Canadians to Trump: Don’t mess with us

From Parliament Hill to city councils to grocery stores, Canadians are embracing a volatile anti-Trump movement
PM Trudeau speaks with President Trump during the G7 in Charlevoix. June 8, 2018. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

On June 11, Martin and Carole Lajeunesse, a brother-and-sister pair of restaurateurs, were working over cups of coffee at LaLa Bistro in Buckingham, Que. It was a Monday, the only day of the week when they don’t serve breakfast in the restaurant, where the daily lunch specials are scrawled on a manically colourful chalkboard under the headline, “LE OH MY GOD.”

With Carole juggling most of the kitchen duties and Martin also working as a city councillor, they use that quiet morning to whip through administrative tasks and cleaning.

But this wasn’t a routine Monday. The weekend news had been a howling wall of coverage about how U.S. President Donald Trump had lashed out at Justin Trudeau after the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que.

Martin had finally had enough. He suggested they pull the American wines from their menu. They asked the server who runs the restaurant’s Facebook page to post a notice, and she wrote, in French, “In solidarity with our Canadian jobs, LaLa Bistro suspends the sale of wines from the United States for an indefinite period of time.” Then they slapped stickers reading “PRODUIT NON DISPONIBLE” (“product not available”) across the two California selections on their wine list.

READ MORE: A patriot’s guide to shopping during a Canada-U.S. trade war

It was Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, and his trade adviser Peter Navarro declaring on a TV talk show that there was “a special place in hell” for Trudeau, that pushed Martin over the edge. “Me, I think the pressure has to come from inside the U.S.,” he says. “So, by stopping importing wine from the U.S., the pressure can come from the inside.” To his surprise, the bistro’s Facebook post went viral; Martin says 99 per cent of the feedback has been positive. The co-owners have also substituted French’s ketchup (made from Canadian tomatoes) for Heinz (largely not) and are looking for other products they can swap at their 24-year-old establishment.

LaLa Bistro wasn’t alone. The past few weeks have seen anti-Trump sentiments across Canada calcify into anti-Trump stands. Product boycotts, local political protests, altered travel plans, heightened pressure on national politicians—it adds up to a volatile force in Canadian public life. Inside Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, senior strategists read the public mood as so decided that anything resembling a capitulation to Trump’s bullying is now politically impossible.

For instance, if Trump followed through on his threat to slap a tariff on Canadian auto exports to the U.S., the economic pain in Canada would be severe, but the popular reaction might be just as intense. “I think it would be meaningful,” said one senior Canadian government official, “in the sense that it would prevent any responsible government, be it us or anybody else, from conceding any of the things that Donald Trump wants them to concede.”

Trump reportedly quipped at Trudeau, in a May 25 phone call on the tariff tensions, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” It was a reference to British troops setting the president’s mansion ablaze in 1814, a reprisal for destructive U.S. attacks on what’s now Ontario in the War of 1812. No doubt unintentionally, Trump hit on something that captured the mood of the moment in Canada. Reminded of that bit of history, many Canadians seemed to think, “Now there’s an idea . . .”

If ordinary Canadians have only in recent weeks fastened on to how seriously Trump imperils Canada-U.S relations, many political insiders have been bracing for this turning point since the day the most manifestly erratic president in modern history was elected.

RELATED: Inside Canada’s charm offensive to save NAFTA

On Jan. 20, 2017, James Moore, once a senior minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, now a business adviser for the international law firm Dentons, was in Washington for Trump’s swearing-in as president. It was, in Moore’s words, “obviously a surreal moment.” Trump delivered a dark inaugural speech, including a line about having to “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.” The Canadian embassy held a party anyway, where Moore spotted Chrystia Freeland. Only 10 days earlier, Freeland had been named global affairs minister. “I went up to her,” Moore recalls, “and said, ‘It’s about to get real. Give me a call if there’s anything I can do. Country first.’ ”

That sort of rally-round-the-flag talk, setting aside party for patriotism, is associated with wartime and natural disasters. Did Trump really represent a threat on that level?

For nearly a year and a half after he swore the presidential oath, it remained possible to hope it wouldn’t be so bad. Sure, Trump might now and then slam the North American Free Trade Agreement on Twitter (“worst trade deal ever made”), but the renegotiation he demanded to change the Canada-U.S.-Mexico pact continued.

Then came this spring’s raising of stakes—the 25 per cent tariff on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, followed by Canada’s retaliatory tariffs on everything from ketchup to whiskey, pleasure boats to playing cards. Then, Trump threatened to up the ante by imposing a 25 per cent tariff on autos—the “carmageddon” scenario that TD Bank’s economists estimate could cost Canada a staggering 160,000 jobs.

But, as bad as the escalating tit-for-tat tariff battle looked, the tone soon worsened. After the president left the G7 summit, Trudeau held a news conference in which he said Canadians “will not be pushed around” on steel and aluminum. Trump threw a Twitter tantrum over “Justin’s false statements,” and his surrogates dutifully carried his over-the-top umbrage to the Sunday TV talk shows, where his chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Trudeau “really kind of stabbed us in the back.”

Suddenly, a nice California cabernet sauvignon wasn’t available anymore at LaLa Bistro. That same Monday, in the House of Commons, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen expressed “shock and dismay” over Trump’s tactics and tariffs, declaring, “We are all Canadians first.”

MPs voted unanimously to support NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey’s motion for the House to “stand in solidarity” with the Liberal government over tariffs and against “disparaging and ad hominem statements by the U.S. administration.”

Residents of Ingersoll sign a giant flag in support of strking CAMI workers in Ingersoll, ON, on Friday, Oct, 6, 2017. The workers have been on strike since Sept, 17, 2017. (Mark Spowart/CP)

Many Canadians who’ve had it with Trump just crave a chance to do something, almost anything. For instance, in Halton Hills—a collection of communities northwest of Toronto that adds up to a municipality of 61,000 people—the town council voted unanimously for a resolution to “encourage residents and businesses with the town to become knowledgeable about the origin of the products and services that they purchase [and] consider avoiding the purchase of U.S. products where substitutes are reasonably available.”

Mayor Rick Bonnette brought the motion forward on June 11, with simple reasoning: a bully can sniff out a weak target, and to him, Trump is a classic bully who badly needs to feel some push-back. “When he came to Quebec, he was just like a bad house guest,” he says of the G7 meeting. “He showed up late, left early and insulted the host.” The mayor offers up this line with the palpable pleasure of someone who knows he’s concocted a deft turn of phrase.

Should Trudeau’s speech writers dream up some rhetorical firecrackers for the PM to lob at Trump? He gets more urging to not light any fuses. Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a former cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s Tory government, lauds Trudeau and Freeland for their patience. “They have been measured,” Beatty said. “They’ve tried to avoid being provocative. They’ve stayed at the table despite threats.”

The question, however, is whether all that forbearance is ultimately worth much when it comes to Trump. After all, he has now crossed the line from spewing obnoxious bluster to imposing harmful tariffs. Despite that, senior federal officials, who spoke with Maclean’s on the condition that they not be named, sketched reasons they hold out hope that a deal on NAFTA might still be within reach. It’s like they’re peering through the acrid fog of Trump’s verbiage to make out a pattern that might lead to a workable compromise.

READ MORE: How Canada’s NAFTA charm offensive hit a wall of confusion and apathy

It goes like this: Trump started out his presidency musing about exiting NAFTA, but more recently shifted from threatening to abrogate the deal to using other measures—especially those targeted tariffs—to put pressure on Canada and Mexico. According to this view, Trump’s threat of auto tariffs is more of the same—a bid to gain an edge in the NAFTA talks. “His basic theory of bargaining is that you bluster and frighten your adversaries into anxiety and panic so they make a deal that is counter to their own interests,” said a senior Canadian government official. According to this theory, Canada (and Mexico) should stand firm and hope that Trump eventually realizes he can’t dictate terms.

Yet nobody doubts that Trump is fully capable of irrational moves that run contrary to American interests. Why might he be motivated to cut a deal instead of prosecuting a trade war? One reason is that auto tariffs, in particular, would badly hurt Midwestern states. Consider that Michigan—so crucial to Trump’s 2016 electoral college victory—also happens to have Canada and Mexico as its top auto trade partners. Major agricultural states like Wisconsin and Iowa are already uneasy about how Trump’s trade tactics have subjected their exports to retaliatory tariffs from many countries that are targeting the U.S.

Those sorts of local and regional worries about jobs lost and incomes cut during a trade war are spreading in Canada, too. But for Bonnette, there’s something more at stake than pragmatic concerns about how gusts of superheated air blowing out of Washington will affect places like Halton Hills directly.

Municipal governments are closest to their people, the mayor explains—they see you in the grocery store, or on Canada Day, and they can just call you up directly pretty much whenever they like.

RELATED: Canadian nationalism isn’t the answer in this trade war with the U.S.

In times like these, even if roiling international relations seem remote from their own little corner of the world, they often ask him and his fellow council members, “So what’s the town doing about this?” The answer, from Bonnette and others in his position, has been to find something that everyone can do. “I think on the grassroots, people can say, ‘The discussions are so high-level, but what can I do as an individual?’ ” he explains. “It gives a chance for somebody to say, ‘Guess what, I’m going to be buying blueberries from Canada or lettuce from Canada rather than the United States.’ ”

In Ottawa, labour lawyer Scott Chamberlain did exactly that on a recent grocery trip for his family, which includes four boys aged five to 12. He found himself standing in front of a display of oranges from the U.S. and others from Morocco, so he picked the Moroccan produce, then decided to see if he could buy an entirely “Trump-free” grocery cart. “It wasn’t out of anger . . . it was more out of solidarity,” he says. “I was really proud that people set politics aside to put a common front together to support Canadians. It was an attack on all of us.”

Chamberlain has altered his travel plans, too. He has family in the Maritimes whom he visits three to four times a year, but now instead of driving through New England, his family will stay in Quebec and New Brunswick hotels. “There’s a lot of choices I’m able to make that support Canadian farmers and support our trading partners that are not threatening tariffs, not being what I see as abusive of their allies,” he says.

Merideth Broughton, a paramedic living an hour north of Calgary in Torrington, Alta., changed her vacation plans for the same reason. Her adored Pyrenees, Scout, is getting a little old to travel in a kennel by plane, but she’s a superb road-trip companion who stretches out on the back seat of Broughton’s Jeep to nap. Utah, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakota Badlands had been on their itinerary for the coming months. But between the trade tariffs and the horror of detained migrant children, Broughton just won’t do it. “I can’t in good conscience contribute to that economy or that government,” she says. Instead, she and Scout will stick to the Badlands of southern Alberta and wander through Saskatchewan to visit friends and family. (There aren’t recent enough stats yet to show how many Canadians will stay away.)

READ MORE: Why pharmaceuticals could be the prescription for trade warfare that truly hurts America

More systematic Trump-inspired campaigns include Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union, pushing its “I Shop Canada” program, which urges consumers and companies to share made-in-Canada options for goods and services on Twitter using the hashtag #ShopCanada. In his Maclean’s column, Scott Gilmore urged a more direct approach—targeting Trump’s personal business holdings. Too extreme for Ottawa? Asked in the House about the idea of taking aim at Trump-linked companies, Freeland said, “We welcome ideas from all Canadians on what should and what should not be in our retaliation list.”

Among the most exposed Trump brands is the Ivanka Trump clothing line. Asked about whether it has considering dropping it, Hudson’s Bay Company said in a statement, “Across our banners, we aim to a deliver a strong assortment of fashion. We respect our customers’ right to choose the brands that work for them. In turn, our customers’ choices inform our decisions on which merchandise we offer.”

Others are choosing a different form of protest-by-absence. Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, turned down his invitation to the Fourth of July party at U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft’s residence, which is always a splashy event and a coveted invitation. “I’ve politely declined because I’m not happy with the direction of the American government and their constant attacks on our country,” he told CBC. Craft’s spokesperson wouldn’t say if other invitations had been declined. “We extend the invitation in a spirit of friendship and hope the guests will receive the invitation in the same way,” the embassy said in an email.

In Vancouver, Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and former legal adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, turned down his invitation to the Fourth of July party at the U.S. consulate. What pushed him over the edge was not trade, but the reports of terrified migrant children wrenched from their parents’ arms. If your best friend is doing something awful, you call them out on it if you’re a decent friend, Perrin argues—you don’t cheerfully join them for drinks and pretend everything is fine. “How can I in good conscience, as someone who is a law professor and Canadian citizen who has worked in Canada at the highest levels of government, go and share a hot dog and cheeseburger, hobnobbing with Trump officials on the Fourth of July and pretend like nothing happened?” he says. “I’m just not willing to do that.”

In their grudge against Trump, Canadians sometimes find embarrassed Americans hurrying to side with them. Just two days after Trump’s anti-Trudeau eruption following the G7 summit, a herd of city officials converged on Ajax, Ont. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative is a coalition of mayors from 131 cities and towns scattered around those bodies of water, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. The group’s primary focus is the well-being of the water itself, but the ecological focus naturally slides into economic and social concerns, too.

RELATED: Will Trump outsmart us all with his trade war gamble?

Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, N.Y., arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn, where most of the delegates were staying, with the newspapers stacked in the lobby blaring nothing but Trump headlines. When Dyster encountered his first Canadian colleague, he felt compelled to launch into an immediate disclaimer. “It’s not me!” Dyster protested. “I think he’s crazy, too.”

The entire three-day conference unfolded like that: seemingly every time one of the Americans spoke, in private conversation or at an official session, they felt compelled to disavow the vitriol flowing from the White House. “At some point, one of us Americans was apologizing yet again,” recalls Dyster, “and one of the Canadian members said, ‘Oh, stop apologizing. We know you guys.’ ” Gary McNamara, mayor of Tecumseh, Ont., describes it like the cousins were huddled together in mortified solidarity, while the patriarch frothed in his seat at the head of the table. “It’s almost like a family member going rogue, and they’re trying to pick up the pieces,” he says of his American colleagues.

In the board of directors meeting where the Great Lakes mayors crafted the message for their closing press conference, it was obvious they had to broaden their focus from invasive Asian carp and phosphorus loading in Lake Erie. What they came up with was a statement of muted consternation toward Trump. “Isolationist and protectionist measures will only hurt our two countries, and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region stands to lose the most,” said incoming president and mayor of Collingwood, Ont., Sandra Cooper at the press conference. Dyster, as immediate past president, joined her. “As an American mayor of a city that is dependent on a healthy regional economy,” he said, “I do not believe that trade tariffs will benefit American workers—quite the opposite.”

If there’s no trade deal this summer, tensions might drag on for months or even years. In that case, in the run-up to the fall 2019 Canadian election, Trudeau will face continual pressure to lash out at Trump. Indeed, Moore says that’s exactly what much of the Liberal base must be hungry to hear. “But he’s got to understand that good policy is good politics, and calm, methodical management of the relationship is what Canadians are actually looking for,” he says.

According to a top Liberal strategist, Trudeau’s test will be less about his own self-control and more about keeping Liberal MPs vying for re-election from boiling over. “Our job as a political organization will be to keep people disciplined,” he said, “and convince them that Canadians are looking for an adult to run the government in a very difficult time, and we have to be that.”

Disciplined, adult supervision of Canada’s most important trading partnership—yes, of course. But as the Trump presidency drags on and Canada is dragged more often into his verbal vortex, the urge to strike back is palpable, too. The question now is whether cooler heads soon prevail or if this season’s popular and political backlash lasts, setting the tone for a new, troubled era in Canada-U.S. relations.