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opinion

Finn Poschmann is chief executive officer of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

One question keeps coming up: What would be the impact of a President Trump for Canada?

The question is usually intended rhetorically, as the average poll of registered voters in the United States, over the past month, has Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump by about six percentage points. Efficiently distributed across the states, that kind of vote spread would mean a landslide for Ms. Clinton, who will be the Democratic candidate in this fall's U.S. election.

But there are two problems with assuming a Clinton landslide. First is that the election is many months off, and many things can happen. A worsening global security environment, or even some minor domestic incidents could help the Trump campaign – a lot.

Then there is the distribution of votes. A U.S. president is elected by the 538 members of the Electoral College, who are allocated state-by-state on a winner-take-all basis (except in Maine and Nebraska). That means that if Mr. Trump were to win three more large states than Mitt Romney did in the last election, he would win the presidency. At the moment, this isn't probable, but neither is it impossible.

What would it mean for Canada?

The answer is not much, except regarding trade deals not done or not pursued for years, which could depress future growth and income opportunities.

Canada's biggest trade deal, of course, is NAFTA, the North American free-trade agreement, which was vigorously championed in the U.S. Congress by President Bill Clinton and came into effect in 1994.

There is no serious threat to NAFTA. It has long since been baked into North American trade patterns and supply chains, and a majority of members of even a stridently protectionist Congress would face local opposition if they sought to unscramble those eggs. The battle over softwood imports from Canada illustrates why: When U.S. lumber mills seek trade protection from Congress, they encounter crossfire from U.S. homebuilders, who are building furiously again and want access to quality, low-cost inputs.

The trade deal most at threat is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which encompasses 12 countries on the Pacific Rim, including Canada. The TPP has been signed but not ratified. In the United States, this process is currently organized under the President's Trade Promotion Authority, sometimes called fast-track, which requires that Congress provide a simple yes or no vote on a trade treaty presented under that authority.

Hence, until mid-2018, under current legislation and barring extensions, a president can present a TPP treaty to Congress, as international treaties are a president's authority to negotiate under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. But the regulation of foreign trade is Congress's domain, under Article I. So no support from Congress means no ratification and no deal.

In this case, however, the question wouldn't arise, because Mr. Trump has said he won't present such a treaty. Ms. Clinton has said much the same thing.

That means less trade for Canada, which is generally bad for consumers, but might improve life for the auto sector, which would stand to lose some protection if TPP were ratified.

Consumers, food processors and the restaurant sector would lose as well, or at least not win, because TPP, in its full effect, otherwise would slightly expand Canadian access to New Zealand's and Australia's voluminous dairy exports.

We would naturally see shipping, port traffic and other transportation and logistics businesses do less well than otherwise.

One regional loss would come in the seafood sector. Atlantic Canada is already building sales in China (which is not in the TPP), but other Southeast Asian markets are big seafood consumers, and TPP would have knocked back, over time, some hefty import tariffs in those markets. That would score as another forgone opportunity.

Something that a Trump (or Clinton) presidency is unlikely to affect is Canada's pending trade deal with the European Union, known as CETA, which also needs ratification. The United States, of course, is not in CETA, and so is unlikely to derail it. Unlikely – but there could be ripple effects. In particular, the same nativist, populist and protectionist tendencies that have built up in the United States have been building in the EU, especially in the northern countries. The job market has been miserable since 2008 for youth and for working-age Europeans, and nasty perceptions of immigration can trump almost everything else.

This means ratification in the EU's national assemblies is hardly a done deal, but neither is CETA a dead duck.

A Trump presidency will do nothing good for Canada, and the costs would appear through lost opportunities. The odd thing is that a Clinton presidency looks to mean about the same thing. This U.S. election does not seem likely to bring good outcomes for Canada.