Skip to main content

What’s the opposite of a dog whistle? An air horn? Whatever it is, it is what Justin Trudeau was using to send a political signal when he complained about U.S. “backsliding” on abortion rights to Vice-President Mike Pence.

This was no sly message designed to perk up the ears of a particular target audience without attracting the notice of others – the so-called political dog whistle. Mr. Trudeau was using a loud, shrill blast.

He wants people to talk about abortion. He wants Canadians, especially pro-choice women, to talk about abortion rights in the United States, where five state legislatures have recently passed laws restricting abortion. He hopes that will make abortion an issue here, so he can use it against his Conservative adversary, Andrew Scheer. There’s nothing subtle about it.

So the Prime Minister scrapped the discipline he once preached. After Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, he repeatedly rebuffed those who longed for him to to rebuke Mr. Trump over things such as attempting to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Canadians expect their prime ministers to make the important relationship work, Mr. Trudeau would say.

Of course, Mr. Pence is not Mr. Trump. He is an anti-abortion social conservative, but he doesn’t share the President’s hair-trigger reaction to perceived slights. Still, this was a gratuitous use of a foreign visit for domestic politics.

The NAFTA talks are over, but there are big things in that U.S. relationship. Ottawa wants the Trump administration to press for Beijing to release two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – detained by China in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

There wasn’t even a thin pretext for Mr. Trudeau to link the attempt to gut abortion rights in Georgia or Louisiana to cross-border relations. Forget that Mr. Trudeau’s intervention isn’t going to make an impact in the United States. How would Canadians view an American vice-president who came to Canada to complain about this country’s abortion laws?

Mr. Trudeau made sure his complaint would get noticed. He told reporters the day before Mr. Pence’s arrival that he would raise it. There was an item on Fox News’s website. Canadian reporters were certainly going to ask about it after the meeting.

“I explained that we as a country, a government, will always stand up for the rights of women, for women’s free choice and that we are worried about the situation regarding women’s rights,” Mr. Trudeau said at a joint press conference in Ottawa. “It was a cordial discussion, but obviously we have different perspectives on that.”

Mr. Pence didn’t want to turn it into confrontation. He was in Ottawa because he is on a campaign to sell USMCA in the U.S., and push Congress to ratify it, and Mr. Trudeau could help him.

He did say he’s “very proud to be part of a pro-life administration.” But he was at pains to be non-confrontational, saying friends such as the U.S. and Canada can be candid, but each could settle the issue with their own laws.

It wasn’t the topic the Vice-President wanted to make headlines – when a Canadian reporter slid a second question about abortion in with a query about the trade deal, his press aides went to ask Mr. Trudeau’s staff why the press was given such leeway.

But Mr. Trudeau’s team wanted to field abortion questions. It wasn’t about Mr. Pence. It was about Mr. Scheer.

The Liberals have been looking for a way to raise the abortion issue, and raise doubts about the Conservative Leader.

But Mr. Scheer has answered, essentially, that it’s a settled question: He said, as Stephen Harper said before him, that a Conservative government would not reopen the issue.

The Liberals want people to worry that’s not enough. They want people to know that Mr. Scheer is personally opposed to abortion, even if he promises he won’t change the law. They note Mr. Scheer would allow Conservative backbenchers to propose bills to restrict abortion, and vote freely. They want people to look at the U.S., and wonder if settled abortion law could suddenly change here, too.

But it’s not so easy to get U.S. state legislation on abortion into Canadian political headlines, so he can try to transfuse the issue into Canada. So he used Mr. Pence to do it.

There was no care for the Canada-U.S. discipline he once counselled, and no desire to be subtle about it.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe