Washington journalist Don North, a dual Canadian-American citizen who has lived and worked on both sides of the border interviewed friends and reviewed Canadian press to gauge the depth of the dispute and found both anger and humor.
By Don North
Canadians say they have been ignored so long by their U.S. neighbors that the current trade imbroglio and insults are almost refreshing, but not much. Since his inauguration President Donald Trump seemed to have had a friendly relationship with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Then Trump began making disparaging remarks about negotiations for renewal of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Then came this spring’s raising of the stakes—a 25 % tariff on steel and 10 % on aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, followed by Canada’s retaliatory tariffs on everything from ketchup to whiskey. Then Trump threatened to up the ante by imposing 25% tariffs on Canadian autos that could cost Canadians 160,000 jobs.
It was hoped the G-7 summit conference in Quebec would pour oil on troubled waters, but as one Canadian politician said, “When Trump came to Quebec he was like a bad house guest. He showed up late, left early and insulted the host.” After the President left the summit, Trudeau held a news conference in which he said, “Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we will also not be pushed around.” Trump threw a Twitter tantrum over what he claimed were “Justin’s false and dishonest statements” and his henchmen on Sunday talk shows piled on with chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow saying “Trudeau really kind of stabbed us in the back”. White House Trade advisor Peter Navarro added “there is a special place in hell for any leader who engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald Trump.”
Trudeau didn’t respond to Trump’s insults. Unlike his father Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who during a visit to Washington was called an “Ass-hole” by President Richard Nixon and answered “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”
But the negative response to Trump’s insults came hard and fast from a variety of sources. An editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper said, “Relations between two of the world’s closest allies are now at a perilous low. The fault lies entirely with Mr. Trump and his advisors. Our government has been patient with the President and his protectionist agenda. But this is getting tiresome. We are a polite people, but the President will learn, that when aroused, we don’t roll over at the request of an insulting bully no matter how big.”
And south of the border American-Canadian writer David Frum wrote in The Atlantic, “The antidote to Trump is decency. The President and his movement are empowered by ugly talk–the most effective rejoinders are factually precise and emotionally restrained.”
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders added fuel to the fire when she, in a patronizing remark, said, “We’ve been very nice to Canada for many years, and they’ve taken advantage of that.”
The Toronto Star newspaper the next day wrote in an editorial, “Canadians are accustomed to benign neglect and monumental indifference from the United States. We’re fine with that. That great American Al Capone once said, “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.” We liked it that way. But taking advantage of America? Your guy recently came for a visit, behaved like a lout, and has caused petulant mayhem ever since. Nice? Don’t talk to us about nice. We know nice. We made it an art form.”
But President Trump wasn’t finished with Canada. While speaking at a rally last week in South Carolina he included insults to Trudeau as part of his ad lib complaints “Canada, you know, Canada. Nice guy, nice guy. Prime Minister. Justin. I said, ‘Justin, what’s your problem, Justin?’ So Canada. O Canada. I love their national anthem. O Canada. I like ours better, however. So, no Canada’s great, I love Canada.”
The Toronto Star editors were not amused and wrote, “On he went, mocking, sneering and whining about trade relations between the two countries. Just another day in the life of the most disrespectful, most destructive, most dangerous administration in U.S. history.”
Many Canadians who say they’ve had it with Trump say they crave a chance to do something about it, almost anything. Mclean’s Magazine reports that a pub in Buckingham, Quebec called “La La Bistro” posted a sign in French: “In solidarity with our Canadian jobs, we suspend the sale of wines from the United States for an indefinite period of time.” Stickers reading “Produit Non Disponible” (Product Not Available) were slapped over two California wine selections on their menu.
In Ottawa, Maclean’s says labor lawyer Scott Chamberlain while shopping found himself in front of a display of oranges from the U.S. and Morocco. He picked the Moroccan produce, then decided to try to buy an entire “Trump-free” shopping cart. “It wasn’t out of anger, it was more out of solidarity,” he says. “I was really proud that people set politics aside to put a common front together to support Canadians. It was an attack on all of us.”
A combination of lagging sales and consumer boycotts forced Hudson’s Bay, Canada’s largest department stores to drop the Ivanka Trump fashion line. The company said it will phase out the Ivanka brand based on its performance. Sharon Coulter, a supporter of two boycott campaigns, “Grab Your Wallet” and “Baycott” said, “When international attention recently settled on the Trump administration for separating thousands of children from their parents after Trump imposed tariffs on Canada, that put Hudson’s Bay in the hot seat.”
The annual Fourth of July party at the American Embassy in Ottawa is usually a coveted invitation. This year Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson turned down an invitation from U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft. He said “I politely declined because I’m not happy with the direction of the American government and their constant attacks on our country.”
In Vancouver B.C., Benjamin Perrin a law professor at the University of British Columbia (my alma mater), turned down his invitation to the Fourth of July party at the U.S. Consulate. What decided him was not trade, but the reports of terrified migrant children wrenched from their parents arms. Perrin argues, “If your best friend is doing something awful you call them out on it if you’re a decent friend, you don’t cheerfully join them for drinks and pretend everything is fine.”
In their grudge against Trump, Maclean’s writes, Canadians often found embarrassed Americans hurrying to side with them. Two days after Trumps G-7 eruption a group of mayors from both sides of the border were attending the Great Lakes Initiative convention. Every time an American spoke they seemed compelled to disavow the vitriol flowing from the White House. One of the Canadian members said, “Oh, stop apologizing. We know you guys.”
Gary McNamara, Mayor of Tecumseh, Ontario, described it like cousins huddled together in mortified solidarity, while the patriarch frothed in his seat at the head of the table. “It’s almost like a family member going rogue, and they’re trying to pick up the pieces.”
Predictably American network late night TV talk shows had a ball with the war of words along the 5,000 mile Canada-U.S. border. Stephen Colbert quipped, “I guess we’ll have to put Alex Trebec in a detention camp.” Seth Meyers observed, “How do you get in a fight with Canada? It’s like holding a grudge against a Golden Retriever puppy.” Stephen Colbert: “They will not be pushed around? These are people whose idea of fun is to strap blades on their feet and punch out others on a frozen lake.”
Two public figures who have taken a lead in loud support of Prime Minister Trudeau and Canada’s trade policies are an American and a Canadian.
Few voices have been so steadfast during this breach of cross-border relations than former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, who was appointed by President Obama to serve in Ottawa 2014 through January 2017. Heyman, now a businessman, said he believes the Trump administration is determined to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and is creating an anti-Canadian narrative that will help when they pull the plug. “Never underestimate a Canadian,” he tweeted recently, “not their friendship nor their resolve when attacked.” On CBC, the Canadian National Broadcasting network, Heyman said, “It’s kind of like …you are sitting with a friend and out of the blue you punch him in the face. The wounds will heal. I think it was a line crossed and a bridge too far.”
It has been a baptism of fire for the new Canadian Foreign Minister, 49 year old Chrystia Freeland. She was a former economics journalist based in Ukraine and Moscow and stringer for The Washington Post. She speaks French, Ukraine, Russian and Italian and was placed on Putin’s sanctions list for her press reports. Freeland recently made her maiden speech in Parliament, an implicit rebuke of President Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy. Freeland’s message was that regardless of what Washington does, Ottawa will continue to act as a free-trading progressive engaged in the international community. Since named Foreign Minister she has become one of Trudeau’s most vocal supporters. She was the first Canadian politician to visit Washington after the exchange of tariffs with President Trump and spoke before Congress and made another speech just blocks from the White House before a crowd of diplomats, academics and politicians. She said, “Some Americans no longer think that world order is of any benefit even though the U.S. helped create it and helped write checks. We see this most plainly in the U.S. administration’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. They are a naked example of the U.S. putting its thumb on the scale, in violation of the very rules it helped to write.”
Last Wednesday, on the first day of the NATO conference, was the first time Trudeau and Trump encountered each other since the G-7 summit in Canada. Trudeau appeared to keep a low profile during photo ops and social gatherings seen on TV. However, they did meet briefly to talk trade and NAFTA which was described as “positive.” Trump’s ire this time was directed at the 29 NATO nations he claimed did not meet the agreed 2% of GDP on defense spending.
Although Canada recently assumed command of a new Iraq training mission and extended duty for 500 Canadian trainers in Latvia, Canada’s military spending is among the lowest in NATO at 1.3%. It is estimated Canada has fewer soldiers than the New York police department has officers. Trump’s demand that NATO nations increase military spending to 4% may lead to further acrimony with Canada.
Canadian fury at Trump notwithstanding, analysts in Canada say it’s difficult to overstate the damage bad relations with him could cause to the Canadian economy. Canada relies on the U.S. as its only neighbor, military ally, and its largest trading partner. Almost two million jobs are tied to trade with the U.S. which absorbs almost three-quarters of Canada’s exports. Trudeau is hardly a perfect politician and in recent months had plenty of pratfalls, but his defiance has achieved a national vote of renewed trust. It is no doubt a fool’s errand to ask Donald Trump to behave better than he has all his life. He will answer to history. Our civil society must answer to our better angels. The question now is will cooler heads prevail or will the backlash last, setting the tone for a new troubled era in Canada-US relations.