The Arc of a Friendship


Canada’s relationship with the United States has been modulated for the past century by an asymmetry not just of power but of attention. The smaller partner felt free to chafe occasionally at the superpower next door and the larger one politely ignored it. The current American president, however, comes with a set of political, tactical and temperamental profile points for which Canada happens to be a very convenient foil.

Scotty Greenwood 

For as long as I can remember, the Canada-US dynamic has been characterized as follows: Canadians love to hate the U.S. but the U.S. is only allowed to love Canada. Some level of anti-American sentiment has always been par for the course north of the 49th parallel. But anti-Canadianism? In recent history, it hasn’t been a factor, at least not until the election of the 45th president of the United States.

Canadians were taken aback during the 2016 campaign when both the Democratic and Republican nominees called for a new look at the North American Free Trade Agreement. Conventional wisdom coalesced around the idea that it was time to modernize the NAFTA to reflect the modern economy. Conventional wisdom also assumed that Hillary Clinton, generally considered a fan of Canada, would be elected, and the trade negotiation, whenever it occurred, would reflect the mutual admiration and long-standing ties that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico enjoy. Then, in a surprise even to himself, Donald J. Trump won. 

The world had been expecting Clinton, a known commodity. She is a former First Lady, senator and secretary of state, and an unabashed globalist with a deep appreciation for the role of the U.S. within the world community. Instead, the world got an isolationist, an antagonist, a disruptor-in-chief who would take particular glee at making outrageous claims about other countries and their leaders. That included confronting Canada as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly, publicly, and relentlessly during Trump’s first year and a half in office. 

On the day that the 45th president was sworn in, the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. had a reception and watch party, as they always do. Situated at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue with a perfect view of the U.S. Capitol and inauguration parade route, the embassy hosts what has become the most coveted ticket in town every four years for the inauguration. 

The mood in town was different that January 20th than on previous inaugurations. There were jubilant Trump supporters who had traveled from far and wide to experience the election of the one who would “Make America Great Again.” 

Once inside the embassy, a Who’s Who of U.S. and Canadian officials mingled, wondering if the president-elect who was so bombastic on the campaign trail, would become more “presidential” in his inaugural address. The campaign, after all, was over. The weighty business of governing was upon him.

So, when the oath was administered and the 45th president took the podium, the room fell silent. 

When the new president turned his attention from Washington to foreign capitals, you could have heard a pin drop in the Canadian Embassy. He made the following declaration:

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

Message received. The foreign governments around the world began to recalibrate their approaches to the U.S. accordingly. Less than a month after the inauguration, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to Washington for his first official meeting with his counterpart. The conversation could not have gone better. The president said:

“America is deeply fortunate to have a neighbor like Canada. We have before us the opportunity to build even more bridges, and bridges of cooperation and bridges of commerce. Both of us are committed to bringing great prosperity and opportunity to our people.”

Trudeau returned the goodwill, and in their joint press conference, diplomatically declined several opportunities to criticize the president.

The negotiations to update NAFTA then began in earnest. Each of the three countries played host to a series of talks. Throughout the ensuing year and a half, the president would tweet about tearing up NAFTA, disparage Canada and Mexico, and increase pressure in the negotiations.

As part of that pressure, the U.S. invoked “national security” under Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act in order to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum. Never mind what the president said earlier about Canada shedding blood alongside Americans in wars fought together. These tariffs triggered anger, confusion and immediate retaliation from Canada and Mexico, as well as other countries. 

At the G7 meeting in Charlevoix last June, Trump and Trudeau again met face to face. They joked about having solved the tariffs and fixing NAFTA. They were pretty close to a deal, it seemed. A press conference and several tweets later, the relationship was on the rocks. 

Trump didn’t appreciate the way the Trudeau had characterized their bilateral talks, or his saying that Canada would not be pushed around on tariffs. Advisers from the White House doubled down on the president’s very personal criticism of Trudeau. 

After Lester Pearson criticized Lyndon Johnson for his conduct of the Vietnam War, the president told him: “You pissed on my rug.” Photo Library and Archives Canada

This is the point in the story when Canadians began to ask if we have reached an all-time low in Canada-U.S. relations. The truth is, there have been times when Canadian leaders have criticized the U.S., but there are not a lot of examples of the U.S. returning the ire.

In the 19th century, Sir John Thompson said of the U.S., “These Yankee politicians are the lowest race of thieves in existence.” Later, John Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy famously disliked each other—the populist prairie Protestant versus the urbane Boston Catholic. During the Vietnam era, Prime Minister Lester Pearson publicly questioned Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the war in a speech at Temple University in Philadelphia. “You pissed on my rug,” LBJ famously told Pearson. While Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon were not personally close, they worked well together to restore the relationship to working order.

In more recent times, the Canada-U.S. relationship has progressed irrespective of the dynamic between the elected leaders. There has often been a popular undercurrent of Canadian resentment towards the U.S., though during Barack Obama’s eight years in office, he sustained an approval rating among Canadians higher than both his numbers at home and that of his domestic counterpart for most of that time, Stephen Harper. It wasn’t until the election of Trump that an American president targeted Canada for resentment of his own. What’s good for the goose was not good for the gander in Canada-U.S. relations—until now. That’s a disorienting feeling for Canadians. 

It is in this context that NAFTA was renegotiated. Surprisingly, the U.S. was willing to concede on several red-line issues. The U.S. wanted to eliminate the trilateral dispute settlement mechanism. Canada insisted on keeping it. Canada won. The U.S. wanted Canada to transition to free market in dairy products. Canada wanted to maintain supply management. Neither side won, both compromised with a modest move towards managed trade. Both the U.S. and Canada advocated for enhanced wages in Mexico, especially in the auto sector, and the new agreement reflects that. 

That said, before we congratulate ourselves on the USMCA, let’s remember that it’s not done. The new agreement will need legislative approval in all three countries. Moreover, the steel and aluminum tariffs remain. In the case of the members of the 116th Congress, they will arrive in Washington in January with other priorities on their minds. Handing Trump a major victory on trade will surely not top the Democrats’ list. It will be incumbent on all of those who support the new agreement to engage in earnest to see that it is passed.

And while Canadians now know what it feels like to be subjected to anti-Canadian sentiment coming from south of the border, there are two elements of silver lining. One is that Canada and Mexico declined to take the bait as the U.S. ratcheted up the pressure in an effort to lever a “better deal” for Americans. The second is, the overall debate about a new trade agreement has caused citizens in all three countries to pause to make sure they don’t take the trilateral relationship for granted. Our interconnectedness in the North American neighborhood continues to triumph even in the face of tough talk from the disruptor-in-chief.  

Scotty Greenwood is a leader of the public policy practice at DentonsLLP in Washington DC, and CEO of the Canadian American Business Council.