POLITICS
03/05/2019 17:38 EST | Updated 03/05/2019 17:44 EST

Chrystia Freeland Defends Trudeau As ‘Feminist’ Boss After Key Cabinet Resignations

"When it comes to working with the prime minister as a woman, I have found him to be absolutely supportive."

Ryan Remiorz/CP
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks to the media on March 5, 2019 in Longueuil, Que.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is shooting down suggestions that the resignations of two high-profile women from Justin Trudeau's cabinet undermine his claim to be a feminist leader.

"When it comes to working with the prime minister as a woman, I have found him to be absolutely supportive. He is a feminist as a prime minister and he's a feminist as a boss," Freeland told reporters in Longueuil, Que. Tuesday.

"Something that I have personally appreciated, which I think not all working mothers can say, is how unequivocally the prime minister has been supportive for me personally about the fact that I'm a mother. I really appreciate that. My kids really appreciate it."

Watch: Justin Trudeau addresses Jane Philpott's exit from his cabinet

Freeland also touted the Trudeau government's feminist approach to foreign policy, including efforts to ensure reproductive rights in developing countries.

Freeland was asked to address the fallout from Jane Philpott's decision to resign as Treasury Board president Monday. Her departure came days after former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould testified at a House of Commons justice committee.

Wilson-Raybould said she faced months of sustained pressure from Trudeau, his top aides, and senior government officials to help Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial. She quit as veterans affairs minister in January.

Philpott said in her resignation letter to the prime minister that she had "lost confidence" in how his government has responded to the SNC-Lavalin affair, and that she could not defend him publicly over the matter, as demanded by the principle of cabinet solidarity.

The Canadian Press
Liberal MPs Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott take part in a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2019.

Freeland lauded Philpott as a great colleague and a friend.

"I'm very sad she has chosen to leave the cabinet," Freeland said on Tuesday.

She also enthusiastically affirmed that Trudeau "absolutely" has her full confidence.

"It's a huge privilege for me to serve in this government, to serve as foreign minister for Canada," she said.

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Federal Conservatives have blasted Trudeau as a "fake feminist" for his alleged treatment of Wilson-Raybould and for not fully waiving solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidences to the standard she requested ahead of her stunning testimony to committee.

"This so-called feminist prime minister does not like when women tell the truth about him," Tory House Leader Candice Bergen charged in the House last week.

Last month, Trudeau said he apologized to Wilson-Raybould during a caucus meeting for not being "quick enough" to condemn anonymous criticism from party insiders that was called out as sexist.

Jati Sidhu, a Liberal backbencher from B.C., also apologized in the House last week for telling a local newspaper that he thought Wilson-Raybould couldn't "handle the stress" of serving as attorney general. Sidhu also suggested that Wilson-Raybould's father, a Kwakwaka'wakw hereditary chief, might be "pulling the strings" behind the escalating controversy.

When the Philpott news broke Monday, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who announced over the weekend that she won't run again this fall and earlier defended Wilson-Raybould online, tweeted that women in politics disrupt the status quo.

"Expect us to make correct decisions, stand for what is right and exit when values are compromised," Caesar-Chavannes said.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau also received some blowback online Monday for pointing out to a reporter that Philpott is a "close personal friend" of Wilson-Raybould's, remarks interpreted by some as a suggestion that her decision was driven by considerations other than her principles.

Liberal MPs have also pointed to the friendship between Philpott and Wilson-Raybould when asked about the matter.

Still, deputy Tory Leader Lisa Raitt — who has had headline-grabbing run-ins with Morneau in the past — tweeted that the finance minister was a "pompous mansplainer" and an "ass."

Jennifer O'Connell, the parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, fired back by accusing Raitt of twisting Morneau's words.

"Let's fight for real equality and not partisan points," she wrote.

In the face of Liberal discord, Freeland pointed to lessons learned from months of tough negotiations with the United States and Mexico that culminated in the United States-Mexico-Canada free trade deal or, as she calls it, the "new NAFTA."

"I really think the key to Canada's success in the NAFTA negotiations was that we played as a team, we played as Team Canada," she said. "And I think we succeed as a government and frankly we succeed as Canadians when we're able to play as a team."

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland hold a press conference regarding the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) at the National Press Theatre, in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2018.

She also shot down charges made by China, smarting over the extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, that the SNC-Lavalin cases exposes a double standard in Ottawa on the matter of judicial independence.

"I am absolutely confident and comfortable and clear in the conduct of Canada's international relations to assert as a source of Canada's strength that we are a rule-of-law country, that we are a country with a fully independent and impartial judiciary," she said.

'I fully support the prime minister'

Freeland, who was first elected in a 2013 byelection after being heavily recruited by Trudeau's team, is widely seen as someone who could run to replace him as Liberal leader one day.

Asked Tuesday if the scandal rocking Trudeau's government is enough to trigger a leadership review, Freeland replied, simply: "I fully support the prime minister."