America’s political divisiveness a concern for Canada, but American protectionism a challenge no matter who is in office say MPs, experts
Members of Parliament and experts on the Canada-U.S. relationship are not inclined to entertain the thought of second term for Donald Trump as president of the United States—at least not yet.
The U.S. is a “nation divided,” but both the Democrats and the Republicans have protectionist tendencies that pose economic and political challenges to Canada, say MPs and experts, and just because Trump is not in office today, many of the protectionist attitudes and policies that he introduced have been maintained by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
“What does worry me is that politically, the United States is a nation divided,” says Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.), who is the co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group along with Senator Michael L. MacDonald (Nova Scotia).
“But [the division is] not one-sided. The Democrats have a protectionist tendency that never seems to work for Canada. The Republicans, on the other hand, have an isolationist tendency that also doesn’t work for Canada,” McKay told The Hill Times in an interview.
McKay said the protectionist policies from the United States continue to be a “political sticking point” in the relationship between the two nations, even a few years after Donald Trump—famous for his “America First” slogan and policies—has vacated the White House.
Asked if he was concerned about Trump’s ongoing attempt to make a political comeback—and the not-so-subtle hints he’s been dropping about a 2024 presidential run—McKay scoffed.
“Who could pay attention to what Donald Trump does? I don’t sit on a Twitter account and watch it each and every day. How do you respond to that?” he said.
Trump has “obviously captured” the Republican Party, McKay said, but wouldn’t say he was concerned about a second term in office for the failed businessman-turned-politician.
“Every once in a while something goes sideways on him, and as other commentators have put it, he hasn’t won. He lost the election. He lost the Congress in 2018. His losses are greater than his wins,” said McKay.
Colin Robertson, vice-president and fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he thinks the return of Trump or a candidate like him “is something we should prepare for.”
“My own view is that we should be trying now as much as we can to institutionalize things like how you manage the border,” Robertson told The Hill Times.
Institutionalizing border policy is something that will “provide us with a kind of shield if you get a crazy again,” he said. Once things are entrenched in the bureaucracy, it becomes more difficult to change them, so Canada should be working to make sure it’s on the same page as the U.S. in a few key areas while the relationship is friendly.
NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West, Ont) said there’s a “rush” for passports in his constituency which sits on the border.
“That includes people travelling to the United States and rediscovering relationships that have been separated, amongst family, friends and business counterparts,” he said.
That restoration of interpersonal relationships is helpful, he said, because it’s the foundation upon which the political relationship rests.
Canada is “lacking champions in the U.S.,” he said, which is why, as an MP, he’s “more interested in renewing our cultural, social, and business context and families along the border. It’s our people that at the end of the day, are the solid backbone of the relationship.”
“With the U.S. focusing on itself and its divisiveness over the last several years—[it was] challenging before COVID, and with COVID—it’s certainly become complicated to get the attention of Washington and to be taken seriously, which is something that government has a real problem with at the moment, even outside of COVID.”
Masse—his party’s trade critic—said he wasn’t concerned about Trump.
On trade, Masse said Canada has issues with both Democrats and Republicans.
“You don’t have to just worry about Trump,” he said. “We’re getting hit on both sides.”
Maryscott “Scotty” Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, told The Hill Times that Canada’s relationship with the United States is “distracted.”
“The state of the relationship, in my opinion, is distracted,” she said, pointing to “endless political cycles,” the state of the economy, and current world events—including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—as factors that are competing for political attention at the moment.
“I think companies, citizens, leaders, politicians are not focused on how to advance the Canada-U.S. relationship to the benefit of everybody. I think they’re focused on their immediate problems,” she said.
Greenwood also suggested that the rhetorical position of the Biden administration as being friendly to Canada has given Canadians what is perhaps a false sense of security about the relationship.
“When Trump was president, Canada did—I think—a phenomenal job of stickhandling the relationship with him. It was a combination of being cool under pressure, not…being goaded into anything,” she said. Canada negotiated the new NAFTA—or the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement or CUSMA, as it’s now known—skillfully, she said.
“Canada was fully mobilized and it wasn’t partisan. It was a really good, sort of broad, sectoral—public, private, labour, everything—effort. And then, when Biden was elected, I think there was a moment where Canada generally—not like, particularly in government, but just sort of everybody—breathed a sigh of relief, and thought, ‘Okay, well, we’ve got a friend,’ right.”
Greenwood said the truth was that the protectionist policies and attitudes that had been accelerated under Trump were continuing along at “at a rate that I think Canadians found alarming.”
The rhetoric was better, she said, but the substance stayed the same. This was evidenced by Joe Biden’s “Buy America” policies, which require initiatives that receive government funding to use products that are made in America. One of the better known examples of this is Biden’s proposed rebate for electric vehicles (EVs). The $12,500 (U.S.) rebate is only available for all-American EVs. But that’s not the only example. As Greenwood pointed out, the U.S. border also closed to potatoes produced in Prince Edward Island since November.
“It might sound a little obscure … but it was definitely a protectionist act on the part of the U.S.,” Greenwood said.
It was actually the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that stopped P.E.I. potatoes from moving across the border, but only after the U.S. threatened legal action due to concerns about potato wart. But, as reported by CBC, Prince Edward Island potato growers said they were confident about the quality and safety of their potatoes.
“Joe Biden, Secretary of Agriculture [Tom] Vilsack, under pressure from Idaho, Maine … found a way to block P.E.I. potatoes—a big competitor out of the market—during their biggest, as I learned, the biggest time for potatoes in the market is Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Greenwood said.
The border reopened to some shipments of P.E.I. potatoes at the beginning of April.
In his April 5 address to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen distinguished between “Buy America” and “Buy American” policies—which are federal procurement standards—and Trump’s “America First” stance.
“America First was a protectionist statement of trade and a philosophy that, in all things trade, the playing field was going to be tilted toward America. That is not Buy America or Buy American,” which are federal procurement standards.
“Buy American” refers to the 1933 Buy American Act, which requires U.S. federal agencies to purchase goods that are made in the U.S. “Buy America” refers to requirements set out for projects like infrastructure projects that, in order to qualify for federal funding, must purchase goods made in the U.S., like steel or iron. “Buy America” requirements are passed by Congress on an ongoing basis.
“‘Buy America’ is a federal procurement standard. It does not apply to trade between companies, Canada and the United States. It only applies to federal procurement. It has also existed for decades. It’s not new in the Biden administration,” Cohen said.
Cohen highlighted Canada’s prominence as the United States’ top trading partner, citing more than $2.6-billion (CAD) in cross-border trade every day.
“That is an incredible statistic. Yes, we have some disagreements. And I’ve analogized this to a family. I mean your family—you don’t agree with everyone in your family all the time. There are going to be disagreements. And we’ve had some disagreements. But we can’t let those disagreements bury the lead of our incredibly strong overall relationship and the enormous economic benefits to both countries that accrue from that relationship,” Cohen said.
Robertson, who is also a former Canadian diplomat, said the improvement in the tone of the Canada-U.S. relationship shouldn’t be understated, and that working relationships between the two countries on a diplomatic level have much improved these last two years.
Robertson said Cohen is in near-daily contact with his counterpart, the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman. He also said that Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) is making a good impression with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“I’m told by people at the State Department that he takes her counsel even though she’s brand new in this game,” Robertson said. “And so I think that that’s probably working to our advantage.”
McKay said one area of focus for Canada in its relationship with the U.S. is reshoring supply chains in a mutually beneficial way.
“The other thing I would be concerned about is that in a reshoring and nearshoring of supply chains, Americans need to be thinking in terms of North American reshoring and nearshoring, not just America reshoring otherwise, that’ll lead to other problems,” he said.
Greenwood pointed to an effort she is involved in that is working to foster North American co-operation in the face of protectionism, much of which was entrenched by COVID-19 and pandemic-related supply chain issues and shortages of things like personal protective equipment.
It’s called the “North American Rebound” and has been signed by various chambers of commerce at the state and provincial levels.
“It’s really about the U.S. and Canada joining forces to compete against the world,” she said. “And protectionism comes from both the U.S. and Canada … Canadians think of protectionism only as coming from the U.S., and that’s not exactly true. So this is, you know, equal opportunity. Co-operation, if you will, against protectionism.”