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The Globe and Mail

Canada needs a positive bilateral tone and a more global trade outlook

Derek H. Burney was Canada's ambassador to Washington from 1989 to 1993. He was directly involved in concluding negotiations of the free-trade agreement with the United States. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World

Donald Trump, the improbable, unconventional candidate, is about to become the improbable, unconventional U.S. president. It's like Brexit on steroids.

Much to the surprise and consternation of many, the candidate for change defeated the candidate for consistency. Mr. Trump tapped deep wells of frustration, alienation and fear, especially with white working-class voters in the industrial Midwest, and shattered the electoral "Blue Wall" that has sustained past Democratic victories. His stunning victory repudiates many of the elites, the pollsters, the establishment and eight years of President Barack Obama's centre-left policies.

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Mr. Trump inherits a badly divided America and, with Republican control of both the House and the Senate, his first challenge will be to make peace with his own party. Astute and balanced cabinet appointments may help gain consensus on a few early successes, such as immigration.

In an unusually gracious acceptance speech, Mr. Trump signalled that he would "be fair to those who are fair to America" and we may take some comfort from that. But he will be as "foreign" to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Ronald Reagan was to Mr. Trudeau's father in 1981, and without Mr. Reagan's amiable charm.

That should not prevent early efforts to establish clear lines of communication and influence, beginning at the top, where history shows that a positive bilateral tone can bring dividends. For example, Mr. Trump's resolve to approve the Keystone XL pipeline will be a welcome tonic for the beleaguered Alberta economy.

As the country most reliant on a strong U.S. economy, Canada must ensure that our competitive position vis-à-vis the U.S. is never divorced from any policy calculation. That is regrettably not currently the case in Ottawa, nor in provinces such as Ontario and Alberta. We are already losing market share in the United States. Our relative climate for investment, our electricity rates, our tax system and our basic infrastructure to ship Canadian goods to global markets fall short of the competitive mark.

If the presidential campaign's outlandish, anti-free-trade rhetoric catches fire with the new Congress, we will need to be more vigilant than ever to block pressures against Canadian exports, if not to preserve the North American free-trade agreement itself. Trade agreements have become the whipping boy for all that ails America, but Mr. Trump's angst has targeted countries such as Mexico and China, not Canada, so it's time for prudence rather than panic.

The immediate bilateral issue to resolve will be the impasse over softwood lumber. Ottawa faces a Hobson's choice: Accept a deal even more restrictive on Canadian exports than the one that just lapsed, or fight a lengthy, dispute settlement battle before the trade tribunals. Either option will test Canadian mettle but, to strengthen its hand, Ottawa needs first to forge a better consensus among our regions where interests conflict, as the Americans know and exploit only too well.

More importantly and more urgently, Canada's trade destiny must now become more global. The signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement may help, if the deal is actually ratified by the highly unpredictable and fractious European Union member states. Mr. Trudeau should make direct, personal representations to major European leaders to ensure that the fragile momentum is sustained.

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Even better market opportunities beckon in Asia, notably with China – already the largest global economy in purchasing power – and with India. We need to accelerate negotiations for comprehensive economic agreements with both Asian giants.

Equally, since the chances that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be sanctioned by the lame-duck Congress are remote, Canada should also move deliberately to implement provisions already agreed in that negotiation with countries like Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam. If we expect to take advantage of growing market opportunities in Asia, we also need agreement on port and pipeline facilities enabling us to ship our oil and liquefied natural gas energy resources – key to our competitive advantage – beyond North America.

While concentrating primarily on playing defence against U.S. protectionism, it is imperative that Canada press quickly for closer trade ties in promising markets beyond our continent. More global balance will give us more bilateral leverage on several fronts. To meet that objective, we will need a coherent, persistent commitment from our governments and from all Canadians with a stake in our future prosperity.

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