Election Uncertainty

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Ottawa’s silence necessary during U.S. election uncertainty: democracy experts

Trump claimed a triumph early Wednesday even though mail-in votes were still being legally counted, including in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, a process that could take days.While the temptation to speak out in defence of the apparent breach of democratically accepted electoral norms might have been overwhelming, the Trudeau government has held its tongue.

Some analysts, who have seen the fallout of authoritarianism first-hand, say silence was the only option.”Canada and other allies need to stay quiet, except for statements supportive of an orderly democratic process,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian who spent two years in Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.

“What happens in these next hours and days is being watched very carefully around the world by legitimately elected leaders, dictators and coup leaders alike.”

Bociurkiw said the silence is imperative even though Trump’s remarks strike him as “something that we might have expected to come out of the mouth of someone like Vladimir Putin, who’s a master at fomenting chaos, causing confusion.”

Stephen Pomper, senior director of policy for Washington-based International Crisis Group, said it was “reckless and wrongheaded” for Trump to prematurely declare victory but the world needs to step back and wait patiently.

“Both campaigns need to create space for all votes to be counted, as do U.S. and foreign political leaders. Foreign leaders should express their support for the democratic process and hold back on any congratulations until it has run its course.”

There’s more at stake for Canada than just giving Americans the time and space to be fully count their ballots.

Any premature declaration, especially if it appears to side with Democrat Joe Biden, could create a damaging economic backlash if Trump were to eventually prevail.

The Trudeau government learned that lesson the hard way during the lengthy, and at times bitter, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Trudeau Liberals strictly enforced communication discipline that forbade any reaction to Trump’s provocative tweeting throughout the talks, including trash-talking Canadian farmers and steel producers.

When Trump imposed punitive tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, the government did publicly brand them as unfair to Canada. When Trudeau reiterated that point at the closing press conference of the 2018 G7 leaders’ summit he was hosting in Charlevoix, Que., Trump went ballistic on Twitter on his way out, calling Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”

Last week, Trudeau telegraphed that neither he nor Canada’s top allies would be making any declarations about the U.S. vote until the will of the American voters had been settled. Appearing at a virtual meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Union Council president, he committed Canada to working with whomever Americans elected.

“The uncertainty means we continue to stay stoic, avoid any comment that will come back to bite us and continue to plan for every contingency,” said Colin Robertson, the vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a retired diplomat with extensive U.S. experience.

“The Congress will look roughly the same: a slimmer Republican Senate majority and House (with a) slightly shaved Democrat majority. This means we need to continue to work both sides of the aisle because our interests are many, and we need to be constantly reminding Americans of why we matter and why trade serves their interest as well.”

Behind the scenes, Canada and some of its Western allies are likely dreading another scenario: what if Trump picks up the phone and wants to talk before the election is settled?

It’s not a topic that the Canadian officials or any of their Western counterparts will discuss on the record.

But Bessma Momani, an international affairs specialist at the University of Waterloo, said that’s something they may have to brace for.

“A big challenge for Canada now is that Trump may want to declare victory before all votes are counted and expect allies to send in their congratulations,” she said.

That could leave Canada in a situation where “Trump will take this very personally and be punitive on trade matters.”

Regardless of how the election turns out, Americans are more divided than ever and the Canadian government’s approach must be recalibrated to reflect that, said Sarah Goldfeder, a consultant and former U.S. diplomat who served two ambassadors in Ottawa.

“This narrative that Trump was just (elected by) a lot of Americans that were, you know, stupid or mistaken, and they didn’t really mean to vote for him … that’s not actually true.”

David Jacobson, Barack Obama’s first ambassador to Canada, said Thursday his country isn’t divided based on issues, “it is divided based upon culture.”

But the fact that a record number of Americans turned out to vote shows that democracy is strong in the U.S., he said.

“The fact of the matter is in our system, we more or less get the kind of government we deserve. And we’ve got a very divided government, and I guess that’s what we deserve.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020.

The U.S. is our neighbour, yet some Canadians say it’s never felt so far away


Like many Canadians, Victoria Purchase-Carter could barely sleep. Her husband, Roger, got out of bed to check the results at 2 a.m. She got out of bed at 3 a.m. to do the same. They were both up again at 5 a.m.

Come Wednesday morning, the continued uncertainty over the outcome of the U.S. election had her feeling sick to her stomach.

The Newfoundland couple are more than passive observers; they are winter snowbirds who purchased a bungalow in a mobile home park in Florida earlier this year. They’re worried about the potential for violence once the results are known and aren’t sure if they should keep or sell their vacation home.

“I’m worried about the chaos it’s going to cause throughout the country. You can see in different states, different towns and cities, they’re boarding up their businesses. It’s scary,” she said. “I can’t believe this is our next-door neighbour. This country that has always been looked up to from so many people around the world, so many other countries.

“It’s in turmoil.”

She wasn’t alone in describing a nagging, palpable sense of dread, a feeling that no matter what the outcome — whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden finally wins — Canada has never felt so apart from the U.S.

“I think this is an anxious time for Canadians, waiting to see if the Americans have done it again,” said Stephen Azzi, director of Carleton University’s graduate program in political management, earlier on Wednesday. “We thought our best friend was about to break up with that fool, but now it looks like the two of them might stay together.”

Academics pointed out this contentious 2020 election isn’t the first time that Canadians have felt out of step with their American counterparts. Think back to the late 1960s, Azzi said.


“There was a real sense of separation between Canada and the United States. The Americans were engaged in a war in Vietnam, police were attacking peaceful civil rights protesters, and race riots were erupting in American cities. To many Canadians, the United States seemed to represent violence. It seems to me that there are a lot of similarities between then and now.”

Margaret MacMillan, a history professor at the University of Toronto, goes even further back in time.

“It’s a cliché, but there’s something in it: We were founded in a different way. The U.S. was founded in an act of rebellion. In Canada, we were founded as a protection against what we saw as rather worrying in the U.S. We’ve always had a different attitude toward government. We see it as something that is necessary and useful, whereas a lot of Americans treat it with suspicion and somehow hostile to them.”

MacMillan said she was looking at polls the other day and was struck by the number of Canadians who want to keep strict border restrictions in place. (According to a Research Co. poll from September, it’s 90 per cent).

MacMillan doesn’t think the global pandemic is the only reason.

“I suspect it may be just concerns about what’s going on down there.”

There used to be an American sociologist named Seymour Lipset, she noted, who talked about how Canadian and American values were getting more and more alike.

“I think that has not been borne out. Our values are closer to Scandinavian countries in Europe on social and cultural issues,” she said. “I think we’re more aware of the separation than perhaps for a long time.”

A recent Environics Institute survey found more than three in five Canadian respondents had an unfavourable view of the U.S. The poll also found that a growing proportion of Canadians — one in 10 in the early 2000s compared to one in three today — said the two countries are becoming less alike.

Whereas a vast majority of Canadians — 89 per cent — described the U.S. as a friend in 2013, only 60 per cent said they feel that way today.

One person caught in the middle of the perceived political and cultural divide is Leanne Cusack.

The B.C. native moved to Oregon more than a decade ago to pursue graduate studies. She recently became a professor at Western Oregon University and obtained U.S. citizenship.


But the self-described “diehard Canadian” said that since the 2016 election, she and her husband have been discussing an exit strategy.

This past summer, they returned to Canada with their kids with a plan to stay six weeks. They’re still here. After the close election results, they were in no rush to return.

“No matter what the outcome is, I’m disappointed that half the States is going the way they are,” she said.

“I knew it was going to be a fight, but was definitely hoping Biden would win by more of a margin. I was hoping the polls were correct in saying he did have a bit of a lead.”

The difference between American and Canadian political culture couldn’t be more stark, she said. Just look at the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health messaging has been relatively clear and consistent in Canada compared to the U.S.

“I don’t want my kids growing up in that kind of environment. I want them to grow up in a more normal, inclusive, nice country.”

There is, of course, no denying the strong economic ties between Canada and the U.S. and the cultural influence America still has on this country, experts said.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, takes a less gloomy view of U.S.-Canada relations.

He notes the inscriptions on both sides of the Peace Arch monument that straddles the B.C.-Washington State border and celebrates 100 years of peace between the two countries.

On the U.S. side, it reads, “Children of a Common Mother.” On the Canadian side, “Brethren Dwelling Together in Unity.”