In Canada, Patience Wearing Thin Over Trump’s Antics

A threat to militarize the border and attempts to hold up lifesaving medical supplies have roiled the calmest of countries.

A sign says the U.S.-Canadian border is closed
Customs officers stand beside a sign saying that the border is closed at the U.S.-Canadian border in Lansdowne, Ontario, on March 22. LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, Canada’s approach to dealing with its southern neighbor has centered largely on quiet diplomacy and damage control. But COVID-19 has changed Ottawa’s most basic calculations. With more than 570,000 confirmed cases and more than 23,000 deaths, the United States now has the highest number of cases in the world. Canada, which has been lauded for its response, has seen more than 25,500 cases and more than 750 deaths. Today, Canada’s number of diagnosed cases per capita is about one-third that of the United States.

As Trump continues to bungle the response to the pandemic at home, while seeking to block medical supplies from reaching Canada and other countries, Ottawa seems to have had enough. Canada’s patience has worn thin in the past two weeks, particularly amid two decidedly Trumpian acts. In late March, leaked memos obtained by the Nation revealed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had requested 1,000 troops to guard the U.S.-Canada border. While militarizing the border would have benefited Canada more than the United States—as there is more irregular crossing from south to north than in the other direction—Ottawa considered it an overblown move. As talks of a militarized northern border grew stronger within the United States, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took pains to push back against the White House. Thus far, the effort has been successful, but whether it will stay that way remains to be seen. Days later, Trump drew outcry from Canada after invoking the 1950 Defense Production Act to bar 3M from exporting N95 masks to Canada. As with the border issue, the Trump administration has since walked back its threats, signing an agreement allowing the exports to move forward. But such wrangling has begun to change the tenor of the relationship.

“The U.S.-Canada relationship will survive this,” Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada, told Foreign Policy. “[But] like anything else, that’s a wound that’ll take time to heal and the next administration is going to work hard to repair the relationship and the reestablishment of trust.”

At the outset of the crisis, Canada handled the U.S. relationship with special care, even as it required some social distancing between neighbors. When Canada closed its borders to the world on March 16, it left out a crucial exception: the United States. While both countries’ outbreaks were much smaller at the time, cases in the United States were growing at a far faster clip—sped by a slow response and inadequate testing. If Trudeau’s reason for banning all foreigners was to protect Canadians from the virus, letting Americans in undercut his entire premise. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, then called U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to strike a deal. But doing so was part of a tactful strategy: Trudeau arrived at the same destination by letting Trump take the lead.

“We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!” Trump tweeted the next day. The border was closed to all nonessential movement, though the estimated $2 billion in goods that passes each day can still cross. (Closing the borders fully is something that the two countries have never done, save for briefly following 9/11.) By allowing Trump to lead the way on a two-sided closure that still permitted essential and trade movement, Trudeau saved the country from a geopolitical (or Twitter) fight with the U.S. president and the prospect of any ruinous economic retaliation. A full closure of the border would hit the two countries hard: Automobiles, for example, are shipped back and forth between Canada and the United States many times during their fabrication. Complete shutdown would have been detrimental to both countries and something to be avoided at all cost. “Canada’s approach has been taking [Trump’s] personality into consideration and effectively communicating widely about the importance of the relationship and what the United States is doing is wrong in terms of how it’s impacting the United States itself,” Heyman said.

Keeping a good and healthy relationship with the United States has been a chief domestic challenge in recent years. Trudeau’s office even includes a “war room” dedicated solely to handling a volatile Trump. Canada has nevertheless not been immune to Trump’s wild-card antics. In 2018, Trump caught Trudeau off guard with surprise tariffs on aluminum and steel—removed only after a nearly yearlong standoff. And while the two leaders have mostly maintained cordial relations, awkward encounters at international summits (including a leaked video showing Trudeau making fun of Trump) have led to name-calling and tensions. Typically, those tensions have been diffused by Trudeau.

The pandemic has changed this dynamic, however. When it came to talking Trump down from sending troops to the longest nonmilitarized border in the world, Trudeau took a different tack. He started making what some called threats, albeit the Canadian way: polite and almost apologetic. Over and over, Trudeau reminded his U.S. counterpart of the “mutually beneficial relationship” and, more importantly, the thousands of Canadian health care workers who cross the border every day to work in U.S. hospitals.

Even as nerves are fraying in Ottawa, there is much at stake to maintaining the relationship. Some 75 percent of Canadian exports go to the United States, while 18 percent of U.S. exports are sent to Canada.

But while there is hardly any “Canada first” policy, the country will take the actions most needed to protect itself. Or as Freeland put it: Ottawa will “do whatever it takes to defend the national interest.”

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in politics and foreign affairs.

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