Brian Lilley of the Toronto Sun was the bluntest: “Trudeau failed in Washington; he waited too long to make a push to support one of Canada’s biggest and most valuable industries and then couldn’t use his supposed connections to get a deal.”
John Ivison of the National Post concluded that the American non-response to Canadian pleas to revise or eliminate the provision demonstrated that, rather than taking Canada seriously, President Biden thinks of our country as “an immature, undependable younger sibling.”
The CBC's Alexander Panetta suggested that Prime Minister Trudeau’s “failure to persuade Americans to ease up on Canada in a landmark electric-vehicle plan capped a visit that served as a long, loud wake-up call” to “a tough new reality Canadians face.”
“Our challenge now,” he continued, “involves living beside a worried superpower that’s distracted by generational challenges in which Canada is at best a bit player.”
Campbell Clark of the Globe and Mail was more measured, noting that, as was the case during the NAFTA negotiations, the prime minister was playing the long game by reminding the White House that good relations with Canada were in America’s best interest, and there was never any chance of the president moving on the vehicle subsidy during the summit.
Still, he added: “The risk is that the helpful Canadian approach won’t have an impact on a Biden administration fixated on a struggle to get through its domestic agenda.”
The Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan was the most optimistic, but even he expressed concern: “the fellow feeling for Canadians is strong in the U.S., but … Canada’s issues barely rate a footnote on the American agenda.”
Here’s my take:
First, Clark is right. There was never any chance of reaching an agreement last week. For all intents and purposes, the bill is out of President Biden’s hands until the Senate is finished with it.
When the president said, “I don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with, quite frankly, when it comes out of legislation. So, we’ll talk about it then,” he was speaking truthfully.
The job of the prime minister last week was to keep the issue alive while Canadian negotiators – official and otherwise – furiously lobbied their contacts in Congress.
If the provision is not dropped, Ottawa will have laid the groundwork for a Canadian exemption that can be negotiated after-the-fact.
There is precedent for such measures and, this time, Canada has leverage. Those American-made electric vehicles are useless without batteries that rely on Canadian critical minerals.
According to Ivison, “nobody believes that Trudeau would dare to withhold Canada’s mineral wealth.”
Recall that when the Trump administration threatened to prevent the delivery of N95 masks to Canada last year, our “ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, drew up a long list of levers Canada could pull, including Canadians who work in hospitals in Detroit, medical equipment suppliers in Canada, and even the electrical supply for northern Maine, which is dependent on electricity from New Brunswick.”
Indeed, what the former defence minister and now president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce Perrin Beatty describes as a relationship that has devolved from “special” to “transactional” makes Ottawa’s trade negotiating prowess a benefit, and America’s failure to take it seriously a significant advantage.
Moreover, it is far better to be ignored by the United States than to be noticed for consistently shirking on our defence obligations within North America.
This is not to say that all is well. Negotiating an exemption will not be easy, and one can only play hardball with the White House so many times, but there are worse things for Canadian national interests than a lack of attention from Washington.
Whenever Canada-US relations get tricky, it is worth going back to a brilliant book by Dalhousie’s Brian Bow, The Politics of Linkage. For a broader historical overview, try Robert Bothwell’s Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada or Stephen Azzi’s Reconcilable Differences: A History of Canada-US Relations. On energy, I continue to follow the work of Monica Gattinger.
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