There’s an overused anecdote in Canada about how an American newspaper guy, several decades ago, declared the headline “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” the most boring one he’d ever seen. These days, however, I’d say the headline comes off less boring than implausible. When’s the last time Canada proposed any sort of initiative, worthwhile or otherwise?
The administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was caught off guard by the election of President Trump, and has not handled well the ensuing disruption of U.S.-Canadian relations. It’s a flat-footedness that has highlighted the degree to which the Canadian establishment has become complacent and unimaginative in managing this supposedly most sacred of relationships.
It’s been almost 30 years since then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed, negotiated and implemented free trade with the United States (prompting the aforementioned headline). Yet in the decades since, the Canadian interest in the U.S. relationship has consisted mostly of “playing within the boundaries of that big change,” as Gabe Batstone of the Canadian American Business Council told me.
Part of this is no doubt because of the unwillingness of successive Ottawa administrations to risk the political consequences of inflaming Canadian anti-Americanism. Canadians may happily inhabit a broadly Americanized culture and economy, but it’s not difficult to provoke patriotic resentment of this status quo.
Notions that having deep economic integration with the United States represents some sort of national character flaw remain mainstream. Pundits and public alike wax on with fantastical ideas that Canada could lessen this dependence on the United States if only the will was there. This resentful conventional wisdom warps the national understanding of the degree to which Canada’s wealth, safety and general pleasantness is a byproduct of its American integration, as opposed to being organic national virtues.
Trump’s aluminum and steel tariffs have given Canada a fresh excuse to indulge in the worst excess of such delusions. There’s nothing to call the recent bevy of absurd editorials that have filled major Canadian news outlets — from an Ottawa Citizen column on “why Canada should get nuclear weapons” to Maclean’s “case for invading America,” to any number of broader media provocations for a boycott of American goods and vacations —- beyond manifestations of a Canadian Napoleon complex.
Even supposedly serious voices propose strategies to circumvent Trump that pander to patriotic fantasies. Retaliatory tariffs have been endorsed by all parties. Conservative politicians have argued that their partisan agenda of tax cuts and energy deregulation will offset Washington’s damage. The case for building new pipelines, or signing trade deals with Asia or Europe, or lowering barriers of commerce among Canada’s provinces, or making enormous new investments in the Canadian military have all supposedly become “more obvious than ever.”
No Canadian dares make the case for the one thing that would objectively provide long-term relief: surrendering in Trump’s trade war before it begins.
As he stood beside the Canadian prime minister at the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, Trump joked to reporters that “Justin has agreed to cut all tariffs, and all trade barriers between Canada and the United States, so I’m very happy about that.” It was supposed to be funny, because that’s not Trudeau’s position.
But what if it was?
Ottawa could dramatically call the president’s bluff and announce its intention to embrace unqualified free trade with the United States, abolishing all existing tariffs, duties, subsidies, quotas and regulations employed to discriminate against U.S. goods in favor of Canadian ones. Canada could eliminate its astronomical dairy tariffs, adopt the U.S. understanding that yes, its softwood lumber is subsidized, and dismantle all protectionist measures aimed at keeping various American no-no industries —- telecommunications and banking chief among them — out of Canada on spurious pretexts of national security, or cultural sovereignty, or whatever. The ball would then be in Trump’s court to make good on one of his other G-7 musings: “No tariffs, no barriers, that’s the way it should be.”
Though it might injure Canadian pride in the short term — just as Mulroney’s deal originally did — complete free trade with the United States would impart scant hardship on Canadians themselves. All available evidence suggests one of the main things Canadians crave in life is easier, cheaper access to American goods and services. Yet such wants tend to go ignored in the politics of trade talks, which are biased toward guarding the privileges of protected industries at the expense of consumers — i.e., milk farmers over milk drinkers.
Compensation could be offered to those most disrupted, but the United States is not Mexico. Canada is not some shaky steel town. Many of Canada’s most jealously guarded firms in high finance, transportation and media employ only a privileged few, and are synonymous with wealth and unsavory government connections. The ultimate goal should be a Canadian economy properly positioned to maximize its competitive advantage in a binational, continental context, as opposed to one that invests large amounts of public money propping up redundant, noncompetitive Canadian industries for their own sake.
Honest free trade with America — not closer ties with China or Europe, nor any tweaking of domestic trade or taxes — is the only realistic plan for a long-term, prosperous Canada, immune to “every twitch and grunt” of the U.S. elephant, as the prime minister’s father so famously put it many decades ago.
To a certain class of Canadian raised on a diet of anti-American preening, nothing will seem more counterintuitive than walking toward Trump. But doing what’s right for the broader national interest sometimes means ignoring the counsel of those who possess the narrowest notions of patriotism.