On Newt’s Canadian comment: Harper’s long view of Canada-U.S. trade

After he won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, Newt Gingrich’s derisive remarks about Barack Obama’s relationship with Stephen Harper had a ring of partial truth about them.

Gingrich is quite right of course to point out that the Prime Minister is “conservative and pro-American.” And Newt stayed within the realm of reasonable comment—not always rigorously adhered to in this oddball Republican race—in suggesting that Obama’s rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has gone piece toward forging a “Chinese-Canadian partnership.”

For there’s no doubt Obama’s refusal to approve the Keystone plan to pipe oil sands crude to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico prompted Harper to step up his cheerleading for a pipeline, likely Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, to pump Alberta oil to a Pacific port for tanker shipment to China.

But the imputation that Obama’s particular attitude toward Canada is what has bumped Harper out of his natural continentalist groove  is wrong. In fact, Harper was already growing deeply impatient with Washington’s frequently unhelpful handling of trade and border issues at least as far back as late 2007, when George W. Bush still resided in the White House.

On Dec. 18, 2007, I interviewed Harper at 24 Sussex Drive, and asked him about the mounting U.S. regulatory burden on Canadian people and products bound for America, as post-9/11 homeland security measures exacerbated what had been dubbed the “thickening of the border.”

Harper said Canada had, over the previous few years, “lost that special relationship with the U.S.”  He was surprising blunt in declaring that he was “certain this trend will not be reversed in the lifetime” of the second Bush administration. On the prospects of restoring the relationship after a new president was elected the following year, Harper was somewhat more optimistic, but noted gloomily that he was “far from sure.”

He has made an effort with Obama. Last month’s border deal stands as its main product. But that complex, contingent and incremental agreement isn’t enough to boast of a smoothly running relationship, especially in light of the Keystone rupture.

So what did Harper have to say,  in that late-2007 interview, about how he would react if the U.S. situation didn’t improve? He wasn’t very specific, but said Canada would “at some point” switch from the “strictly defensive strategy” of trying to fix trade relations with the U.S., to some new approach. I took that to mean he would look elsewhere for opportunity.

That response is taking shape now in the form of an arguably overdue push to more aggressively seek access and connections in Asian markets. Next month, for only the second time, Harper travels to China. If he’s been chased to Beijing, it’s been by successive presidents, Republican and Democrat, and not only by the current administration.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.