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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Trump meet in the White House in Washington, DC on October 11, 2017. The two leaders have ramped up trade rhetoric as a result of US tariffs on steel and aluminum.

JIM WATSON/Getty Images

Canada is getting under Donald Trump’s skin.

Since slapping steel and aluminium tariffs on 30 countries last week, the U.S. President has blasted his neighbours to the north far more than Mexico or any of the European Union countries he also hit with levies.

The latest salvo amid the escalating trade war – and a mounting war of words with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – came Monday morning, when Mr. Trump accused Canada of agricultural protectionism.

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“Canada has all sorts of trade barriers on our Agricultural products. Not acceptable!” the President tweeted at 8:41 a.m., adding an hour later: “Farmers have not been doing well for 15 years. Mexico, Canada, China and others have treated them unfairly … Massive trade deficits no longer!”

Mr. Trump appeared to be referring to Canada’s supply-management system for dairy, eggs and poultry. Under the system, imports are subject to tariffs of nearly 300 per cent in order to fix prices for Canadian producers.

The President previously singled out Canada on Friday, threatening to shut down the border to Canadian wood products, tweeting: “Do Timber & Lumber in U.S.?” And in a statement Thursday, he said he had warned Mr. Trudeau he might tear up the North American free-trade agreement: “The United States will agree to a fair deal, or there will be no deal at all.”

NAFTA’s saga so far: A guide to trade, the talks and Trump

Mr. Trump’s ire appears to have been raised by Mr. Trudeau’s increasing willingness to punch back against the President.

First, Mr. Trudeau retaliated against Mr. Trump’s metals tariffs by announcing duties of his own on a long list of U.S. goods, ranging from steel and aluminum to boats and pickles. Then, the Prime Minister publicly revealed his private discussions with the Trump administration, recounting that a proposed White House meeting to resolve NAFTA has fallen through after Vice-President Mike Pence insisted Canada agree to add a termination clause to the deal as a condition of the sit-down.

And over the weekend, Mr. Trudeau blasted Mr. Trump on his favourite medium: American television. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Mr. Trudeau said Mr. Trump “prides himself on being unpredictable,” that it was “insulting and unacceptable” for him to characterize Canada as a national security threat in order to justify the tariffs and that the President wanted the U.S. to “step away” from its traditional leadership role in the world.

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For good measure, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland went on CNN to mock the Trump administration’s rationale that steel and aluminium tariffs were necessary to protect America’s national security. “Seriously?! Do you really believe that Canada, that your NATO allies, represent a national security threat to you?”

It was a stark shift in tone. For more than a year, the Prime Minister strenuously avoided criticizing Mr. Trump (“The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves,” he famously said during his first visit to the White House.) But he seems to have concluded that his charm strategy with the President hasn’t worked.

Christopher Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Mr. Trump’s anger at Canada has been brewing since February, when he warned that the country was “very smooth” at taking the U.S.’s money.

Mr. Sands contends that Mr. Trump’s hackles were raised by Ottawa’s trade outreach strategy in the U.S.: A parade of Canadian cabinet ministers, business leaders and provincial premiers have been fanning out across America to talk up the trade relationship between the two countries and urge U.S. officials to pressure the White House to preserve NAFTA.

“Canadians were talking to people across the U.S. and it was getting back to him. And I think it started bothering him,” Mr. Sands said in an interview. “Canadians are popular with most Americans and he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of that.”

Mr. Trump’s characterization of Canada – as a nation ruthlessly “taking advantage” of hapless Americans – doesn’t exactly fit with the country’s usual reputation south of its border.

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Dunniella Kaufman, a Canadian trade lawyer based in Washington, DC, has spent 13 years helping companies navigate the bilateral economy. And she has never encountered Americans in business or government who share Mr. Trump’s view of Canadians.

“No one here, at a personal or an intellectual level, thinks that Canada is somehow putting one over or economically harming the United States,” she said.

Ms. Kaufman argues Mr. Trudeau has no choice but to stand his ground with Mr. Trump: As a middle power with an economy one-tenth the size of the U.S.’s, Canada depends on the trading rules codified in NAFTA and enforced by the deal’s dispute-resolution provisions that the Trump administration wants to abolish.

American leaders have been annoyed with their Canadian counterparts longer than Canada has been a country: Ulysses Grant suspected that politicians to his north, then a British colony, had rooted for the confederacy in the Civil War, Mr. Sands said. Lyndon Johnson angrily confronted Lester Pearson for speaking out against the Vietnam War at Temple University. And George W. Bush had a frosty relationship with Jean Chretien when the latter decided not to help invade Iraq.

But it’s unique for such disagreements to erupt so publicly.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this,” Mr. Sands said. “And maybe that’s a consequence of having a reality show president.”

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