How the Trudeau government is bracing for Trump

The federal government is working to exploit contacts and push shared interests as many wonder if the PM and the president will hit it off

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, middle, holds a press conference as he's joined by his newly sworn in ministers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, middle, holds a press conference as he’s joined by his newly sworn in ministers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Back in the fall of 1984, less than a month after he was elected prime minister, Brian Mulroney met with then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the White House. To help gain quick access to the Oval Office, Mulroney brought along Marc Garneau, then only weeks away from blasting off to become the first Canadian in space. As Hidden Figures is reminding moviegoers this winter, Americans sure have a thing for astronauts.

More than three decades later, Garneau’s zero-gravity credentials are again being deployed to help forge ties with a presidential administration. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed Garneau, his transportation minister, to chair the key cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations. It’s not just that the former naval officer flew three space shuttle missions; he also worked at NASA through most of the 1990s in Houston, Texas. (Two of his sons were born there.) He was the first non-American to serve as the unflappable voice of mission control heard by astronauts in orbit.

Trudeau’s decision to enhance Garneau’s cabinet status specifically to leverage his door-opening U.S. connections and credibility is only one of a raft of moves the Liberal government is making to brace itself for Donald Trump’s presidency. Facing the most unconventional, unpredictable White House in memory, Trudeau has reassigned top cabinet ministers and backroom aides. The mission: protect Canada’s most important economic relationship.

The marquee move in this flurry of activity came last week with the promotion of Chrystia Freeland, formerly international trade minister, to the more senior Foreign Affairs portfolio. Crucially, Freeland will retain control of the Canada-U.S. trade relationship. Having secured a Canada-European Union trade deal last fall, she is an undisputed star in Trudeau’s cabinet. She boasts a network of elite contacts in Washington and New York from her pre-politics days as a prominent financial journalist and author.

MORE: How Trudeau’s cabinet stacks up against Trump’s team

Still, Freeland’s most visible ties are with Democrats, including, especially, economist Lawrence Summers, who held senior positions in both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations. She has called Summers a mentor. Might that not be a liability in Trump’s Washington? Freeland is activating counterbalancing networks. Notably, she is closely acquainted with Stephen Schwarzman, the investment mogul who chairs Trump’s strategic and policy forum, and whose 60th birthday party features in Freeland’s 2012 book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.

Freeland’s contacts will count with the business and policy sets. Among the strong contingent of retired generals in Trump’s inner circle, Garneau isn’t Trudeau’s only cabinet card to play. There’s also Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a former Canadian reserve officer, whose third tour of duty in Afghanistan was on loan to the U.S. as a special assistant to American Maj.-Gen. James Terry in 2009. (Sajjan is prominent in the official Canadian delegation at Trump’s inauguration today.) Trudeau also promoted Ottawa MP Andrew Leslie—a retired general who worked closely with top American brass in his military career—as a parliamentary secretary to Freeland, with special responsibility for U.S. relations.

MORE: Chrystia Freeland, a foreign minister for the Trump era

Beyond major players like Freeland, Garneau, Sajjan and Leslie, government officials say Trudeau is expected to dispatch other ministers to the U.S. after next week’s special cabinet meetings in Calgary. The idea is to firm up contacts with governors in the dozens of states that rely heavily for jobs on exports to Canada, or imports of Canadian products. The endlessly repeated message: Canada is the biggest buyer of exports from 35 U.S. states,‎ and nine million American jobs rely on trade with Canada.

Inside Trudeau’s Ottawa operation, a new unit has been established, under the direction of Freeland’s former chief of staff, Brian Clow, to coordinate Canada-U.S. strategy across federal departments. Before he moved to Ottawa to work for Freeland, Clow was a senior adviser to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Despite the creation of Clow’s unit, though, several government officials told Maclean’s that fears Trump will force Ottawa into ongoing crisis mode have, if anything, eased in the final weeks leading up to his inauguration.

The biggest single concern is Trump’s demand to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Canadian government officials say signals from Trump’s team suggest that Mexico has far more to worry about when it comes to any new U.S. protectionist moves. The main danger is less that Canadian exporters might be specifically targeted than that Canada might be sideswiped by measures really aimed at Mexico or China.

Another pressing worry is climate change policy. Trump’s pro-coal stance, and his campaign rhetoric against the landmark 2015 UN climate agreement signed in Paris, raised the prospect that Ottawa’s policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would put Canadian industry at a serious competitive disadvantage. Coal’s woes, however, are caused mostly by the low price of competing natural gas, not any Democrat policy Trump can quickly undo. Even Trump’s plan to pull out of the Paris agreement is now in question: Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state, the top U.S. diplomat, said recently that he thinks the U.S. should remain part of the 196-nation deal.

MORE: Read Trudeau’s statement on Trump’s inauguration

As well, Trump can hardly stop state governments from continuing to curb greenhouse gas emissions—notably California’s ambitious policies and the northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Trump may well reverse U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at reducing emissions. But it’s also likely that powerful private sector interests will push back: A paper circulated at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week noted that US$44 billion has already been invested in renewable energy in the U.S.

On other files, Trump and Trudeau might make common cause. Both are big on infrastructure spending, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau has earmarked $10.1 billion over 10 years for transportation infrastructure that boosts trade—offering the chance of projects on the Canada-U.S. border. Both are in favour of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry Alberta oil-sands crude to U.S. refineries. It’s no accident that Trudeau’s point-man on that file, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, was also in Washington for Trump’s inauguration. If there’s a single shared priority on which the Prime Minister and President might bond, reviving the pipeline that Obama blocked could be it.

Which raises the intriguing question of what sort of personal relationship might emerge between Trudeau and Trump. Their images and ideologies clash. Trudeau’s relationship with Obama was close. Yet there’s potential. Trump’s staggering political success was founded, more than anything, on his TV persona and Twitter voice. Such an astute media manipulator can’t have failed to notice that Trudeau is, more than any previous Canadian prime minister—even his famous father—a magnet for U.S. cameras and commentaries.

And so, even more than the tactical steps Trudeau is taking to brace for Trump, the most fascinating element to watch for in Canada-U.S. relations is any sign of a rapport emerging between the two performers at the top. For many Canadians, the show might even prove entertaining enough to make us forget, now and then, to fret about the high economic stakes. Inside a Trudeau government now rapidly retooling for the Trump challenge, though, keeping those dangers top of mind won’t be a problem.

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