Canada's woman in Washington: Chrystia Freeland

Michel COMTE
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in a file photo taken on August 30, 2018

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken former journalist, is a combative negotiator with a clear goal: to use good relations with Washington to successfully negotiate a new North American Free Trade deal.

It hasn't always gone so well -- with US President Donald Trump threatening to cut America's northern neighbor out of the deal if it doesn't cave to his demands.

But Freeland has persisted, cutting short a European tour last week to fly to Washington to resume talks aimed at salvaging NAFTA as a three-nation pact with the United States, Mexico and Canada.

"We are looking forward to constructive conversations today," she told reporters as she headed into Wednesday's negotiations with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Throughout the talks, the Canadian minister has made a point of briefing journalists camped outside the Washington government offices where the talks are happening. She even handed out lime and raspberry-lemon-strawberry popsicles to reporters on one sweltering, late summer day.

Always smiling and stoic, the 50-year-old has become the de facto face of efforts to update the 1994 pact as her counterparts shied away from the limelight.

But she hasn't share any details of the closed-door talks -- saying she won't negotiate through the media, while taking pains not to antagonize Trump.

She recently brushed off the US president's cutting remarks about Canada, emphasizing that it was Lighthizer, not Trump, at the negotiating table.

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Freeland was a working journalist for much of her professional life.

She worked for the Financial Times of London, Canada's daily Globe and Mail and the Reuters news agency before jumping into politics.

Of Ukrainian descent, she is fluent in Slavic, in addition to English, French, Italian and Russian.

She covered the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, before moving to New York to report on American finances.

- 'Surrounded by politics' -

Trudeau and his team spent months trying to persuade her to enter politics before she finally took the plunge in 2013, running for a seat in Toronto vacated by former Liberal leader Bob Rae.

Insiders say she and Trudeau share a global outlook, described in her best-selling 2012 book "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else."

When the Liberals took office in 2015, Freeland was appointed trade minister, and steered free trade talks with the European Union to a succesful conclusion, raising her profile.

Her parents were both lawyers who had run unsuccessfully for seats in the Alberta legislature. "I remember being surrounded by politics from the moment I was born," she told the Toronto Star in 2015.

In a cabinet shuffle two years later, the mother of three and wife of a New York Times journalist replaced Stephane Dion as foreign minister and was tasked with heading the NAFTA negotiations.

She is "an extremely strong member of the team," Trudeau's office told AFP, adding that it "made sense" to task her with overseeing Canada's most important relationship, with the United States.

Her outspokenness has endeared her to Canadians, but it has sometimes come at a cost. Her defense of women's rights in Saudi Arabia last month triggered a diplomatic row with the kingdom.

Her sharp criticism of Russia's annexation of Crimea got her banned from travel to Russia -- an unusual sanction for a G7 foreign minister.

"Love Russ lang/culture, loved my yrs in Moscow; but it's an honour to be on Putin's sanction list," she responded on Twitter.

Her political future now hinges on the outcome of the NAFTA negotiations, according to political analysts.

"If Canada wins, she'll reap the benefits, but if it fails, she will be blamed," former Dion advisor Jocelyn Coulon wrote in her book, "A selfie with Justin Trudeau."