This past summer was a truly awful one for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. First, he found himself in U.S. President Donald Trump’s crosshairs over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Then, he got sucker-punched when Mexico negotiated a bilateral trade deal in principle with the U.S.
Next, the Federal Court of Canada stopped the $4.5-billion Trans Mountain Pipeline in its tracks – for now, at least – pending another environmental assessment and fulfilling the duty to consult First Nations groups.
If these were normal times, Trudeau’s government would be in serious trouble now, a year before the next federal election. But these are not normal times. Both Opposition parties are in worse shape than the governing Liberals. The New Democratic Party is broke, with a leader hardly ready for prime time. The Conservatives are tearing themselves apart over supply management, thanks to Maxime Bernier, whose ego may be bigger than Trump’s.
In addition, the Trump administration has turned into a never-ending episode of The Jerry Springer Show, with speculation now turning to Trump’s mental fitness. So, threats from “the Donald” don’t mean much anymore.
That some Liberals are urging Trudeau to go to the polls a year early – just as his predecessor did in the autumn of 2008 before the Opposition could grow stronger – is understandable.
But speculation aside, the harsh lessons from the NAFTA negotiations and the Trans Mountain episode are likely to lead to long-standing changes in Canadian government policy.
On Trans Mountain, expect the government to take Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution far more seriously from here on in. This section requires Ottawa to consult indigenous Canadians on all material matters of change. Basically, that means that although First Nations communities don’t have a veto over federal policy, Ottawa has to do more than hold a couple of information meetings.
The previous Conservative government lost a litany of court cases on indigenous issues because ministers and bureaucrats refused to treat First Nations people with the respect they deserve.
Watch for a Privy Council directive to perform legal tests on future projects to ensure they satisfy judicial interpretation of Sec. 35.
Clearly, the NAFTA negotiations mean bilateral relations with Washington will never be the same again. Trudeau said publicly that Canada needs a dispute-settlement mechanism in NAFTA because the U.S. president “doesn’t always follow the rules.”
To find such undiplomatic language from a Canadian prime minister, you would have to go back to Lester Pearson’s famous speech on U.S. soil in 1965, in which he told the U.S. to get out of the Vietnam War.
More recently, there was the very plain-speak speech Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made in June, when she was accepting, ironically, a Diplomat of the Year award. Her message was clear: Canada will be nobody’s “client state,” which are code words for “colony.” That the Trump administration was upset is not surprising.
Historically, Ottawa’s policy toward Washington has been mostly appeasement. This is why the previous government quickly signed the infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act agreement in 2014 to send the banking information of thousands of citizens of U.S. origin to the U.S. Internal Revenue Agency without much debate about legality or privacy rights.
When Trump announced after taking office that NAFTA would be renegotiated, Canada meekly played along.
In fairness, Trump was an unknown quantity in 2017. And a very big reason why Congress is so pro-NAFTA today is because of the full-frontal campaign by the Canadian embassy to lobby virtually every member of the House of Representatives, senator and state governor. Such a thing used to be unthinkable for a Canadian government.
Canadians have accepted past appeasement of the Americans like it was part of the natural way of things. In fact, less than 20 years ago, political conservatives used to criticize Liberal governments for not being nice enough to Washington.
Weaning Canada off dependence on the U.S. is something that has been talked about since the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau floated his Third Option policy.
Later, Canadians may remember Trump as the “useful idiot” who made that happen.