TORONTO, ON — Donald Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “weak” and “dishonest” and attacked Canada's vital trade. He threatened tariffs on cars and imposed them on steel.
The unprecedented tone of attacks on America’s closest ally the last four years left a bitter taste, and most Canadians will be relieved if Trump is defeated in the election.
“He’s been willing to threaten Canada with dire consequences in a way we have never seen before,” said Roland Paris, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Trudeau.
Canada is one of the most trade-dependent countries in the world and Trump’s move to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement and call to impose a 25 percent tariff on the auto sector posed an existential threat.
About 75% of Canada’s exports go to the U.S., so preserving a free trade deal was critical, and the two countries, along with Mexico, reached a new agreement last year. But just six weeks after it was implemented, Trump announced new tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.
“Trump has been an unpredictable nightmare,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “The government and the overwhelming majority of Canadians are looking and hoping for Trump’s defeat.”
About two-thirds of Canadians had a favorable view of the U.S. in 2016, Barack Obama's final full year in the presidency, according to the Pew Research Center.
By this year, that number had tumbled to 35% — the lowest figure since the center began polling in Canada two decades ago. Only 20% of those polled said they trusted Trump to do what is right regarding world affairs.
The June-August telephone poll of 1,037 Canadians had a 3.7 percentage point margin of error.
Trump's Democratic rival, Joe Biden, meanwhile, described Canada as “like family” when Trudeau hosted a state dinner in Ottawa a month Biden left the vice presidency. Biden knew Justin’s father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and Democratic and Liberal leaders are ideologically aligned.
“Personal relations would improve by about 3,000%" with Biden, historian Robert Bothwell said. “There would be a return to rationality and friendliness. The Biden administration would bring with it a whole bunch of people who value American alliances, so Canada would benefit not just bilaterally and multilaterally in trying to restore the various Western alliances.”
Some Canadian analysts complain the Trump administration did little to back their country — beyond issuing statements of support — when China detained two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest of a top Chinese tech executive wanted on a U.S. warrant. No support at all came when Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador and told its own students to leave Canada after the foreign minister called for greater human rights in the kingdom.
“Emboldened authoritarian regimes are betting that the United States is not going to punish them for targeting U.S. allies, and Canada has borne the brunt of that,” said Paris, now professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.
But there could be an early irritant if Biden wins. Biden has said he would cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, a project meant to expand critical oil exports for Canada, whicl has the third-largest oil reserves in the world.
Biden's call for a “Buy American” trade policy also concerns Canada.
Trade in goods and services between the U.S. and Canada totaled an estimated $725.1 billion in 2019, with a deficit of $2.7 billion for the United States. The U.S had a $7.4 billion surplus in 2017,
The ties between the two countries are without parallel anywhere in the world. There is close cooperation on defense, border security and law enforcement, and a vast overlap in culture, traditions and pastimes — with shared baseball, hockey, basketball and soccer leagues. About 400,000 people crossed the world’s longest international border each day before the pandemic closed it to nonessential travel in March.
The U.S. has more confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 than any other country, but there is a hope in Canada that Biden administration might better contain the virus.
“We can’t have the border closed forever. The fact that it’s been accepted almost without a peep so far is in part a measure of just how loathed the Trump administration is,” Bothwell said.
Canadians expressed hurt when their neighbor blocked shipments of N95 protective masks from the United States early in the pandemic. Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, calls it a low point.
“I just couldn’t imagine living next door to somebody and they are need of something to survive and I’m like, ‘You can’t have it.’ That is just unthinkable,” Heyman said. "The relationship is like family. It’s like a trusted neighbor and we have a president that doesn’t value any of those things. He was so transactional for a win for him."
Heyman said another low point was when Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said there was a “special place in hell” for Trudeau following the G-7 summit in Quebec in 2018, when Trudeau told reporters that Canada would retaliate against new U.S. tariffs it viewed as unfair. Trump was furious, pulling the U.S. out of the G-7 joint communique and calling Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak” and threatening to make the Canadian people pay in trade talks.
Trudeau, for his part, recently had a meeting with Canadian diplomats in the U.S. And he said recently, “We’re certainly all hoping for a smooth transition or a clear result from the election like many people around the world."
“If it is less clear, there may be some disruptions and we need to be ready," he added.
Paris said America has changed in the recent years: “Even if Biden wins, he will be governing a country that is deeply divided, inwardly focused and where America-first ideas have made real inroads among legislators and large swaths of the public.”
Bothwell said he was concerned about enduring support for Trump: “The fact that 40% of Americans support this guy no matter what is deeply discouraging.”