Fears about the negative impact of a Canada-U.S. trade war are reaching into the corner offices of some of Canada’s biggest and most prominent companies.
Royal Bank of Canada chief executive Dave McKay expressed deep frustration with the acrimonious tone trade talks have taken on recently.
“I’m troubled by how events have spiralled to where they are today,” the head of Canada’s largest bank told reporters on Wednesday, after an event for investors.
Mr. McKay said that during a recent two-day trip to Washington, he heard U.S. officials “talking negatively about Canada without fact.” That can’t help but make businesses pause when considering investment or expansion into cross-border markets, he said.
His comments came after a weekend when U.S. officials denigrated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump threatened that a U.S. investigation into auto imports will lead to tariffs on vehicles and auto parts shipped out of Canada to the United States.
Tariffs on autos would be “potentially devastating for the Canadian manufacturers,” Honda Canada Inc. president Dave Gardner said, in the first public comment by the head of an auto maker in Canada on the possible impact of a 25-per-cent tariff on Canadian vehicle exports.
Honda assembles its Civic sedan and CR-V crossover utility vehicle at a plant in Alliston, Ont., that employs about 4,000 people. It ships about 75 per cent of those vehicles to the U.S. market.
“We think all Canadian stakeholders should be focused on what needs to be to avert the possibility [of tariffs],” Mr. Gardner said in an e-mail.
Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford met with Canadian auto and steel industry executives Wednesday and discussed the economic damage such tariffs would do to Ontario, which is the home of all vehicle assembly plants in Canada and about 85 per cent of the 130,000 jobs in assembly and parts manufacturing.
The concerns about the impact of the trade war on Canada and Ontario – as the centre of steel and auto making in the country – arise as the province prepares for its first change of government in 15 years, with power shifting from the Liberals to Mr. Ford and his Progressive Conservatives.
Quebec has offered $100-million in loans and guarantees to steel and aluminum manufacturers in that province, but Mr. Ford did not make a similar commitment during a news conference after his meeting with the auto and steel industry leaders.
“My job personally, is to protect every single job in Ontario … I have to protect the auto workers, which is a massive industry, and my priority is to make sure we protect the steel and aluminum workers,” he said, adding that he will work with federal officials to resolve what he called a “NAFTA war.”
RBC’s Mr. McKay said he supports the federal government’s refusal to cave in to U.S. demands in negotiations on a new North American free-trade agreement, such as a “sunset clause” that would require an automatic review of any deal every five years.
“The government’s absolutely right in saying this is not on,” Mr. McKay told reporters. “You can’t go through that every five years if people are making 10-year investments in capital on both sides of the border. So you have to stand firm on those issues.”
RBC is a major commercial lender on both sides of the border, and has a top-10 U.S. investment bank based in New York that serves companies in sectors ranging from energy and health care to retail and technology. The U.S. footprint is key to RBC’s growth, especially since 2015, when RBC spent $7.1-billion to buy Los Angeles-based City National Bank – a successful commercial lender with an expanding loan portfolio worth US$32-billion.
“I think we’re all concerned,” Mr. McKay said. “Any businessman’s going to pause, right? If you’re on the cusp of signing to build a plant in Canada or to make an investment, and you need access to foreign markets to sell that product, you’re going to obviously say, ‘Okay, is there going to be a tariff on that? And [do] my economics still work?’ ”
The Quebec government’s loans and loan guarantees to small steel and aluminum producers could trigger a U.S. subsidy complaint from the Americans, trade lawyers have warned.
Steel makers in Canada said they believe Canadian governments should be willing to help steel workers and companies as long as the assistance doesn’t contravene international trade rules set by such bodies as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
“As the situation evolves, where governments can take appropriate WTO-compliant steps to assist workers and companies unfairly harmed by these measures, we believe there should be a willingness to assist,” Joseph Galimberti, president of the Canadian Steel Producers Association, said in a statement.