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‘The tactic has paid off:’ Freeland’s dramatic walk out didn’t imperil CETA after all

The minister of international trade arrived at the House of Commons on Monday afternoon with a prepared explanation for the “visible emotion” she had displayed the previous Friday.

“As for my visible emotion, I do take this deal very personally,” she said, referring to a hushed interview she gave to Belgian reporters after walking out of trade talks last Friday.

“I am all in for Canada when I am at the negotiating table. I was disappointed and sad, but also tough and strong. I think those are the qualities that Canadians expect in their minister.”

Gerry Ritz, her Conservative critic, nonetheless suggested she needed “adult supervision.”

A day later, Freeland responded that she was, in fact, an adult — “I am 48 years old, and I am proud of the achievements in my life, from growing up in northern Alberta to raising my three kids in Toronto today” — and that to suggest otherwise of a member of the House diminishes us all.

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Conservative International Trade critic Gerry Ritz suggested International Trade Minister Chystia Freeland needed “adult supervision” to steer the CETA deal. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Ritz then noted that Freeland had made a point of describing herself as an adult two years ago.

To which Freeland suggested that if the Conservatives were adults they’d get behind the government’s efforts to complete a free trade agreement with Europe.

It was not the most mature exchange in the history of Canadian democracy.

But at least now it looks like there might be a deal with Europe. And that might redeem Freeland’s display of “visible emotion.” If, of course, it needed to be redeemed.

Trade drama nothing new

There was a precedent for Freeland’s walk-out last Friday.

Twenty-nine years ago this fall, Simon Reisman, Canada’s lead negotiator, declared an impasse and walked away from free-trade talks with the United States. Eleven days later, there was a deal.

In that case, higher authorities eventually brought the deal to completion. In this case, it was apparently the Europeans.

When Reisman died in 2008, he was remembered as a “scrappy street fighter” who was known for his “public blowups” during the negotiations. A day before suspending the talks, he’d castigated a Toronto Star reporter during a scrum on the street (“you’re a hack!”).

Gordon Ritchie, the former public servant who worked with Reisman during those negotiations, notes that the context was different then. Reisman’s role was “to sort of offset the concern that we were kowtowing to the Americans.” He was the “son of a bitch” that Canadians were happy to have on their side.

Sticking it to the Walloons might not have resonated as well. And departing in sorrow, rather than anger, Ritchie suggests, might have made it easier for the Europeans to work things out amongst themselves.

But Ritchie also points out that, whatever her emotions, Freeland delivered a blunt message. “What she did was make the very, very tough point that if you can’t negotiate with Canada, you are no longer able to negotiate with anybody,” he says. “And she allowed the Europeans to move in and do their thing.”

Her basic position, that this was now for the Europeans to settle amongst themselves, was also seconded by other observers this week, and arguably borne out by events. “The tactic was right and the tactic has paid off,” Ritchie says, adding that “unsung” government officials should be credited for doing 99 per cent of the work with such deals.

That perhaps leaves only the question of the minister’s emoting.

Chrystia Freeland emotional after Canada-EU trade deal talks collapse1:33

Ritchie links that to a “touchy-feely” era of politics driven by media demands for emotional displays.

Despite appearances, politicians are human

Ritz described Freeland’s actions as a “meltdown” and a “tantrum,” while another Conservative MP, Chris Warkentin, said we had seen a minister “throwing a fit … and then breaking down.”

Conservative House leader Candice Bergen wondered if the government was intentionally trying to look “weak and inept” in order to scuttle the deal. 

There might’ve been less room for criticism if she had broken off talks and not seemed choked-up and personally frustrated by the turn of events. But there were those who heard sexism in some of the criticism.

It was at least interesting to see a politician displaying human emotions (as fraught as it might be to ever assume that a politician’s displays of emotion are not somehow calculated, but presuming that Freeland is not an exceptionally good actress). Though it is easy to forget, politicians are humans. And it is easy to imagine that a human in Freeland’s situation might’ve been tired, frustrated, personally disappointed and eager to get home and see her children. 

But there is rather little precedent for such emoting, maybe the closest example being Hillary Clinton’s tearing-up before the New Hampshire primary in 2008. Politicians periodically choke up or shed a tear when a tragedy or loss is at issue, but otherwise emotions are limited.

Of course, a politician’s freedom to indulge in human frailty should also be limited: they are elected representatives and professionals with responsibilities for the national interest. Indeed, if ministers start breaking down every few weeks, it might be time to worry. Otherwise, we might forgive the odd glimpse of vulnerability.

Maybe Freeland’s dramatic walk-out helped move things along. Maybe a deal would have been completed regardless. Either way, her visible emotions seem not to have prevented it.

Presumably she will be visibly happy at the signing ceremony.