Amid an escalating trade war between the U.S. and Canada—this after Donald Trump imposed tariffs on imports of aluminum and steel, and Canadian officials quickly threatened retaliation with their own set of trade restrictions—politicians of all stripes north of the border are having their say on what Ottawa’s next bold move should be.
This time, it was Regina-Lewvan MP Erin Weir, a former NDPer who identifies as a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation—his old party’s precursor and one that Weir resurrected earlier this year after being expelled from the NDP caucus over sexual harassment allegations.
During Tuesday’s Question Period, Weir took the floor, saying everyone in the House “supports the Prime Minister standing up to President Trump” and that “unlike previous American presidents, Trump has made himself vulnerable by not divesting his personal business interests.” Then, to nodding heads, including that of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, he asked: “To apply further pressure, has the government considered retaliatory sanctions targeting the Trump organization rather than the American people?”
At the other end of the room, Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland didn’t exactly reject the prospect of sanctioning Trump’s collection of companies, of which past disclosures suggest there are 144 in 25 different countries. As she’s done before, Freeland stressed that the tariffs enacted by the U.S. are “illegal” and “unjustified,” and that the national security justification offered up by the Trump administration is an insult to Canadians.
Then she added, to the approving nods of cabinet members around her: “We are now in a consultation period. We welcome ideas from all Canadians on what should and what should not be in our retaliation list.”
In an interview, Weir cited the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act—often referred to as the Sergei Magnitsky law—as an example of Canadian legislation that allows Ottawa to sanction foreign nationals engaged in corruption. “It is an interesting one, given President Trump’s alleged ties with Russia,” Weir says.
The idea of targeting the president’s family and assets in the spirit of the Magnitsky Act was first proposed by Scott Gilmore in his May 31 Maclean’s column. (And the proposal has since found an audience in the U.S.)
But the Magnitsky law primarily deals with foreigners responsible for human rights violations and allows Ottawa to impose travel bans and asset freezes, making it hard to determine whether it’s an avenue available to the federal government.
Under its list of circumstances, the act states that it can be enacted when a “foreign national has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of” acts of corruption. To be sure, Trump’s ties to Russia are still unclear and have not been proven to have abetted corruption.
Still, Weir says it’s an option that merits further consideration. “I can see how it would be seen as a radical measure, but we are confronted with a radical reality from the Trump administration,” says Weir, who is Saskatchewan’s representative on the Commons’ all-party steel caucus. “Sanctions targeting the U.S. president are certainly not something that most Canadians would want to have to contemplate, but I fear President Trump has put us in that position.”
The Magnitsky law, named after a Russian lawyer who was allowed to die behind bars by Moscow prison staff after accusing country officials of theft, came into effect last year. Two weeks after the law was passed, Freeland announced sanctions on 52 foreign nationals in Russia, Venezuela and South Sudan.
Bill Browder, an American-born financier and notable Putin critic, has been the driving force behind the various versions of the Magnitsky act now in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. Reached on Wednesday, Browder said it was “wholly inappropriate” to confuse trade and politics with the intent of the act—human rights abuse. “It has no application in this case,” Browder says. “It’s people getting emotional about stuff for good reason to be emotional about, but you can’t start using laws that aren’t meant to be used in a trade dispute.”
Whether Weir’s suggestion is taken up on remains unclear. The Foreign Affairs minister has let it be known that she’s open to ideas, but isn’t going much further. Speaking on background, a senior government official told Maclean’s: “We have clearly laid out our retaliation plan. That is our plan for now.”