Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has been at the forefront of the government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and for her, this crisis hits a little differently.
On Feb. 24, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale military attack on the sovereign country, Canadians watching a government update about the situation got a hint of her personal heritage.
“To my own Ukrainian-Canadian community, let me say this: Now is the time for us to be strong as we support our friends and family in Ukraine,” she said, later speaking in Ukrainian.
Freeland’s maternal grandparents were both born in Ukraine and her mother helped draft the country’s constitution when it gained independence in 1991.
Between 1988 and 1989, she studied at the University of Kyiv as an exchange student while earning a degree at Harvard University. There, she caught the attention of the Soviet Union’s KGB for her pro-democracy, pro-Ukrainian independence activism.
In the 1900s, she launched her journalism career in Ukraine and later became Moscow’s bureau chief for the Financial Times.
Along with other Canadian politicians and diplomats, Freeland is barred from entering Russia after the West applied sanctions for its annexation of Crimea.
When CTVNews.ca reached out to the minister’s office requesting background material and a statement about how her personal connections impact her work on the file, staff referenced comments she made on Thursday that the focus of Canadians should be centred on the Ukrainian people.
“What we are seeing across Ukraine is a very, very determined people who have decided they’re willing to fight and die for democracy and for freedom. […] Seeing the Ukrainians stand up and say, ‘We may be smaller than you, you may have a fierce army that is bigger than ours, but we will not submit’”,” she said during a press conference.
I think that is what has been transformative, and I’m very proud of them. I’m very inspired by the people of Ukraine, and I think the whole world is.ʺ
Retired major-general David Fraser, a former NATO commander, says he commends the efforts she’s made to distance her personal background with the situation at hand.
“I got to say, she’s been pretty low key about this throughout the conflict so far and I credit her for – she could have come out very emotional, but she hasn’t. She has been more what we should expect from our deputy prime minister,” he said in an interview on CTVNews.ca.
“She’s not taken the soapbox and used it for, quite frankly, cheap political moves.”
Moving in lockstep with its allies, Canada has levied a series of economic sanctions at Russian institutions and elites – including President Vladimir Putin – for the war in Ukraine. The government has also announced shipments of lethal and non-lethal military aid to Ukraine, millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, and has closed domestic airspace and waterways to Russia.
Almost daily, Freeland has stood alongside her colleagues, unveiling incremental punitive measures as the situation escalates.
Former Conservative defence and foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay said in a statement to CTVNews.ca that it’s evident the minister is “moving mountains” within her own department and “arguably others” to expedite the government’s support.
“It’s how it should be in times like these. After a somewhat slow and measured response, the sanctions and aide packages have certainly picked up. Her willingness to spend political capital and embody the urgency and the motivation to deliver is very much on display in recent days,” he said.
The minister has, however, faced criticism in recent days after being photographed at a Ukrainian solidarity march in Toronto on Sunday holding a red-and-black scarf inscribed with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes.”
It was a slogan adopted by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during its congress in Nazi-occupied Poland in April 1941.
Both her office and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress suggest the questions and backlash she received about it online is linked to a pattern of Russian-backed disinformation targeting members of the Ukrainian community.
Similar criticism has emerged in the past as Freeland’s grandfather was the editor of a Nazi propaganda newspaper in occupied Poland during the Second World War.
One former diplomat told CTVNews.ca, it’s important to acknowledge Freeland’s solidarity with Ukraine and her bold rhetoric targeting Putin has long been infused in her work in previous portfolios, namely as foreign minister.
On June 6, 2017 she delivered an impassioned speech in the House of Commons laying out Canada’s foreign policy priorities and underlining the importance of preserving a global order “based on rules.”
She noted how the sanctity of borders is under threat and specifically called out the “illegal seizure” of Ukrainian territory by Russia as something Canada “can’t accept or ignore.”
Now, after a second invasion, Freeland’s rhetoric has intensified.
“History will judge President Putin as harshly as the world condemns him today. Today, he cements his place in the ranks of the reviled European dictators who caused such carnage in the 20th century. The response by Canada and our allies will be swift and it will bite,” she said on Feb. 24.
As Fraser put it, she has and always will be a “vehement pit bull against the Russians.”
With files from The Canadian Press