September 30, 2020

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COVID-19 and Canada-U.S. relations

Opinion

SINCE the 2016 election of Donald Trump, there is no disputing the fact that the Canada-United States relationship has experienced its most difficult period since 1945. And, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

In late March, in an effort to contain the novel coronavirus, Trump raised the bizarre possibility of deploying 1,000 U.S. soldiers along the 9,000-km Canada-U.S. border so as to intercept any unauthorized crossers. Just the thought of the White House contemplating such a move (which was eventually scrapped) raised immediate objections from Canada.

As Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland explained, "In terms of what we are doing about it, we are very directly and very forcefully expressing … that in Canada’s view, this is an entirely unnecessary step which we would view as damaging to our relationship."

At one of his regular coronavirus briefings in Washington, the president also acknowledged that U.S. troops could be used to block illegal shipments of Chinese steel from coming into the U.S. via Canada. "We have a lot of things coming in from Canada. We have trade, some illegal trade, that we don’t like.… We don’t like steel coming through our border that’s been dumped in Canada so they can avoid the tariff," he said.

Since the Canadian government is already closely monitoring the Chinese steel issue, it’s hard to know exactly what Trump was talking about. On the face of it, the whole idea of stationing soldiers along the border makes very little sense — except for its U.S. domestic political utility.

Another point of contention between the two countries is Trump’s decision to deport back to their home countries asylum-seekers turned away by Canadian border officers. In the words of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official, "In the event an alien cannot be returned to Mexico or Canada, CBP will work with interagency partners to secure return to the alien’s country of origin and hold the alien for the shortest time possible."

Forcibly returning legitimate refugees to the country in which they were persecuted is not something that Canada endorses, and officials have expressed those sentiments to their U.S. counterparts.

Earlier this month, Trump once again invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to block Minnesota-based 3M Company from exporting desperately-needed N95 respirator masks to Canada. That’s hardly the way for the White House to treat a neighbour, friend and America’s best customer. But this is what happens when "America First" policies are put into practice against supposed allies.

Not surprisingly, Canada quickly made its concerns known about the uncharacteristic medical equipment interruption to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Freeland once again stated bluntly, "I do want to assure Canadians that our government — as has been demonstrated by our action — is prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the national interest."

There was even some loose talk about Canada fashioning some sort of retaliatory action against Washington. At one point, Canadian officials highlighted the fact that disrupting economic exchange between the two countries — especially given its highly integrated nature and long-standing supply chains — only ends up damaging both nations.

Additionally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opaquely referred to the possibility of Canadian medical professionals — many of whom work in COVID-19 hotspots in Michigan — being prohibited from crossing the border into the U.S. But Ottawa, wisely, thought otherwise.

Besides, it hardly makes sense for Canada to take out its frustrations with the Trump administration against Detroit-area hospitals in the midst of a deadly pandemic. More to the point: I can’t imagine a beleaguered Trump would take kindly to such a bilateral provocation.

For a variety of reasons, Canada does not want to get into a war of retaliation with the U.S. Simply put, we would get clobbered. So it would be wise for the Trudeau government to ditch any chatter about reciprocal retaliatory measures against Trump.

The unfortunate reality is that the Canadian government does not possess the requisite leverage to have any pull with the U.S. We may have it sometime down the road, when issues around shortages of fresh water and rare-earth metals become more acute in the U.S.

But until that happens, and as long as Donald Trump occupies the White House, Canada is best served by biting its collective tongue and looking the other way. We just don’t have any other option right now, I’m afraid.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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