National Column: Canada wears velvet glove to shake hands with U.S.

by Chantal Hebert

Ever since last fall’s American presidential election campaign, Justin Trudeau has played nice with Donald Trump, routinely bending over backward to avoid taking the new administration head-on.

Parsing the prime minister’s comments on Trump’s eventful first three months, one would be hard-pressed to find anything but kind words about the new occupant of the White House.

When the president moved to suspend the American refugee program and to ban citizens from six Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the U.S., Trudeau issued a tweet to restate Canada’s pro-refugee policy but refrained from openly criticizing the U.S. move.

When Trump cut foreign-aid funding for contraception and family-planning programs, the Canadian government raised its own contribution but otherwise kept its peace.

Ditto as the American administration confirmed its determination to walk away from the Paris treaty on climate change.

Earlier this month, the prime minister offered Canada’s full support for Trump’s unilateral decision to launch airstrikes on a Syrian military facility in retaliation for the regime’s chemical gas attack on civilians.

In the process, Trudeau soft-pedalled his party’s long-standing commitment to multilateral international action.

A few days later, the prime minister called for the removal of the Bashar Assad regime.

Somewhat predictably, no amount of prime ministerial appeasement is turning out to be enough to keep Canada on the good side of the Trump White House and off the president’s ever-changing hit list.

On Tuesday, he lashed out at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in general and Canadian dairy policy in particular.

“In Canada, some very unfair things have happened to our dairy farmers, and others, and we’re going to start working on that,” Trump told a Wisconsin audience.

“NAFTA has been very, very bad. We’re going to make some very big changes, or we’re going to get rid of NAFTA once and for all,” he added.

Contrast that with what the president had to say on the heels of his first face-to-face meeting with Trudeau less than two months ago and consider that there were no major public disagreements between the two governments over the interval.

“We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada. We’ll be tweaking it,” Trump opined in mid-February.

“We’ll be doing certain things that are going to benefit both of our countries.”

At the time, that statement was greeted with jubilant relief in some Canadian quarters.

That jubilation was somewhat premature.

Anyone professing surprise at the sight of the U.S. president blowing hot and cold on the same issue over a matter of weeks has not been keeping track of Trump’s first three months in the White House.

There is plenty of evidence that he is, to put it politely, a chameleon type of politician.

Trump tends to blend his rhetoric to his environment, as often as not to the detriment of consistency.

But if anyone still harboured the delusion that a nascent bond between Trudeau and Trump would shelter Canada from this president’s volatile approach to policy-making, this week’s developments should have settled the issue.

Crafting alliances on Capitol Hill and in the states’ legislatures – as Canada has been attempting to do as part of an all-hands-on deck political lobbying operation – may not be as glamorous as spending a night at the theatre with Ivanka Trump, but it may yield more reliable results.

So far, Trudeau’s velvet-glove approach to the Trump administration enjoys widespread support in this country.

But that comes with the underlying assumption that the glove is not an empty one and that an iron hand will manifest itself in defence of Canada’s interests.

That did happen on Tuesday.

In a strongly worded letter, Trudeau’s envoy to Washington, David MacNaughton, refuted Trump’s contention that Canada’s dairy policy was wreaking havoc on American dairy farmers.

Still, up to now, Canada’s efforts on the U.S. front have unfolded on a rare bipartisan basis.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has been providing Trudeau with insider advice on American trade dynamics.

Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose has struck a supportive role in her own visits to the U.S., as has Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, a premier otherwise known as the prime minister’s chief provincial critic.

But there are trade issues on which it will be difficult to continue to present a united front as the war of words turns into a full-fledged negotiation.

Canada’s dairy and poultry supply management system is not far from the top of the divisive list.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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