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Canada needs to disaster-proof its relationship with the United States: experts

By Chelsea Nash      
Former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman wants to see a bilateral agreement between the two countries to ‘codify’ the important parts of the relationship while Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau are both still in office.

Increasing political polarization in the United States has prompted some Canada-U.S. expert observers to call for the Canadian government to prepare itself for worst-case scenarios south of the border.

In the wake of the reversal of the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, as well as the revelations of the congressional hearings into the events on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021, some expert observers say Canada needs to disaster-proof its relationship with the United States in preparation for worsening political instability in that country in the future.

“[The U.S.] is not as reliable a partner as it was, or as we may have thought it was, 10 years ago,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “We do need to do some disaster-proofing,” he said.

Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada who is currently living in the U.S., thinks it’s more dire than that. “I think that Canada should be preparing for an eventuality that nobody wants to see take place, but could take place, which is the eventuality of civil war,” she said in an interview.

The reversal of Roe v. Wade came about after former president Donald Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices to the bench, creating a conservative majority. On June 24, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively removing access to abortion as a federally protected right in the United States. The Supreme Court downloaded the decision on abortion access to the state level. In the text of that final decision, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court “should reconsider” other past rulings, including those on same-sex marriage and access to birth control.

“These are political decisions,” said Hudson on the podcast she shares with fellow activist Nora Loreto, Sandy and Nora.

“What the big problem there, I think, is that it means that more and more people are seeing that these are political decisions, and refusing to believe that the law has any sort of objectivity, which I think is going to be a problem for the stability of the United States,” she added, in an episode titled, “When the U.S. falls, what happens to Canada?”

For Canadian cultural commentator Stephen Marche, the Roe v. Wade decision has pushed the U.S. closer to a civil war.

“The cracks in the foundations of the United States are widening, rapidly and on several fronts. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has provoked a legitimacy crisis no matter what your politics,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“For the right, the leaking of the draft memo last month revealed the breakdown of bipartisanship and common purpose within the institution. For the left, it demonstrated the will of dubiously selected Republican justices to overturn established rights that have somewhere near 70 per cent to 80 per cent political support,” he continued.

As for the risk of civil war, Marche cited accelerating political violence, like the mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where the shooter is accused of killing 10 Black people and has been charged with a hate crime. Marche stated “the right wing has been imagining a civil war, publicly, since at least the Obama administration,” and quoted former Kentucky governor, Republican Matt Bevin as having said, at the time, that “the roots of the tree of liberty are watered by…blood.”

Hudson said the first thing that needs to happen to prepare for the worst in the United States is a public discussion about what the impacts to Canada might be, and how to mitigate them.

“It’s going to impact the economy. It’s going to impact people’s movement across borders. It’s going to impact what policies we’re going to have to interacting with this country [with] which we are bound up [on] pretty much [every level] of any public service,” she told The Hill Times. 

The decision on Roe v. Wade has already had a ripple effect on Canada culturally, as it has galvanized discussion about access to abortion—or lack thereof—in Canada, too. It’s also sparked the question of whether Americans might cross the border to seek abortions in Canada, and what that would mean for providers here.

NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West, Ont.), whose riding sits on the American border, said he hasn’t heard from his colleagues at the state level about Americans accessing abortion in Canada.

“There is a history of us relying upon some state access to abortions because of lack of access in Canada. And then I think that there might be some reciprocal attempts for Americans coming to Canada at some point in time, but I think it’s too early now,” he said.

Robertson rejected the idea of a second civil war breaking out in the U.S., but said there are certain scenarios Canada must be mindful of.

“What if things go very badly in the United States in the next election? What happens if the certification of elections does not proceed the way we would expect them to? What happens…if the state legislators, supported by the courts, overturn the results, and you end up with an election which seems to be truly stolen, and there is violence in the streets, and militia gets called?” he wondered.

“These are things that we have to pay attention to. You have to now be more mindful of it,” he said.

Robertson said if something like that were to happen, Canada would have to amp up its defence and security spending, because it wouldn’t be able to depend on America’s protection.

“We have free-loaded, because we could, because the U.S. looks at us—correctly—as their northern frontier, so they’re prepared to pay extra for it,” he said.

Robertson said while he’s “more worried than I have been for a while,” about the U.S., he’s still optimistic.

Canada should prepare for these possibilities, but Robertson described them as “remote.”

“It doesn’t mean we have to tear out our hair and declare the house is on fire,” he said. Robertson said the congressional hearings on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, are evidence that “the American system is functioning the way it’s supposed to.”

Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Obama administration, said the Jan. 6 committee makes clear that a group of people, including a sitting president, tried to “circumvent the rule of law and even use violence to try to hold onto power.”

“We survived that. The question is, if [Trump] is re-elected in some way, or people who have like-minded perspectives, will we survive it again?”

Need to focus on bilateral relationship

Scotty Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, said Canada simply needs to focus its efforts on its bilateral and multilateral relationships with the United States.

“I think that is the way to protect Canada’s own interests and advance important partnerships, notwithstanding whatever domestic crisis arises from time to time in either country,” she said.

She added that Canada should also “figure out how to make itself relevant to the U.S. on the U.S.’s biggest challenges,” like China and energy.

Canada has a lot to offer to the U.S. and the world in terms of critical minerals and rare earth, she said.

“That is the ticket: to leverage with us on key disputes, but also relevance and a way to help be part of a long-term important global conversation where Canada can really lead,” she said.

Heyman said he’d like to see Canada and the U.S. sign a bilateral treaty to add further protection to the relationship.

“If we sat down and made a list…of the things that we cherished and we valued about our relationship that we wanted to protect, by codifying it [in] a non-partisan bilateral agreement that is passed by Congress and passed by Parliament, that is the insurance against more radical elements of either [of the] two countries taking hold in the future,” he said.

Heyman said Canada and the U.S. should prioritize the creation of such an agreement before the next federal election on either side of the border, saying the two countries should take advantage of having like-minded leaders in U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) for the time being.

“To sit around and just talk about it in theory and not do anything about it, I think is a huge mistake, especially given the experience we had during the Trump administration,” Heyman said, noting the tariffs Trump placed on Canadian steel and aluminum.

“It’s so much easier to buy fire insurance on your house when it’s not on fire. Once it catches on fire, it is very difficult to call the insurance company and say you need fire insurance, if not completely impossible. And so there is no fire right this minute. But boy, there’s smoke from the last presidency,” Heyman said.