National Column: What Donald Trump’s anti-Canada rant means

by Thomas Walkom

Donald Trump has discovered reasons not to like Canada. He is sure to find more.

The U.S. president has realized belatedly that Canada, as part of its agricultural supply management program, discriminates against foreign dairy products – including U.S. milk. This miffs him to no end.

“We can’t let Canada or anyone else take advantage,” he fumed Thursday after returning to Washington from a trip to the dairy state of Wisconsin.

Canada’s perfidy in the matter of milk, he said, served only to reinforce his view that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a disaster in need of a radical rewrite.

Wait until he visits Michigan and finds out that Canada attracts U.S. auto manufacturers in part because our universal medicare system translates into lower health care costs. He’s going to blow his top.

So far, the official reaction from Ottawa has been muted. Finance Minister Bill Morneau attributed Trump’s rant in part to the requirements of U.S. domestic politics. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted that reasoned arguments could change the president’s mind. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made some of those reasoned arguments, pointing out that Canada buys far more dairy products from the U.S. than it sells.

I fear they may be optimistic. Trump may change his mind dramatically about specifics (his about-face on the Syrian civil war was mind-boggling). But he has been remarkably consistent on the big things: his insistence that the U.S. has fared badly from trade deals and his claim that he can make America great again.

He’s also canny in his madness. His latest rant against Canada, for instance, conveniently deflected media attention away from what he was doing at the time – signing an executive order that takes aim at China’s steel industry.

Trump is counting on China to defang North Korea’s nuclear missile program and has been at pains in recent weeks to avoid attacking Beijing’s trade practices directly.

What he was signalling in his off-script remarks about Canada is that the NAFTA talks between Ottawa, Washington and Mexico City will be very, very tough. Canadian officials presumably knew this already. In a draft letter to Congress leaked late last month, some of Trump’s overarching goals in renegotiating NAFTA were laid out. These included elimination or diminution of Canada’s supply management system in dairy and poultry. They also included opening Canadian government procurement to U.S. firms while maintaining the U.S. right to buy American.

On Thursday, Trump threw in America’s perennial complaint about Canadian softwood lumber. The U.S. just can’t abide the fact that most Canadian forests are government-owned, insisting that this amounts to an unfair subsidy. So that part of his rant was no surprise.

What did surprise was that he also railed against Canadian energy exports to the U.S, which usually American governments like (they reckon that we’re a more reliable source of supply than the Saudis). So it’s hard to know what Trump meant there. Overall, though, he was fairly clear about what he wants from Canada in the NAFTA talks. He wants more.

He wants Canada to dismantle any trade barriers, such as supply management, that inconvenience the U.S. Simultaneously, he wants the U.S. to retain the right to erect trade barriers of its own.

Trudeau may appeal to reason. He has pointed out, correctly, that all nations – including the U.S. – subsidize farmers.

He was too polite to point out that Canada’s supply management system, which puts the entire burden on consumers, is more efficient than America’s jumbled system of farm subsidies, which puts the burden on taxpayers.

But Trump isn’t in this game to be reasonable or to learn. He is in it to win.

And no matter how much Ottawa panders – no matter how many Syrian bigwigs Freeland hits with economic sanctions, no matter how many times Trudeau squires Trump’s daughter Ivanka to the theatre – he still has us in his sights. That’s the message. That’s what this meant.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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