Raney and Berdahl: Chrystia Freeland will have to navigate misogyny in her new roles

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Chrystia Freeland’s influence in the new Liberal minority government has been upgraded significantly.

She now serves in dual roles as deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs. Freeland will also play key leadership roles on the “agenda, results and communications,” and the “economy and the environment” cabinet committees.

In addition to her new formal mandates, however, Freeland will likely have to face another continuing problem in Canadian politics: growing resentment and anger directed at women politicians.

As deputy prime minister, Freeland is now second in command. Whether her position will be ceremonial or substantive remains to be seen. Deputy PM duties are determined entirely by individual prime ministers.

Since the position was created in 1977, the importance of this role has varied. Under some PMs, the role was substantive, under others it was symbolic and under still others it was completely absent.

Two other women, Liberals Sheila Copps and Anne McLellan, have held the position. Of the nine preceding deputy prime ministers, only one, Jean Chretien, has gone on to become party leader.

As intergovernmental affairs minister, Freeland is responsible for federal-provincial/territorial relations. She doesn’t head a department, but leads the Intergovernmental Affairs Secretariat, located in the Privy Council Office, which serves a co-ordination role for the government.

With only one woman premier in Canada (Caroline Cochrane of the Northwest Territories), Freeland has been given a much-needed chance to inject a woman’s perspective into important intergovernmental concerns of the day, such as health care, the environment and equalization.

Freeland is also being asked to clean up some of the biggest Liberal messes of the last four years. This follows a typical gendered pattern: women leaders who inherit from their male predecessors a poisoned chalice.

The biggest mess left to Freeland is national unity. The dramatic re-emergence of Western alienation, including strong political rhetoric and a fringe separatist movement, has frayed national politics.

Many in Alberta and Saskatchewan argue that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s actions have crippled the oil-and-gas sector. Specifically, they point to the failure of the Energy East pipeline, the overhaul of infrastructure approval processes (Bill C-69, referred to by critics as the “No More Pipelines Bill”), and the “tanker ban” (Bill C-48) on the northern Pacific coast but not the Atlantic coast.

Trudeau’s comments, later retracted, about phasing out the oilsands further stoked resentments. The delays in Trans Mountain Pipeline construction, despite the government’s purchase of the expansion project, have caused suspicion.

Rising Western alienation was evident before the election and reflected in the 2019 election results: the Liberals dropped from 29 to just 15 seats in the West. The Liberals were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan, with veteran parliamentarian Ralph Goodale losing his seat.

Trudeau has struggled to establish effective relationships with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, neither of whom appear motivated to extend an olive branch. At best, Trudeau has failed to contain regional tensions. At worst, he has fostered it through policy, personal style and neglect.

Expectations of Freeland in her dual roles are exceedingly high. She has been described as “indispensable” to Trudeau, and poised to “save the Liberals.”

This media framing is consistent with research that shows that women politicians are often elevated by media early in their careers or when they take on new positions. But this same research finds that women are attacked more fiercely than men when they fail to meet such high expectations.

Already, Freeland has signalled a more collaborative approach to Western interests, and Moe has responded positively. Kenney also emerged from his first meeting with Freeland, aimed at finding “common ground,” to say: “I appreciate Minister Freeland’s willingness to listen and work with us, but the measure of the prime minister’s sincerity will be swift action on these urgent issues.”

With no real policy tools in her portfolio, Freeland’s capacity to affect change is questionable. Her collaborative approach may quickly be reframed by critics as a weakness and indicative of women’s leadership inadequacies.