The Canadian Women Who Changed Trump’s Mind on Tariffs

Chrystia Freeland, Mary Ng, and Kirsten Hillman got the White House to do something rare: back down.

Then-Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 31, 2018.
Then-Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 31, 2018.

When the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump decided to reimpose tariffs on Canadian aluminum in August—claiming there was too much aluminum headed south to the United States—it looked like an electoral stunt. After all, two U.S. companies in red states key to Trump’s reelection had been actively pushing for tariffs’ return. 

Given the stakes, Canadian policymakers thought it unlikely that the tariffs would be lifted before the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election. Ottawa nevertheless tried to overturn Washington’s decision. And, surprisingly, it succeeded.

On Sept.15, Washington backed down. It was a Canadian victory in this latest tit-for-tat, won through skillful coordination and the imposition of countertariffs. And the negotiators credited with changing Trump’s mind? They’re all women.

“Yesterday’s decision by the U.S. administration to remove unjustified tariffs on Canadian aluminum was the right thing to do,” Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sept. 16. He thanked Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Small Business Mary Ng, and Ambassador to Washington Kirsten Hillman, the first woman to ever represent Canada in Washington, “for their hard work on this important issue.”

“We had a trio of formidable Canadian women who probably, just by chance, happened to be at the helm of the negotiating decision-making and influencing crossroads,” Jean Simard, the president of Canada’s Aluminum association, said. “Those women were very studious, knew their files like you only see people at that level, which gave them an edge.”

Freeland, the most well-known of the three, has been Ottawa’s resident problem-solver since the early days of the Trudeau government. She successfully renegotiated the United States-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA) while she was minister of foreign affairs and was recently appointed Deputy Prime Minister, a role in which she handles the sometimes tense relationship between Canada’s provinces. In August, Trudeau tapped Freeland to be minister of finance after the acting minister quit amid the government’s entanglement in a corruption scandal.

Even after leaving the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Freeland has remained a fixture in U.S.-Canadian relations.

Even after leaving the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Freeland has remained a fixture in U.S.-Canadian relations, so her involvement in changing Washington’s mind on aluminum tariffs was not surprising. But she didn’t do it alone. Rather, Freeland coupled her diplomatic expertise with issue-area knowledge of Ng and Hillman. Hillman, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, has a long résumé working on the U.S.-Canadian trade relationship; Ng is an experienced parliamentarian who inherited the Canadian government’s export promotion and small business portfolio in 2018.

Also critical of Washington’s August surprise was Catherine Loubier, Quebec’s representative in New York. Quebec is by far Canada’s largest aluminum producer; as such, aluminum is one of Loubier’s top priorities. (“In Quebec, it’s 30,000 jobs and 1,500 companies,” she said.) Well before the tariffs came into effect over the summer, she had launched a nationwide campaign in the United States.

Together, the women were able to speak with one voice to counter Trump’s claims that Canada was “taking advantage of us as usual,” and that Canada’s aluminum was a threat to national security.

Trump’s claims that Canada was taking advantage of the United States on aluminum relate to the pandemic. In June, Robert Lighthizer claimed that U.S. import of Canada’s aluminum “have surged above historical levels” from May 2019 to June 2020. Canada argues the surplus is circumstantial. Prior to the pandemic, in early 2020, export of Canadian aluminum to the United States decreased because of railroad blockades in Canada. When the pandemic hit, though, Canadian smelters—like those elsewhere in the world—didn’t shut down and continued to produce and export raw materials. What the U.S. administration didn’t take into account is that, while the export of raw Canadian aluminum did in fact increase over the summer, exports of other aluminum products fell.

“We shut down the economy,” Freeland said, “especially the manufacturing economy, and that had an effect on the composition of our aluminum exports to the United States.” Canada’s aluminum production depends on its access to cheap hydroelectricity—which makes it hard for American companies to compete. So two U.S. companies, Magnitude 7 and Century Aluminum, pressured the Trump administration to reinstate tariffs.

Magnitude 7 claims it was saved by the first round of tariffs; earlier in 2020, the firm warned its losses could push it to close. Meanwhile, the U.S. aluminum association opposed the new tariffs, saying that, after the successful USMCA negotiations, “it would be a shame to move backward by reapplying tariffs or quotas on aluminum.” But both Magnitude 7 and Century Aluminum are in states key to Trump’s reelection—Kentucky and Missouri, respectively—indicating that Trump’s tariffs may have been less economic strategy than electoral bargain.

Trump’s tariffs may have been less economic strategy than electoral bargain.

Century Aluminum and Magnitude 7 did not answer requests for interviews.

With U.S. firms central to Trump’s push, the Quebec mission opted to reach out to as many U.S. representatives as possible, mounting a pro-American counternarrative against tariffs rather than focusing solely on the Canadian side of the equation. Products produced in the United States and Canada tend to cross the border many times throughout production, so tariffs can be detrimental to manufacturers in the United States, too. “[This] was not an operation where we would just try to make them aware that this is happening,” Loubier said. “It was really putting a sort of a fire under a desk and saying how this is affecting you.”

The Canadian team also came up with a “dollar to dollar” countertariff strategy, which was supposed to be put in place two hours after Washington changed its mind. According to CBC News, “the preliminary list of counter-tariffs included a disproportionate number of products from U.S. swing states that will determine Trump’s fate in the Nov. 3 presidential election.”

In the end, as Freeland noted, “the United States…[chose] to unilaterally lift its tariffs.” Part of that was the Canadian team’s negotiating, but part was new data that emerged that painted a different story than the one presented by the Trump administration. Data published in August revealed the aluminum trade balance became more equal between the U.S. and Canada over the past year, and showed no increase in Canadian total exports whatsoever. “Facts are facts and evidence is evidence,” Loubier said.

While the threat of tariffs is still looming— they could technically be reimposed at any time—for the time being, the storm has passed. The coronavirus pandemic has shaken the Canada-United States relationship, and leaders are more focused on rebuilding it than stoking further tension. This summer, Loubier, along with the Canadian American Business Council, launched North American Rebound, a campaign that aims to rally business voices against protectionism. So far, 654,400 businesses and chambers of commerce have signed on the initiative in the United States and Canada.

Working closely with Loubier on North American Rebound is the President of the Canada-U.S. Chamber of Commerce—who is, once again, a woman: Maryscott Greenwood. But Ottawa isn’t celebrating yet; Canada is well aware that it is constantly walking on eggshells with the Trump administration. “There are no guarantees going forward,” Freeland said, “as we have learned, there are [none] in our trading relationship with this administration.”

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

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