January 10, 2017 / 6:22 PM / 2 years ago

UPDATE 4-Canada's Freeland, Russia critic, named foreign minister

(Adds Trudeau comment, analyst’s comment on Freeland)

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland was appointed Canada’s foreign affairs minister on Tuesday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet, putting a Russia critic on the front lines of working with the incoming U.S. Trump administration.

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.

“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 the Jan. 20 inauguration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump and shortly after Trudeau’s senior staff met with Trump’s transition team.

Freeland, an author and former reporter who has been a top performer in Trudeau’s cabinet, replaced Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion but also retained the Canada-U.S. relations portfolio, including the trading relationship. The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner.

“She’s gritty, she gets work done,” said John Wright, senior fellow at pollster Angus Reid. “I think she’s a full package to be able present to the new administration ... There’s a personality there that’s not in your face, it’s not aggressive, but it certainly is assertive.”

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.

Canada’s relationship with its neighbor to the south could be tested in coming years, with Trump promising to renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement aimed at removing tariff barriers between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

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.

Moscow banned Freeland in 2014 as part of a series of retaliatory sanctions against Canadian officials, a move Freeland wrote about in an article entitled “My Ukraine, and Putin’s big lie,” in Quartz magazine in 2015.

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.

“As to how she gets along with Russia, well, she speaks fluent Russian,” he said. “We continue to stand strongly with Ukraine and ... continue to condemn in no uncertain terms the illegitimate and illegal actions of the Russians in Ukraine, in the Donbass and Crimea.”

Before running for election in the Canadian parliament, Freeland worked for Reuters, a unit of Thomson Reuters.

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 and Andrea Hopkins, Writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Howard Goller and Alan Crosby

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