Forever it seems, Canadians have had jitters about our relationship with the United States. Pierre Trudeau likened it to sleeping beside an elephant. “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast…one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Watching Donald Trump run America—words like “friendly and even tempered” don’t come to mind. Words like “twitch and grunt” on the other hand, seem more than a little apt, even if they were originally meant in a gentle, metaphorical sense.
If President Trump were given free rein to do all that crosses his mind in aid of a Hire America/Buy American agenda, the consequences for Canada would be grave. And so you might think Canadians are waking up scared these days, if we’re even sleeping at all.
But something’s different.
Canadians seem calm despite Trump’s belligerent threats to settle scores with Canada. When Trump says Canadians are doing “disgusting things” to America, Canadians don’t believe him. But our reaction isn’t to get angry or holler insults back. Most Canadians are free traders. And we generally think we are fair traders too. Above all else, we try to be open minded and pragmatic about our interests. If we need to give on something meaningful to Americans, we want something in return. We’ve no appetite for capitulation.
Canadians see the U.S. as a great market, but not our only market. We know prosperity depends on selling what we mine, invent, make or grow all around the world. We’ve learned how to build relationships. We know the value of patience and fair minded negotiation. Canadians know how much we need to sell to the world, even if many Americans think serving global markets is a “nice to have,” not a “need to have”.
Prime Minister Trudeau will feel plenty of heat to limit economic harm to Canada from Trump protectionism. But he’ll also be pushed hard to stand up for Canada—and if all else fails, to retaliate.
Here again, something might be different today.
In the past, diplomacy seemed like the only logical path forward. It didn’t always work perfectly, but it worked. But in a world where aggression is the new normal, Canada may need a more aggressive approach than we’ve been willing to consider in the past.
It was striking to see New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, no friend of Donald Trump, endorse the President’s attack on Canada’s dairy policies. New York sells $12 billion worth of goods and services to Canada. Canadians visit New York more than five million times a year, spending $1.6 billion as tourists. If Senator Schumer feels no risk in taking a cheap shot at Canada, Canada must find a way to make him to think twice about that.
Florida matters in U.S. Presidential elections. It welcomes four million Canadian visits a year and about $5 billion in Canadian vacation spending. Did Trump Florida voters want him to poison the relationship with Canadians—over some $136 million in Canadian lumber that ends up in Florida construction?
And what of Wisconsin, supposedly the victim of Canada’s “disgusting” behaviour? Canada buys almost a third of what Wisconsin exports, more than $6.6 billion worth of goods and services to us. Just as a matter of business common sense, it shouldn’t feel risk-free to insult your biggest customer this way.
Trump spends a lot of time saying Americans should buy from Americans. He spends a lot of time saying the rest of the world should buy American too. Calling your biggest trading partner “disgusting” for taking lawful action to favour its domestic interests is—what’s a gentle word—hypocritical.
The other day I heard a commentator refer to a “Trump Doctrine,” arguing that the essence of the “doctrine” was unpredictability. To burnish what’s happening with such an impressive term has an “emperor’s clothes” feel to it. Sadly, on too many days, Trump seems unpredictable for sure—but unguided and unprincipled too.
Bruce Anderson has been a prominent pollster, communications counsellor and political analyst in Canada for many years. Earlier in his career, he worked on election campaigns for both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, but does not work for any political party now. For several years he was a regular member of CBC’s popular At Issue panel. He is the chairman of Abacus Data and Summa Communications. He wishes readers to know that one of his daughters is director of communications to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.