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The Globe and Mail

How Canada must respond to Trump’s trade threats

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

For Canada, Trump times are trying times. In spite of constant provocation, the team around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s team has successfully avoided making our policy differences personal. This is the right approach.

The latest ‘Trumplosion’ links the threatened new tariffs on steel and aluminum to renegotiating a “new and fair NAFTA agreement.” Delivered in one of the President’s now-trademark early morning tweets, it is straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook.

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The Trumplosions are a distraction to the NAFTA negotiators. They remind us why we need a fair dispute-settlement chapter as insurance of secure access to our largest market.

Getting an exemption from the tariffs means redoubling our advocacy efforts in the United States. To our mantra about Canadian trade sustaining nine million American jobs, we now need to add that Canada is the biggest market for U.S. steel, taking half of U.S. steel exports. That Canada is the largest foreign supplier of both steel and aluminum to the U.S. only underlines our role as a trusted and reliable ally. And, as the President’s own 2018 Economic Report points out, the U.S. enjoys a trade surplus with Canada.

The multipronged Team Canada approach both in and beyond the Washington beltway is working. Ministers and premiers consistently reach out to their counterparts. Federal and provincial legislators work both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses. Business and labour engage customers and suppliers.

As a result, we have identified many more American allies than we thought. The dividend from all this activity is the significant number of U.S. legislators now making the case for a Canadian exemption.

The North American free-trade agreement, a leper in U.S. political circles for most of the last 24 years, is finding champions in the United States. The farm community, the auto industry and most business is now telling the Trump administration to “do no harm" to NAFTA.

But the problem, as Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland recognizes, is that the Trump team approaches trade negotiations as a "zero sum" game. They are mercantilists and the growing U.S. trade deficit only strengthens their protectionist instincts.

The fate of the tariffs and NAFTA is ultimately an American debate.

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The 140,000 jobs in the steel industry face continuing pressure not because of foreign competition but because of automation and robotics. The jobs are not coming back. The Trump administration owes these workers retraining and adjustment assistance.

There are 6.5 million jobs that depend on the steel imports. These are the jobs that Mr. Trump should be supporting. They will suffer if tariffs are imposed. It is “straight up stupid,” says Peterson Institute’s Adam Posen, “ mess up your entire trading system.”

Mr. Trump is wrong on one thing. No one wins a trade war. Using national security as a protectionist cloak to impose tariffs risks unhinging the global trading order. It will backfire on the Trump administration.

Canadians are feeling the impact as the threat of tariffs disrupts our markets, our currency and potential investment. Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz warns that the redirection of investment towards the U.S. will only increase. The Trump tax reforms will only accelerate this flight. Finance Minister Bill Morneau needs to rethink how to sustain Canada’s competitiveness.

Global overcapacity in steel production is testing the global trading system. Both the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have identified the problem – Chinese overcapacity. A useful Canadian initiative would be to bring together China and the U.S., and our fellow U.S. steel suppliers – Brazil, E.U., Mexico, and South Korea – to see what we can work out.

With our fellow targets of the Trump tariffs, we should also draw up a common retaliatory list. By jointly and very publicly threatening to target products such as California wine, Canada and Mexico persuaded Congress to rescind the pernicious country-of-origin labelling requirements.

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The tariff threat reminds Canadians that the Trump challenge – an impulsive, unpredictable president who thrives on chaos – requires constant vigilance. We will get through the latest Trumplosion because of our co-ordinated advocacy and careful diplomacy.

Even before being elected Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau recognized the wisdom of Brian Mulroney’s axiom that the most important relationship for every Canadian prime minister is that with the U.S. president. Like it or not, Mr. Trudeau must continue to work diligently on his relationship with Mr. Trump, including the late-night telephone calls.

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