OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau picked a Russia critic as the country’s new top diplomat on Tuesday to work with the incoming U.S. Trump administration and handle potentially fraught trade challenges.
Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland was appointed foreign affairs minister but also retained responsibility for the Canada-U.S. relations portfolio, including the trading relationship.
The change is part of a wider shuffle of Trudeau’s inner circle as he tries to position Canada for a new relationship with its largest trading partner and demote underperformers in his 14-month-old Liberal government.
Canada’s relationship with its neighbour could be tested in coming years, with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump promising to renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) aimed at removing tariff barriers between Canada, Mexico and the United States.
“Obviously, the new administration to the south will present ... both opportunities and challenges, as well as a shifting global context,” Trudeau told reporters after the announcement.
The shuffle also included the promotion of a Somali-Canadian who came to Canada as a refugee to immigration minister and the departure of two of Trudeau’s most experienced ministers.
The move came ahead of Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration and shortly after Trudeau’s senior staff met with Trump’s transition team.
Freeland, who wrote a book critical of plutocrats, said her views would not create awkwardness when dealing with a Trump Cabinet that features several billionaires.
“I don’t think it’s baggage ... the new American administration’s concerns are not that different from those of our government,” she told reporters.
The shuffle was the first major change Trudeau has made to the Cabinet he appointed after leading his party to an election victory in October 2015.
The appointment of Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent, to the foreign affairs file could be thorny as she has been a harsh critic of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president whom Trump has repeatedly praised.
“We have some tough things coming up with Russia,” said John Wright, senior fellow at pollster Angus Reid, citing Arctic sovereignty as one potential conflict. “I think it’s a good thing that (Freeland) is tough.”
Moscow banned Freeland in 2014 as part of a series of retaliatory sanctions against Canadian officials, a move which prompted her to tweet “It’s an honour to be on Putin’s sanction list”. In 2015, she wrote an article in Quartz magazine entitled “My Ukraine, and Putin’s big lie”.
Ottawa had earlier blacklisted many Russian officials to punish the country for its annexation of Crimea. Trudeau sidestepped a question from reporters over whether Freeland’s rocky relationship with Russia would have an impact.
Freeland, who once lived in Moscow, said whether she will be able to travel to Russia as foreign minister was not up to her.
“That’s a question for Moscow,” she said. “I am a very strong supporter of our government’s view that it is important to engage with all countries around the world, very much including Russia.”
Before running for election in the Canadian parliament, Freeland worked for Reuters, a unit of Thomson Reuters (TRI.TO).
Freeland, an author and former reporter who has been a top performer in Trudeau’s Cabinet, replaced Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion who quit active politics on Tuesday.
Immigration Minister John McCallum was named ambassador to China and was replaced by Ahmed Hussen, a Muslim who came to Canada as a teenaged refugee from war-torn Somalia.
Among other moves, Francois-Philippe Champagne, parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, was named trade minister.
Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr, Writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Sandra Maler; Editing by Howard Goller and Alan Crosby