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Canada and the United States are arguably the two closest countries in the world, and their relationship has thrived because it is based on local connections and the work at hand. The practical work and trade gets done because politics and personalities don’t get in the way. But amid a trade spat and threats of tariffs on automobiles, peppered with a slew of perceived affronts from President Trump, suddenly Canadians feel they are getting picked on. A #BuyCanadian movement has become their pushback. One Canadian publication published “A Patriot’s Guide to Shopping During a Canada-US Trade War,” with such suggestions as forgoing Hershey factory products and opting for Canadian chocolate brand Laura Secord. The union Unifor launched its own boycott campaign. Canadians have shared stories about canceling vacations in New York in favor of visits to Prince Edward Island. And relations have soured enough that some aren't sure when they might rebound. “Things have just gone so sideways,” says Rick Bonnette, mayor of Halton Hills, Ontario. “I hope at the end of the day that common sense prevails, that we go back to being the good trading partners we always were.”
Mayor Rick Bonnette boasts that his municipality outside Toronto is the most patriotic in all of Canada: on the country’s 150th birthday last year, a population of 61,000 raised approximately 57,000 Canadian flags.
So when President Trump slapped aluminum and steel tariffs on his country – on the grounds of national security, no less – Mr. Bonnette helped draw up a resolution that passed unanimously by the town council. It encourages Halton Hills residents to “become knowledgeable” about what they buy and consider “avoiding the purchase of US products” when possible.
“We don’t want to escalate this,” Bonnette says in his sleepy town hall office of the local boycott. “But we are not going to be pushed. This has gotten insulting.”
It is a rare flare-up of passions north of the border that is born not just of antipathy towards American foreign policy, which itself would be nothing new, but something altogether more personal. Amid a trade spat and threats of tariffs on automobiles, peppered by a slew of affronts by President Trump, suddenly Canadians who might have seen the United States as a bully elsewhere in the world now feel they are the kid getting picked on. A #BuyCanadian movement has become their pushback.
Canadians are certainly not alone, as Trump has lambasted allies in recent weeks from Germany to Britain, while seeming to cozy up to America’s traditional foes as he did in Helsinki with Russia’s Vladimir Putin this week. But a growing rift threatens the relationship between arguably the two closest countries in the world. And that relationship has worked precisely because it has long been based on local connections and the task at hand – politics and personalities don’t get in the way.
“A lot of the cooperation that goes on between Canada and the United States is functional,” says Robert Wolfe, professor emeritus at Queen’s University. “It is not because we love each other. It is because we share a continent.”
“Can that survive a sustained period of political turbulence at the top? I don’t know. We’ve never had sustained turbulence at the top, so we don’t know what would happen.”
A significant wedge
Canada and the US have taken divergent paths as far back as the American Revolution. In the modern era, disputes over softwood lumber or lobsters, over the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, have strained the relationship. But differences have always been managed quietly, and kept narrow, in favor of constructive cooperation.
Much of that has been achieved by delegating responsibilities to commissions and creating pacts, whether on water quality of the Great Lakes or airspace control under the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), says Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
“When Trump leaves the scene, the relationship will need some healing,” he says. “We’ll have to have a decision about whether we want to continue to use institutions to take politics out of the relationship on a day-to-day basis, or whether the answer is going to be reinforcing our national sovereignties.”
A divergence under Trump was to be expected. One survey ahead of the American election in 2016 showed 80 percent of Canadians saying they would vote for Hillary Clinton if they could.
But the frontal attacks coming from Washington on trade have driven a significant wedge. Then Trump abandoned the niceties that have long marked the public relationship between both nations’ leaders after he called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “weak” and “dishonest” leaving the Group of Seven Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, last month. The spat comes as the US, Canada, and Mexico are in talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Canadian leadership always has to strike a careful balance, between not caving to American interests but maintaining privileged access to Washington. But even in a polarized country with 2019 elections looming, Canadians across the spectrum rallied around $12.6 billion in retaliatory tariffs, announced by Trudeau’s government, giving the Liberal leader a welcome bump in the polls. According to a survey by Abacus Data in June, only 19 percent of Canadians oppose counter-tariffs.
One Canadian publication published “A Patriot’s Guide to Shopping During a Canada-US Trade War,” with such suggestions as forgoing Hershey factory products and opting for Canadian chocolate brand Laura Secord, named after a heroine of the War of 1812 who warned British troops of an impending American attack. The union Unifor launched its own boycott campaign. Canadians have shared stories about canceling vacations in New York or the American West for Prince Edward Island or the Canadian Rockies.
'This is not a game'
At a Metro supermarket in Halton Hills, Maureen Sowden says she no longer will buy toilet paper made in the US and has done her research about where her products come from – or at least as much as possible in such an integrated market. She says this “locally sourced” movement is a good consciousness-raising exercise, even if it’s hardly an economic threat to the US.
“We are so close, it is as if everything just becomes part of the Americas, but we are distinct,” she says, “and we are becoming more and more distinct.”
That is a sentiment that has increasingly come to the fore.
The economic trade between the countries totaled $673.9 billion last year, with a US surplus of $8.4 billion. Canada is much more dependent on what it sells to the US than vice versa. Diversification, whether with China or the European Union, is shaped by that reality. “It is impossible to see a world for Canada in which the United States is not the predominant relationship,” says Drew Fagan, a professor of public policy at the University of Toronto.
Yet he notes a growing divide between the US and Canada since 9/11, both physically on the border and in terms of a values gap, after decades of a trend towards deeper integration.
Mayor Bonnette has felt the divide too. He first took a public stand in 2009, criticizing “Buy American” policies implemented under former President Barack Obama.
But the Trump era has changed basic assumptions that could threaten the long-term relationship, Bonnette says. “Things have just gone so sideways,” he says. “There’s a lot of theories that the president has ramped this up for the midterms, and if that’s the case I hope at the end of the day that common sense prevails, that we go back to being the good trading partners we always were.”
“But this is not a game. And anyone who lost a job over this is going to feel resentful for a long time.”