Back in the day, when Canada signed the landmark free trade agreement with the United States, there was a good deal of fear and loathing.
The Progressive Conservatives led the way on reciprocity and the Jean Chrétien Liberals, as former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy recalled in a phone call this week, reluctantly climbed aboard. Like many, he worried the border would weaken, that continentalism had won out.
Then, deus ex machina, beginning with 9/11, expectations were overturned. The response to the terrorist horror – with many Americans believing the hijackers had come through Canada – was to fortify the world’s longest undefended border. Passports became necessary.
A bitter split with the George W. Bush administration ensued over Canada’s refusal to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Later, under the Republicans, came the populist explosion on the right. Donald Trump treated Canada more like an adversary than an ally. His medieval empire, his attack on truth, democracy and decency, soured the opinion of Canadians on America like never before.
Maybe the bigger the border, Canadians reasoned, the better.
Then, taking the boundary divide to the max, came the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, which had the effect of cocooning Canada, shutting down the border to all but essential traffic. The closure has endured more than a year and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in no hurry to end it. He’s been hearing from his public: Keep the Americans out.
It doesn’t make sense, Maryscott Greenwood, the North Carolinian who is head of the Canadian American Business Council, said in an interview. “You’re saying vaccines don’t matter.” Canadians shouldn’t underestimate the opposition and frustration this has provoked in Washington. She’s hearing from top officials, she said, that the U.S. is considering opening its side of the border fully on June 21. If Mr. Trudeau and company don’t respond in kind, so be it. To heck with them.
All said, there’s been quite a turn since the heady days of free trade. Instead of continental cohesion, much division. Instead of a border thinner than ever, one thicker than ever. Instead of a new North Americanism, a retreat to a more fragmented mindset.
“The heyday of the Canada-U.S. relationship has come and gone,” said Christopher Kirkey, director of the Center for the Study of Canada at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. “The trend is toward more divergence than convergence.”
In addition to the advent of Mr. Trump, the calamities of 9/11 and the coronavirus, there were other factors. Free trade, as Mr. Kirkey observed, coincided with the end of the Cold War. That termination meant Canada needed the U.S. less and the U.S. needed Canada less. The special relationship between the two countries that was built in the period 1945 to 1990 became too difficult to sustain and it isn’t, in his view, about to be restored by Joe Biden’s protectionist Democrats. “I can tell you Canada is hardly on the radar screen in Washington. Let’s be blunt about that.”
Michael Adams, the head of the Environics Institute who has been surveying Canadian attitudes toward Americans for decades, concurs that the North Americanism envisaged with free trade is pretty much kaput. In the post-Second World War years, Canadians used to look up to the U.S. in so many ways, he said. “It used to be like the utopia.” Now, given the hold Mr. Trump’s populist authoritarianism has on such a large swath of the population, “it’s more like the dystopia.”
Of course, as was rightly noted by Goldy Hyder, chief executive officer of the Business Council of Canada, economic dependence on the American market is here to stay, despite any other decoupling tendencies. The Trudeau government better be careful, he warned. With companies reviewing their supply chains in the wake of the pandemic, more investments will remain in the U.S. if the Canadian border poses too much of a barrier.
If the Liberals were following the science, they’d quickly open the border, he added, but instead they’ve been following the politics (their polling). He said Mr. Biden told Mr. Trudeau in Europe that he promised freedom for Americans by July 4 and that opening the Canadian border is part of the deal.
The Prime Minister will take his sweet time in reciprocating. Continental consolidation isn’t as big a priority as it was before the century turned. Since that time, it’s become increasingly clear how different Canadians are. Rather than welded to an American block, they much prefer their own.
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