second in command. Whether her position will be ceremonial or substantive remains to be seen. Deputy prime minister duties are determined entirely by individual prime ministers.
Since the position was created in 1977, the importance of this role has varied. Under some prime ministers, the role was substantive, under others it was symbolic and under still others it was completely absent.
Only two other women have been deputy PM
As intergovernmental affairs minister, Freeland is responsible for federal-provincial/territorial relations. She does not head a department, but leads the Intergovernmental Affairs Secretariat, located in Privy Council Office, which serves a co-ordination role for the federal government.
With only one woman premier in Canada (Caroline Cochrane of the Northwest Territories), Freeland has been given a much-needed opportunity to inject a woman’s perspective into important intergovernmental concerns of the day, such as health care, the environment and equalization.
Freeland is also being asked to clean up some of the biggest Liberal messes of the last four years. This follows a typical gendered pattern: women leaders who inherit from their male predecessors a poisoned chalice.
Inheriting Trudeau’s national unity woes
The biggest mess left to Freeland is national unity. The dramatic re-emergence of western alienation, including strong political rhetoric and a fringe separatist movement, has frayed the national politics.
Many in Alberta and Saskatchewan argue that Trudeau’s actions have crippled the oil and gas sector. Specifically, they point to the failure of the Energy East pipeline, the overhaul of infrastructure approval processes (Bill C-69, referred to by critics as the “No More Pipelines Bill”), and the “tanker ban” (Bill C-48) on the northern Pacific coast but not the Atlantic coast.
Trudeau’s comments, later retracted, about phasing out the oilsands further stoked resentments. The delays in Trans Mountain Pipeline construction, despite the government’s purchase of the project, have caused suspicion.
Rising western alienation was evident prior to the election and reflected in the 2019 election results: the Liberals dropped from 29 to just 15 seats in the West. The Liberals were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan, with veteran parliamentarian Ralph Goodale losing his seat.
Trudeau has struggled to establish effective relationships with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, neither of whom appear motivated to extend an olive branch. At best, Trudeau has failed to contain regional tensions. At worst, he has fostered it through policy, personal style and neglect.
This media framing is consistent with research that shows that women politicians are often elevated by media early in their careers or when they take on new positions. But this same research finds that women are attacked more fiercely than men when they fail to meet such high expectations.
Already, Freeland has signalled a more collaborative approach to western interests, and Moe has responded positively. Kenney also emerged from his first meeting with Freeland, aimed at finding “common ground,” to say:
“I appreciate Minister Freeland’s willingness to listen and work with us, but the measure of the prime minister’s sincerity will be swift action on these urgent issues.”
With no real policy tools in her portfolio, Freeland’s capacity to affect change is questionable. Her collaborative approach may quickly be reframed by her critics as a weakness and indicative of women’s leadership inadequacies.
A mandate accompanied by misogyny
Freeland’s new challenges are formidable, and will be even more difficult given the gendered nature of the issues she’s been tasked to address. Western alienation is tied to both male-dominated natural resource industry interests and regional identity.
Public vitriol directed at Catherine McKenna, the former environment and climate change minister, illustrates the challenges faced by women politicians who occupy positions of real power, especially when advocating for climate change policies.
Given that Freeland is now responsible for some of the most volatile files facing the country, it is highly likely that she too will face misogynistic attacks.
Without anyone from Alberta or Saskatchewan appointed to cabinet, Freeland is Trudeau’s point person in dealing with these regional tensions and economic issues. She will likely be the conduit through which western anger towards the Liberal federal government will channelled.
Like other women leaders around the world, Freeland can expect that the anger directed at her will be gendered in nature, with the goal of such attacks to punish her for being a powerful woman in politics.
Her role as deputy prime minister is likely to amplify the sexism directed at her, whether or not she assumes more power in this position.
If successful, Freeland’s efforts may bolster national unity, the economy, the environment and Canada’s relationships with the United States and Mexico. But relentless sexist attacks against Freeland could also derail progress on these issues altogether.
There is growing awareness of the need for strategies to address sexism, violence and threats of violence against women in Canadian politics.
Given Nov. 25 marked the first day of the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, now is an appropriate time for Canadians to discuss and address these issues.