AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
As the Freedom Convoy truckers’ protest in Canada receded in recent weeks, news coming out of Ukraine quickly replaced headlines of the Canadian government freezing the bank accounts of ordinary citizens donating small sums to the truckers and accusing Donald Trump of instigating the protest. Now, the chief architect of those draconian measures, Justin Trudeau’s deputy, Finance Minister, and presumed successor Chrystia Freeland, has set her sights on not just Vladimir Putin, but ordinary Russians. Putin’s invasion of Freeland’s ancestral Ukraine provided her with a chance to apply similar methods that she used against supporters of the Freedom Convoy to an entire country, in what Reuters described as a “personal” fight for Freeland. This “personal” war is somewhat concerning—as a look at her own ideology shows that to Freeland, “Russian” is more of a state of mind, a political culture, and an attitude toward government than it is a description of Putin and his cronies.
When Justin Trudeau announced he was invoking the Emergencies Act earlier this year in response to the truckers’ protest, it was Freeland that was standing beside him. This was appropriate, for while Trudeau has become associated with the invocation of the Act and the authoritarian crackdown which followed (even eliciting jokes that his father might have been Fidel Castro) in many ways Trudeau was merely the figurehead of the crackdown, rather than its architect. That honor goes to Freeland.
With little background in government prior to his elevation to the leadership of the Liberal party, Trudeau was always something of a desperation move by the party which more than anything else symbolizes Canada’s establishment, the so-called “Laurentian Consensus.” After two early elections, in 2019 and 2021, in which Trudeau failed to secure a majority, it was widely assumed by most observers of Canadian politics that Trudeau would never fight another election. This may explain why, while he was willing to make himself the figurehead for the Emergencies Act and the target of resentment, when it came time to actually explain the implementation of the Act, he turned the task over to his number two. It was Freeland who outlined what she saw as an international conspiracy to use foreign money to undermine the Canadian government, and she clearly was the driving force behind the financial penalties. It was also Freeland who indicated these powers might well be permanent. That should worry those disturbed by what has taken place in Canada. While Trudeau may be gone soon, Freeland will be around for some time. And if Justin Trudeau represents what “liberal elite” voters see themselves as, Freeland represents the elite itself in one person.
Freeland’s background represents the global nature of modern Western identity, at once both rejecting nationalism as passe, and placing identity above all else. On the one hand, there is the steady march of the chosen of the elite: First there was Harvard University, then Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, then two decades of foreign postings as a journalist. She went to New York for Reuters, then Eastern Europe for the Washington Post and the Economist, before becoming Moscow Bureau Chief for the Financial Times. She authored two books: Sale of the Century, about the Russian privatization process of the 1990s, and Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. She wrote on the financial and political elite for readers within the financial and political elite. Her profile was global. She married a New York Times reporter, and is on the board of the World Economic Forum. She did not return to Canada for more than two decades. Reportedly, Justin Trudeau met her at a book-signing for Plutocrats and asked her to stand for Parliament as a Liberal candidate.
Freeland had never stood for office before. She had not lived in Canada between leaving for Harvard in 1986 and returning to run for office in the 2015 election, during which she drew criticism for purchasing a $1.3 million home in Toronto to establish residency. There were similarities with Elizabeth Warren, another academic turned politician. Freeland’s book seems to echo some of Warren’s themes, suggesting the American Dream is apparently over as the economic system rewards chicinary to get ahead over entrepreneurship.
Like Warren, Freeland too had another side, closely linked with her ancestry and identity. Unlike Warren, who exaggerated elements of her Native American ancestry, Freeland’s ancestry is clearly a core part of her self-image. On her father’s side she comes from a line of Canadian farmers, including a member of Parliament. Yet it is her mother’s Ukrainian heritage which seems to define her. Her grandfather, Michael Chomiak, was a prominent Ukrainian nationalist. (Incidentally, he edited a newspaper which was outspokenly anti-Semitic and collaborated with the Nazis, something Freeland was aware of for decades. This did not stop her from alleging until 2017 that such claims were “Russian misinformation.”)
Freeland learned Ukrainian growing up, and studied abroad in the Soviet Union, where she became engaged with the Ukrainian nationalist movement, then building towards independence. She claims to have attracted the attention of the KGB, one of whose agents told the Canadian Globe and Mail that she was a “remarkable individual” who was “erudite, sociable, persistent, and inventive in achieving her goals.” Her subsequent career as a journalist in Eastern Europe and Moscow seems to have defined her worldview, the one outlined in Plutocrats.
As she describes in the book, elites run the world. And elites were either “good elites” such as herself and her friends, the sort who went to Harvard and Oxford, wrote for the New York Times or Financial Times, worried about norms and corruption, and defended “entrepreneurship.” Or they were “bad” elites, the sort of individuals who, rather than coming from Oxford or impressive pedigrees, came from the security services of former Communist states, or even were high school or college dropouts who had worked as bouncers at bars or used car salesmen before building economic empires. They used tactics such as bribery, tax evasion, and sketchy lawyers to accomplish their ends. They were Russian. The struggle in Europe was between these good “entrepreneurs” and the evil “oligarchs.”
Freeland is clearly an impressive woman, and there is no doubt extensive corruption in Russia. But the dichotomy that she wrote about, which defined not just her work, but also the worldview of figures like Obama’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power (another journalist-turned government official married to a prominent Harvard professor) is fundamentally classist. It is true that many Russian oligarchs lacked the education of Westerners, but they lacked the ability to attend schools in the West, and as Jews, a number were excluded from higher education under Communism in any case. Many did start out on the bottom in jobs such as car sales, real estate speculation, or even as bouncers at clubs, but that they made billions is a testament to their skills at capitalism. If they paid bribes someties, it was only because everyone else in their societies did as well. The main difference between an “entrepreneur” and an “oligarch”—the dichotomy that defines Freeland’s worldview—is that the former had the “class” to make their money “decently.”
This dichotomy is important in understanding the phenomenon people like Freeland paved the way for, namely Russiagate. Freeland, as Foreign Minister charged with trade relations, did not involve herself directly with pushing Russiagate, but a number of very undiplomatic speeches during Trump’s presidency made clear her sympathies. Her appointment, given her known antipathy for Russia and close links with DC insiders especially within the intelligence community, was seen as a response to Trump’s election. More importantly, her book provided a clearly defined ideological and structural explanation for a world view most of whose adherents only understood it instinctively. They were prone to associate Donald Trump with Russia and Vladimir Putin not because there was any evidence to do so, but because Donald Trump’s own background, which involved a lack of old money, an inner circle that included numerous white ethnics and Jews, not to mention real estate and casinos rather than “respectable” financial schemes such as hedge funds, all led them to associate him with the “oligarch” rather than the entrepreneur. If the Russian was bad because he was an oligarch, then Donald Trump became “Russian” because he more closely fit the profile of the Russians who built businesses during the chaotic 1990s, not the girls who glided through elite schools on money earned generations back by ancestors who ordered strikers shot.
This is also key to understanding how Freeland’s worldview applies to her current role as the architect of Canada’s new totalitarian financial crackdown, which she justified by saying, “What we are facing today is a threat to our democratic institutions.” It is a world where power is money, and there are only two types of money: “good” money of the sort promoted by “entrepreneurs” who favor good causes—such as George Soros or Mark Zuckerberg—and “bad” money, spread by dastardly actors, whether it be “right-wing billionaires” or even individual donors abroad. That Mark Zuckerberg’s $400 million in “donations” to local election authorities in heavily Democratic areas in 2020 was clearly intended to help depose a sitting president is not intervention because it is “good money” from someone who earned it “properly” and therefore “cleanly.” By contrast, donations from Americans through crowdfunding to pay for food and heating for the children of protesters in Ottawa is subversive not only if it originates with “bad” actors like Russian intelligence, or to stretch this, casino magnates or rightwing billionaires, but even if it originates with ordinary people through crowdfunding campaigns, because it serves the ends of those Freeland deems bad.
Already in 2018, Freeland made this outlook clear when she implicitly stated her agreement with Russiagate while serving as the Foreign Minister of Canada. “I think we need to be very mindful about taking care of the homefront, and in particular being very, very mindful of the ways in which there have been efforts to undermine the democratic process in other countries,” she tweeted.
Freeland’s authoritarian impulses are also not about the “truckers,” as the measures being undertaken are ones she has been in favor of for years, since before entering politics, when she was still an American. The truckers merely created an opportunity. In announcing her actions, Freeland declared, “Around the world, liberal democracies have been confronted with serious and repeated threats. We may have perhaps thought – and perhaps even hoped – that Canada would be spared.” While she did not specify them, she made no objections to those who used her book to explain Trump’s election and Brexit. As “money” is an ongoing threat, whereas the truckers are temporary, it makes sense Freeland pushed for the new financial supervisory powers under the Emergencies Act to be kept indefinitely. Because this is not about Canada or the convoy. It is about a wider global struggle in which the convoy was “one assault” and Canada but one target. As she explained on Zoom with the tone of a think tank seminar speaker, “Some of those tools we will be putting forward measures to put those tools permanently in place. The authorities of FINTRAC, I believe, do need to be expanded to cover crowdsourcing platforms and payment platforms.”
Why does this matter? Because it may well be that Justin Trudeau’s actions represent political expediency. The preponderance of evidence of the Canadian Prime Minister’s behavior, in particular his initial efforts to ignore the protests, as well as his decision to go into hiding for over a week, all point to the idea that he wished to avoid conflict and in the end cracked down because it was what his elite “liberal” voter base wanted. That is disturbing in and of itself, as a similar voter base exists in the U.S.
More terrifying, however, is that when Trudeau did act, the actions he undertook were in the hands of a woman who clearly did have a clear agenda she wished to carry out – one she had spent decades building an ideological basis for. If the decision to crack down on the truckers is Trudeau’s and based on political calculation, the nature of the response, the Emergencies Act, and the decision to transform the nature of financial freedom in Canada is Chrystia Freeland’s. It was not taken in response to “truckers” or out of concern for the loss of business or COVID restrictions. All of those were a pretext for Freeland to enact her longstanding project to draw a line in the sand between “good” and “bad” money in Western society and bring the power of the state down on the “bad” in a way Putin might have justified in 2003 against Yukos or other independent Russian firms. That is why she has talked barely at all about the protestors themselves, and extensively about her plans to extend enforcement indefinitely and her belief that Canada’s actions should act as an example.
Will they? Freeland is almost universally assumed to be Canada’s next Prime Minister. So much so, she lacks even rumored rivals within the Liberal Party. While her prospects with the general electorate may well be inflated, as both Paul Martin (PM 2003—2006) in Canada and Gordon Brown (PM 2007-2010) in the U.K. succeeded their predecessors as heir apparent only to stumble when facing the electorate, Canada’s electoral system may well allow the Liberals to maintain power while losing the popular vote 38-31.
On a wider level, if Trudeau’s decision to crack down illustrates what liberal voters in the United States wish they could have done after January 6th, if not when Trump won in 2016, Freeland’s specific crackdown illustrates the elite project that the academic circles, security agencies, and “deep state” elite with links to Silicon Valley would actually like to implement. If liberals fear a world in which their enemies are “running amok,” those elites see a world in which they have lost control, and the solution is to reestablish it. Freeland is a brilliant woman who has spent decades pondering how to do so. We are now seeing that project in action in Canada. And what the western elites are now doing to Russian oligarchs is merely an extension of the same project.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.