Inside Story

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The elephant in the bedroom

13 July 2018

Canadians find themselves caught in an uncomfortably close relationship with Donald Trump’s America

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Keep smiling: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (right) greets US president Donald Trump at the G7 Leaders Summit on 8 June. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP

Keep smiling: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (right) greets US president Donald Trump at the G7 Leaders Summit on 8 June. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP


Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said that the Canada­–US relationship resembled a mouse sleeping with an elephant: “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” While many countries feel they have a special relationship with the United States, none is anywhere near as physically proximate and dependent as Canada. Mexico might also share a border and connections, but Canadians huddle unusually close, with around three-quarters of the population living within an hour or two’s drive of the United States.

Canadians spend a great deal of time thinking about the American elephant, but the elephant — twitching and grunting with varying intensity over the years — sometimes seems only barely aware of the mouse. A simple and consistent goal of Canadian policy-makers has been to ensure that the United States remembers Canada is there, and to avoid being accidentally crushed by the elephant as it rolls around and reacts to other global phenomena.

What marks out the Canada–US relationship is its everyday intimacy. For a small number of Canadians, border-crossing is a routine activity barely worth thinking about. For others it is less common but still unremarkable: nearly every Canadian has visited the United States at least once. Vacationing south of the border is common and affordable, especially to escape Canadian winter temperatures, and a large class of Canadian retirees/pensioners — known as “snowbirds” — keep winter homes in sunny Florida or Arizona.

Day-to-day life is largely seamless. Canada is not alone in being swamped with the symbols of American mass culture, but nowhere is the saturation higher and the brand names more alike. While hockey remains more important in Canada, sport is otherwise much the same, with professional leagues straddling the border. (Apart from gridiron football, curiously, which has a Canadian variant with slightly different rules.) Television schedules and film release dates have long been identical, but weights and measures are another matter: although Canada adopted the metric system in the 1970s, the massive American influence means most goods are still produced and sold in imperial measures, and Canadians speak a bewildering hybrid of temperatures in Celsius, weights in pounds, highway speeds in kilometres, heights in feet, and so on.

Business and economic life are closely linked, again not only at high levels but in day-to-day transactions. Proximity and road links allow even small businesses to trade across the border with comparative ease, while large enterprises have developed dense and complex links. The auto manufacturing industry in particular is hugely integrated, with components and partly assembled vehicles sometimes crisscrossing the border more than once, often on the principle of “just in time” delivery measured in hours. Livestock is shipped back and forth across the border, especially in the west, and Canadians primarily consume American-grown fruit and vegetables, except during a short summer window.

Among the most important but controversial of links are the pipelines carrying Canadian oil to the American market. The two countries’ electrical grids are also linked, allowing transfers back and forth but also creating a shared vulnerability to breakdowns and blackouts. But jobs themselves and the labour market are not as seamless as some may think, with each country maintaining often-confusing and shifting requirements, though the trend is to closer integration.

In fact, the relationship is so dominant that it is common in Canada to see “American” and “international” presented as mutually exclusive categories. Yet sovereignty remains deeply important.  Canadians can quickly reel off what makes their country different from the United States, starting with much stricter gun laws and single-payer public health care.

The memory lingers of a United States that felt a “manifest destiny” to take over the entire North American continent. The war of 1812, fought largely on Canadian soil between Britain and the United States, continues to be studied in Canadian school history classes, as do obscure nineteenth-century boundary disputes and incursions. While the threat of invasion receded more than a century ago, the threat, or reality, of American economic dominance remains potent — in fact, it is the primary fuel of modern Canadian nationalism. For years, the great worry has been that Canada might be an inadvertent casualty when the elephant rolls over in response to some unexpected stimulus.

Not surprisingly, searching for trade partners beyond the United States has been a decades-long Holy Grail of Canadian politics, with the Commonwealth, China, South America, India and the European Union featuring among the candidates. But up to three-quarters of Canadian exports (depending on the measure) continue to head straight for the American market.

This dilemma was best seen during the pivotal 1988 Canadian general election, which was fought over Conservative proposals for a free-trade agreement with the United States. The plan provoked genuine national soul-searching, with the centrist Liberals and leftist New Democrats arguing it would be the death of Canadian sovereignty, while the Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, contended it was vital not only for the expansion of the Canadian economy but also as a bulwark against rising American protectionism.

The Conservatives won and the agreement was implemented. There was less enthusiasm when the United States under George H.W. Bush proposed to include Mexico in an enlarged North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but Canada went along anyway. Canadians found themselves in the curious position of watching the 1992 US presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, targeting NAFTA by focusing exclusively on Mexico, making many of the same arguments Canadians had made against the original agreement. Still, NAFTA was implemented under Clinton, and Canada’s Liberals came to power under Jean Chrétien and recognised its inevitability as well.

Since then, Canada–US trade relations have become a steadily less politically charged issue within Canada. The more crucial concern has been the “thickening of the border” by US authorities, especially the post-9/11 requirements for passports for anyone entering the United States. Yet this, too, has been weathered.

One of the strangest twitches and grunts has been the ongoing issue of the bridges between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Separated by the St Clair River and the Great Lakes, the cities are linked by one tunnel and the century-old Ambassador Bridge, which alone carries approximately a quarter of all Canada–US trade and, curiously, is privately owned by a ninety-one-year-old American, Matty Moroun. The Canadian government has long sought to reduce this reliance with a second crossing but US federal and state cooperation was blocked by Moroun’s aggressive lobbying. Only after years of negotiation and a guarantee that all costs would be covered by Canadian taxpayers was a new crossing approved and named, though construction has yet to begin on the Gordie Howe Bridge (named after a Canadian-born hockey player who played a starry American career in Detroit).

Over time, NAFTA and the trade relationship in general became highly institutionalised, dominated by technocratic specialists and occasional absurdities like the Ambassador Bridge. Relations also resisted easy political categorisation. While Canadians are more supportive of Democratic presidents, Republican administrations have usually been more trade-friendly. Barack Obama was wildly popular in Canada but he resisted expansion of the Keystone pipeline, which takes Canadian oil through the American Midwest (opposed by many Canadians as well on the same environmental grounds used by Obama), and his administration continued ongoing disputes over Canadian softwood lumber and other sectoral issues. But these were all minor blemishes on the overall relationship, which seemed as stable and mature as ever.


And then came Donald Trump, the man who has upset the world order in many ways. Perhaps no country is more affected by his presidency — and more surprised to be affected — than Canada.

Trump’s success in the presidential campaign left Canadians as slack-jawed as the rest of the world, though not especially alarmed. Surely this was just another strange twitch of the elephant. Canadians took particular note of Trump’s criticisms of NAFTA, but much of the rhetoric sounded familiar from 1992. They generally assumed that Trump was focused exclusively on tensions with Mexico and, like most American politicians, had given little or no thought to Canadian trade and the relationship more broadly. Most reasonably believed that Canada’s mission, while challenging, was the usual one — to avoid being an accidental casualty and to ensure continued access to the vital American market.

Still, prime minister Justin Trudeau took no chances. Ten days before Trump’s inauguration, he unceremoniously fired his foreign minister, the dignified and cerebral Stéphane Dion, replacing him with international trade minister Chrystia Freeland. A former journalist who once wrote a bestseller about egotistic billionaires, she had a reputation for direct talk — exactly the type of person who could speak Trumpian. Other “Trump whisperers” were recruited, notably former prime minister Mulroney, long criticised for being too admiring and chummy with American elites. Suddenly that quality was prized in a man who claimed acquaintance with Trump and other members of his cabinet.

Most importantly, Trudeau himself made a somewhat demeaning pilgrimage to Washington. Going back to John F. Kennedy, an American president’s first foreign trip has nearly always been to Ottawa (a tradition broken by George W. Bush, who went to Mexico first). Trudeau took no chances and booked himself the other way, flying in to call at the White House a few weeks into the Trump administration. A pleasant day was passed, with Trudeau studiously avoiding any hint of controversy. A Canada–United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders had been hurriedly created to allow its first session to be held in the White House with Ivanka Trump. The trip was seen as a rousing success, evidence that Canada could still manage the American relationship and wait out the Trump storm.

Confidence fell as the aggressive and erratic nature of the new administration became clear. Trump triggered his talks on NAFTA, and Canada was at first tempted to take up an American offer to throw Mexico under the bus and negotiate bilaterally, but quickly realised it would be unwise to succumb to American divide-and-conquer tactics. And American demands — reflecting Trump’s championing of trade wars in all directions — were far tougher than expected. The White House targeted the dispute resolution mechanism that had been key to the original Canada–US trade deal. It wanted big changes to automobile manufacturing tariffs and content rules, upsetting agreements first institutionalised back in 1965. It also targeted Canada’s least defensible carve-out — its highly protected dairy sector (which has also attracted Australian and New Zealand scorn), centred on the pivotal election battleground of Quebec.

Still, Canada was game. Foreign minister Freeland travelled frequently to Washington and did her best to remain unflappable and optimistic; Justin Trudeau stayed above the fray. An individual possessing both natural charm and what can only be termed royal jelly, Trudeau showed an amazing tolerance for Trump’s inanity, avoiding direct criticism and keeping a tight lid on his government and party. The opposition parties generally played along, knowing the critical importance of trade and having no better ideas. The Conservatives raised feeble criticisms, seemingly out of obligation. The left-wing New Democratic Party, long a champion of Canadian protectionism but completely unequipped to deal with the same attitudes on the American side, found it had little to say. Interest groups, business associations and trade unions flocked around the NAFTA talks with close to a united front.

It was still difficult to believe that this was not the same old game of managing the elephant to avoid collateral damage. Surely, if they were given enough evidence and logic, the Americans would see how Canada was deserving of exemptions because of the deep intertwining of the two economies. Surely patient diplomacy and patented Canadian niceness would work if they were spread widely enough.

Canadian officials lobbied carefully and widely with members of Congress, state governments and seemingly every government official and interest group in Washington. A small glimmer emerged when Canada, Mexico and the European Union were temporarily exempted in March this year from Trump’s import duties on steel and aluminium. It seemed like good sense would prevail. Freeland and her diplomats did their best to keep their chins up through many gruelling sessions with American negotiators, while Trudeau gamely continued to express great faith in his friend in the White House.


The moment of truth came in May when the United States announced that the steel and aluminium tariffs would apply to Canada after all, on the grounds of “national security.” The tariffs themselves were chilling for Canadian industry, but the evocation of “national security” was especially galling. Trudeau’s cool equanimity finally broke as he declared this to be “insulting and unacceptable.” In a huffy 25 May phone call, he pressed Trump to explain his reasoning, and Trump unhelpfully mentioned that British soldiers based in Canada had burned down the White House during the war of 1812. In consultation with her EU counterparts, foreign minister Freeland began preparing an eclectic list of counter-tariffs tied closely to key Trump-supporting states and districts — most notably a tariff on bourbon from Kentucky, the home state of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Even worse was the strange G7 summit in June, hosted by Canada. (Why is Canada in the G7, given it has much the smallest population of any member country? Because the United States under Gerald Ford wanted a sympathetic ally and pushed for its inclusion.) Trump made a short and chaotic appearance, missing the final press conference because he had departed to Singapore to meet Kim Jong-un. Addressing journalists, Trudeau affirmed that Canada was reluctantly preparing counter-tariffs and said, in what passes for fighting words in Canada, that “Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around.”

Trump and his officials erupted, using words never before seen in Canada–US relations. Trump tweeted: “PM Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, ‘US Tariffs were kind of insulting’ and he ‘will not be pushed around,’ Very dishonest & weak!” His chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow called Trudeau’s news conference a “betrayal,” adding, “He stabbed us in the back.” And Peter Navarro, a trade adviser for Trump, added, “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back… And that’s what bad faith Justin Trudeau did with that stunt press conference. That’s what weak, dishonest Justin Trudeau did.” (Navarro later withdrew his comments as “inappropriate.”)

It’s true that John F. Kennedy privately referred to John Diefenbaker (Canada’s prime minister, 1957–63) as a “boring son-of-a-bitch.” And, yes, Lyndon Johnson physically grabbed Lester Pearson after the latter’s public criticism of the Vietnam war and said, “You pissed on my rug!” And the Watergate tapes did include a reference by Richard Nixon to “that asshole [Pierre] Trudeau.” But never had modern Canada–US relations seen acrimony like this.

Despite a century of closely watching the elephant’s twitches and grunts, Canada has little experience dealing with an aggressive United States. Its approach has always been to raise awareness rather than engage in active combat. It is not alone in being thoroughly baffled and unable to conduct coherent business with the Trump administration. But the deep, dense, intimate relationship has deteriorated like no other, and continues to deteriorate with alarming speed and no end in sight.

The shared border and the similar character of the two societies mean that relations will survive the Age of Trump. The only question is how much economic damage will be wrought in the meantime. Most worrisome for Canadians is the prospect of major new auto tariffs, which could have a devastating effect on the southern Ontario manufacturing sector and its cross-border networks, possibly making the Gordie Howe Bridge irrelevant. The Canadian government has prepared a financial support package for steel manufacturers but is unlikely to extend this to other industries. The Holy Grail of trade diversification continues but with no prospects in sight.

At a popular level there are widespread calls to boycott American products and trips to the United States, but the relationship is so widespread and interdependent, and the alternatives so few, that this is unlikely to have much effect. The Trudeau government seems to have run out of ideas and no others are forthcoming. The elephant is stampeding and the mouse is alarmed. ●

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