Canada remains on Donald Trump’s nice list—for now

A visit from one of Trump’s senior business advisors offers some reassurances—and shows what could be ahead in Canada-U.S. relations
Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump. (Reuters)
Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump. (Reuters)

It’s a strange thing to think, but one has to imagine that Canada has dodged a bullet by not being more successful—that we’re not a bilateral trade dynamo, shipping more cars, more BlackBerry handsets and Bombardier jets, more Alberta oil sands coursing through more southbound pipelines. Canada’s exports to the country that elected Donald Trump total about $34 billion to $45 billion more than our imports from America. Sure, in the new president’s winning-or-bust terms, that amounts to losing for his team, but it’s something slightly north of a rounding error in the largest U.S. trading partnership, and much smaller than the “loser” trade deficits with Trump whipping posts like Germany, Mexico and China.

Had Canada been in a position that made Trump howl that “they’re killing us on trade,” it’s highly possible that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers would be emerging with fewer confident smiles than they did from Monday’s full-day huddle at downtown Calgary’s classiest hotel. It’s also probable that the senior business adviser that Trump dispatched to Alberta would be gushing less about America’s northern neighbour.

“Canada’s held in very high regard,” Stephen Schwarzman told reporters after his Canadian cabinet sit-down. “We have balanced trade between the U.S. and Canada. That’s not the kind of situation where you should be worried.”

The Trump administration is on the brink of renegotiating NAFTA, and seems fed up with harder-to-manoeuvre multilateral deals altogether, but Schwarzman insisted Canada has little to worry about.

“Trade between the U.S. and Canada is very much balanced and is a model for the way trade relations should be,” he said. His reassurances put Canada in that familiar spot between being the United States’ big, friendly buddy and its shy, polite neighbour: “The amount of commercial linkages, cultural linkages with Canada are such that actually some people aren’t aware it’s not part of the United States some days.”

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In other words, Canada at present sits on Donald Trump’s nice list—or is, at least, far off his declared enemies list. It’s not often that Canada finds itself in an exclusive club with Russia, Israel and Great Britain, but “not often” is the “perfectly normal” of 2017 to 2020. Trump genuflects to Vladimir Putin, has cushy plans for friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, will have his first official tete-a-tete as president this week with Theresa May on Friday, and as for Justin Trudeau, well…

“They did not have to send anyone here to speak with us, they did not have to take our meetings, and yet they are,” Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said, as part of a queue of ministers who emerged from Monday’s private talks uniformly (albeit cautiously) optimistic about how Canada will fare.

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The Trudeau cabinet almost got a second high-profile Trump visitor to close out the retreat Tuesday: Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law and senior adviser, who was reported to be Calgary-bound until those plans apparently fell through amid a rookie politician’s early days. While this third-generation multimillionaire has less private sector clout than the billionaire equity manager Schwarzman, Kushner certainly ranks higher in Trump’s coterie. His visit would have been an even more solid signal that Canada will have the president’s positive attention, but perhaps his absence has its benefits too; with only one envoy to Canada this week, there’s less risk of mixed messages from a White House that seems prone to garbling any message more complex than “America First.”

Aside from that sort of sloganeering, there have been few clear explicit reasons to make Canadian politicians gulp. Schwarzman suggested that any Trump border tax could exempt Canada, and long gone are last year’s musings that a presidential candidate wanted tolls or a profit stake from TransCanada Pipelines in exchange for approving Keystone XL. For now, the only thing to fear is uncertainty itself, the other new constant of the Trump era. The elephant with which Pierre Trudeau said Canada sleeps will inevitably start rampaging in various directions, and its inadvertent tail flicks could strike Trudeau.

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Trump’s attention could well turn angrily northward, to a government that embraces refugees, wants free trade with China, and whose Prime Minister tweeted congratulations to the tens of thousands of Canadians who protested Trump over the weekend. Having to tread warily, however, shouldn’t translate to pressure on the Liberals to align all its priorities with those of the new U.S. boss. Trump has seemed to tolerate (or at least hasn’t noticed yet) that Russia and Britain both supported the United Nations resolution denouncing Israel’s settlements, or that Israel and Britain are to varying degrees active on the climate-change file, or that May has called the Iran nuclear deal “vital,” even as Trump insists he wants to shred it.

The new president thus far appears willing to overlook disagreements in some areas if there’s support or benefit from foreign nations where he wants it. As much as Canada can’t economically risk losing the United States as an ally, the deal-maker-in-chief might realize he needs to maintain close allies too—or, at least, that he cannot constantly widen his enemies list.