Peter Donolo is a Toronto-based communications consultant. He served as director of communications to prime minister Jean Chrétien.
Despite the pandemic, it’s clear that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t lost his dramatic flair. His 21 seconds of silence before responding to a question about President Donald Trump’s authoritarianism this week spoke volumes to pundits and other observers, many of whom read it as implicit criticism.
But when confronted with the most aberrant president in U.S. history – with someone who is actively fomenting civil strife across our borders, whose chaotic response to the COVID-19 crisis has put Canadians at risk, and who routinely convulses the world community and global economy – is silence really the best we can do?
It’s certainly an improvement over two of his predecessors. Brian Mulroney has praised Mr. Trump as a “nice guy” and model family man, and even serenaded him at his Mar-a-Lago resort with a rendition of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. And in an interview that surfaced recently, Stephen Harper vigorously defended Mr. Trump with this risible claim: “You can’t find an anti-Black or anti-Jewish statement Donald Trump has ever made in his life.”
The current Conservative Leader, Andrew Scheer, has preferred to blame Mr. Trudeau when there have been dust-ups between Canada and the Trump administration. His putative successors as Conservative leader are citizens of only one country, but they’re just as tongue-tied as he has been in calling out Mr. Trump’s outrages.
The reason for all this deafening silence? The Prime Minister said it himself. “My job, as a Canadian prime minister,” he responded to the Trump question, “is to stand up for our interests and to stand up for our values.” It is presumably in the defence of those interests that Mr. Trudeau bites his tongue; it is received wisdom that to offend or anger Mr. Trump would unleash a torrent of reprisals on the Canadian economy. As if the comprehensive and complex trading relationship between two nations were the personal possession of a single politician, to destroy at a whim or out of personal pique.
But what happens when defending interests comes at expense of the other obligation Mr. Trudeau noted – standing up for our values?
The Trudeau government has spoken out on disturbing domestic affairs of other trading partners, such as China and Saudi Arabia. Why can’t we speak with the same moral clarity about the authoritarian closer to home?
Previous prime ministers have spoken up for Canadian values even when it ruffled presidential feathers. In 1965, Lester Pearson spoke out against the Vietnam War in a speech at Temple University in Philadelphia, inciting a monumental tantrum from President Lyndon B. Johnson; he also opened Canada’s doors to American draft dodgers. In 2003, Jean Chrétien kept Canada out of George W. Bush’s ruinous Iraq invasion, much to the consternation of that administration – and the vocal pro-U.S. lobby in Canada.
The Prime Minister’s 21 seconds of silence is being seen as a tacit repudiation of Mr. Trump’s demagoguery. Certainly the American news media is portraying it that way. But this is the kind of trick you can only pull once.
The only certainty of the Trump presidency has been that it always gets worse. He will smash more norms. He will try new tactics to stir up division and hatred. And looking at one’s shoes in response only goes so far.
The plain truth is that the United States is our most important ally and trading partner – and that the words and actions of its President, when they veer toward authoritarianism and incitement of unrest, are deeply troubling to us. If the Prime Minister were to say that, it would be an affirmation of the truth and an example, to borrow his phrase, of standing up for Canadian values.
To continue playing coy is fraught with risks. The primary one is the creeping “Finlandization” of Canada and Canadian politics – the cowering and self-censorship of a smaller nation out of fear of its larger, more powerful neighbour. It can seem clever and self-serving early on, but before you know it, it can become a fact of life and a source of national self-loathing.
Expressions of national sovereignty are relatively easy when there is no fear of push back. But if we only find our voice when there is no risk, then we are not truly sovereign.
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