OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is getting cross-partisan support as he tries to de-escalate a looming trade war with the United States.
This past weekend saw U.S. President Donald Trump lash out at Canada, promising even more tariffs while one of his top advisers claimed Trudeau tried "to stab (Trump) in the back" through bad-faith diplomacy.
On Monday afternoon, the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion decrying "disparaging, ad-hominem statements" as counterproductive, while supporting Trudeau’s threat last week to impose retaliatory tariffs on the U.S. if it doesn’t rollback its own fees on steel and aluminum.
Lloyd Axworthy, who served as a Liberal foreign-affairs minister from 1996 to 2000, said the Trudeau government’s months-long lobbying of governors, congressmen and U.S. business chambers will make it harder for Trump to put more tariffs on Canada.
"The groundwork's been laid, and I think that he may require even an enhancement of that," Axworthy said from his Winnipeg home.
He chalked up this past weekend’s drama to "schoolyard bully tactics" that would be quickly forgotten.
"The way you deal with it is not to get down to their level," he said. "When Trump pulled out of the Paris accords, there was a shock value for the first couple weeks, but then people moved on."
The head of the Canadian Labour Congress agreed that Trudeau ought to stay the course by not snapping back — but said Canada may have to pursue an agreement that doesn’t include Mexico.
"Time may tell whether we end up back with a tri-national agreement — we might end up with a bilateral agreement. That may be the ultimate breaking point," said Hassan Yussuff, who sits on Trudeau’s NAFTA advisory council.
"We've got to find a way still to find ways to keep these discussions going," Yussuff said on the phone from Regina, adding that labour groups are glad the main parties all plan to defend Canada’s quota system on dairy and poultry, which American negotiators have targeted.
In the Commons, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen asked the government to prepare for "a potential aid package" for workers who would be impacted by a trade war, but was concerned that a growing deficit would make that harder.
"When politicians fight and when leaders argue, it is always the people who suffer," said Bergen, the MP for Portage-Lisgar, adding that the government should eliminate inter-provincial trade barriers and pursue trade with Asia.
In an interview, Bruce Heyman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Obama administration, said Trudeau’s charm offensive seems to be yielding results among Republicans, but not enough who are up for re-election.
"There are a few who are lending their voices, that this is going down a bad path. But not enough yet," said Heyman, now an adviser with the think-tank Canada 2020.
"There are a number of Republicans behind closed doors who are having this conversation, but are too fearful of their president to say it in the open. You need to get it to where they're bold enough to say it in the open, so that they can affect change."
Heyman said farmers across the Prairie have cross-border ties, with many on the American side voting Republican, suggesting that Manitoba’s agriculture sector could help their peers steer Congress and the U.S. Senate toward keeping NAFTA.
Axworthy said Monday’s multi-party support for Trudeau’s approach to NAFTA helps ensure that "there's no allusions by Washington or in the Trump administration that somehow his comments are going to foment opposition in Canada."
Meanwhile, former Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose told media she expects negotiations to drag on for months, and that the months of uncertainty will hit Canadians harder than Americans, because their much larger economy isn’t as reliant on trade.
She called on Trudeau to cut down regulations and taxes to tide the country through such a period. "We've got to be thinking of our competitiveness vis-à-vis our largest competitor south of the border."