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Opinion We don’t have to like it, but America the bully is our best friend

Historian J.L. Granatstein is the author of Yankee Go Home? Canadians and Anti-Americanism

Robert Thompson was not a great politician. But in the early 1960s, the Social Credit leader made a comment in the House of Commons that expressed a fundamental Canadian truth very succinctly. “The Americans,” he said, “are our best friends, whether we like it or not.” That was likely not what Thompson, a man with a rare gift for malapropism, meant to say, but his words were exactly right.

Correct or not, Canadians may not like this very much. We admired Barack Obama even if his willingness or ability to foster Canadian interests was much less than perfect. Anti-Americanism has been the Canadian secular religion for decades, imbibed with our mother’s milk, but with Obama in power, it was muted. Now with Donald Trump sitting in the White House and railing in malevolent ignorance at his allies and enemies, anti-Americanism and talk of boycotting American goods and winter holidays in the south are rife. Conrad Black aside, there is near unanimity in Canada that President Trump is a disaster for us and our friends. The anti-American sentiment is stronger today than it was when Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush were in office.

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All this is understandable. Mr. Trump’s trade policies are based on flawed, illogical economics and will certainly punish American workers and corporations just as much as they will hurt foreign – including Canadian – workers. His attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and on the North American free-trade agreement, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are vicious, as puzzling as his praise for dictators and strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping and Ki Jong-un. There has never before been an American leader like Mr. Trump, who is seemingly determined to tear apart the world order created after 1945 by his presidential predecessors.

But Canadians need to remember that Robert Thompson had it right: Like it or not, the Americans truly are our best friends. Some three-quarters of our exports go to the United States and previous efforts to diversify our trade – the Third Option in the early 1970s, for example – went nowhere. Our defence is largely provided by the United States, thanks to Canadian governments’ unwillingness to spend the funds and procure the equipment needed for the Canadian Forces to do the job. Moreover, Ottawa has most, but not all, of the same positions on foreign policy as our neighbours. We share the continent, and Canadians and Americans are inextricably bound together by interests and values.

Mr. Trump may be tearing down the global order, but the Canadian goal must be to preserve the ties that bind us to the United States. We might postpone or even give up our winter holidays in Florida, Arizona or California. We can shop for Mexican, Moroccan or South American fruit instead of U.S. grapes and pears. But we cannot switch our exports to other nations without massive job losses and economic dislocation. The supply chains that cross the border are intricate, well-established and impossibly difficult to replace.

Trump has already hammered Canada’s softwood lumber sector, and steel and aluminum exports to the United States. With his administration now threatening to put tariffs on Canadian-produced automobiles, the risks to the economy are staggering. Very simply, while doing this would bite off the Americans’ nose to spite their face by inflicting heavy costs and job losses on U.S. workers, the effects in Canada will be calamitous. The manufacturing sector in Ontario especially is dependent on auto production, and the tariffs would do enormous damage.

The difficulty is that Justin Trudeau’s government has painted itself into a corner. By talking tough to the United States on NAFTA and tariffs, Trudeau has played to Canadian nationalism. We don’t like being pushed around by bullies – Mr. Trump is the American braggart par excellence – and Canadians of all parties understandably rallied to the government’s side. Resisting Mr. Trump makes us feel good and truly Canadian.

Mr. Trudeau won’t easily change his line, but he must. Now is the time for realism. We must keep our economy humming and our workers employed. Standing up to the bully makes us feel proud, but the reality is that it will wreak havoc on the economy and jobs. The United States is so much bigger and richer that we are in a fight we can only lose. Very simply, we need to eliminate the threat of auto tariffs, get NAFTA signed and sealed and, if we must accept some harsh terms to get a deal, do so.

We can hope that President Trump is gone in 2020, and that reason will prevail once more in North America. But unless we are prepared to suffer through years of harsh dislocation, we must accept that the bully is going to win this fight. No Canadian wants this but, like it or not, it is a fact.

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