by Chantal Hebert
Stephane Dion was the first Canadian political casualty of the Donald Trump era. Significant parts of Justin
Trudeau’s agenda could yet be next.
Dionís removal from his foreign affairs cabinet post was the central piece of last week’s cabinet shuffle.
Trump’s imminent inauguration provided a rationale for precipitating the former Liberal leader’s political retirement and replacing him with the more U.S.-savvy Chrystia Freeland as well as for an early overhaul of Trudeau’s ministerial team.
In more normal circumstances, the shuffle could have waited until Parliament’s summer adjournment, when the prime minister would have been closer to the mid-point of his mandate.
Trudeau has been off his game on a variety of fronts over the past few months.
His mind-boggling refusal this week to answer a question in English because he was in Quebec was just the latest example.
But no one will accuse him of having treated Trump’s arrival casually.
The prime minister and his team may not have seen his victory coming last November, but faced with the result they skipped some of the stages of mourning, starting with anger and denial, to put their minds to a dramatic change in the Canada-U.S. paradigm.
The result is a federal realignment of political human resources and priorities along the Canada-U.S. front on a scale not seen since the events of 9/11.
But the heavy lifting is just beginning.
The impact of Trump’s presidency on Canada’s agenda has the potential to outweigh that of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York.
Already, on the larger foreign affairs front, longstanding differences between Washington and Ottawa on China and Cuba that seemed to have been resolved have resurfaced.
There may be an unprecedented divide in the making between the two capitals on Russia and the role of NATO.
Much of what used to be common ground on foreign policy seems poised to become disputed territory.
At the time of 9/11, the terms of the Canada/US trade relationship were never on the line.
Security rather than protectionism was the dominant thread in American policy.
For Canada, the post-9/11 priority involved mitigating American security concerns to avoid a thickening of the border.
Trade between the two countries stood to be a collateral victim of the attacks.
Now, it could end up in the sights of the new administration.
Based on Trump’s militantly protectionist opening act Friday, Canada has its work cut out for it as it strives to remain in the good books of its main trading partner.
Then there is the matter of the delicate balance Trudeau has been trying to achieve between Canada’s energy ambitions and its international climate-change commitments.
The advent of an American administration whose resolve is to go in the opposite direction could exacerbate federal-provincial tensions and polarize voters along regional lines in a way that the aftermath of 9/11 never did.
Already Trumpís victory has hardened Conservative opposition to carbon pricing.
Trudeau is hardly the first Canadian prime minister to have been thrown a curve ball.
In the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Jean ChrÈtien was forced to recast his cabinet and focus his government’s energies on the Quebec-Canada front in a way he had not foreseen at the time of his election two years earlier.
And the events of 9/11 reshaped the last years of his tenure as prime minister.
The 2008 global financial crisis had a similar structural impact on Harper’s last two mandates.
Looking back on their experiences, it was those prime ministers’ handling of the unexpected challenges that came their way that defined their time in office.
But to weather those storms, both had to steer in unexpected policy directions. Neither Chretien’s Clarity Act, nor Harper’s embrace of deficit spending came naturally to one or the other.
In the few months between the American election and Friday’s inauguration, Trudeau has beefed up his team to weather what may come to be known as the most challenging period in the Canada-U.S. relationship.
He has actively acknowledged that business as usual is not going to be an option and reached outside his government for help to connect with the new administration.
But he has also vowed to stay the course and to continue pursuing the agenda he set for his government.
Success with the latter may depend on the strength of the incoming American headwind Trudeau faces.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services