In The Media

'America first:' For Canada, it's about a lot more than trade

by Catherine Cullen (feat. Colin Robertson)

CBC News
January 25, 2017

There's plenty of anxiety — perhaps even some panic — about what Donald Trump's "America First" administration will mean for trade.

But the close-knit Canada-U.S. relationship is about more than NAFTA and pipelines.

Officials and political observers are also watching to see if there will be a shake up on a host of other issues.

Here are a few key examples:

Disaster Response

From floods and ice storms to the Sept. 11 attacks, there's a long history of Canada and the United States coming to one another's aid in times of trouble. Will that change at all under a president who complained during his inaugural address that his country is spending "trillions of dollars" abroad while his own country falls into disrepair?

Nobody is panicking, but at least one former diplomat says this could be a good time to formalize the understanding about helping each other out.

"We reacted well under 9/11, but that was spontaneous and voluntary. There was no pre-arrangement that allowed so many American planes to land in Newfoundland. It just happened because of the nature of our relationship. Maybe we can't take those things for granted. Maybe we have to codify a few more of them," said Derek Burney, Canadian ambassador the U.S. under former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Colin Robertson isn't so sure anything needs to change. He spent decades working in Canada's foreign service, including time in Washington and Los Angeles.

"These relationships transcend the relationship between the two leaders or between the national governments. They're particularly strong at the state-province level," said Robertson.


CBC News has already reported the Canadian government postponed announcing its peacekeeping plan because it wanted to get a better read on the Trump administration.

The defence impacts don't stop there. Canada may be under pressure to spend more on its military. When it comes to NATO, for instance, Trump has complained that the United States is getting "ripped off," adding that some unnamed member countries are getting a "free ride."

Figures released by NATO last summer show Canada is near the back of the pack when it comes to defence spending. Canada ranked 23rd out of 28 member countries.

"His criticism of Canada's contribution to NATO is legitimate," said Burney. "We're not alone, but if he's concerned the United States is carrying an unfair share of the burden, he's right. We should be spending more on defence if we want to give future life to NATO."

And Robertson believes the pressure to step up defence capabilities will extend to Canada's role in the Arctic.

"I think Trump will probably say 'OK, the Arctic is yours. Exercise that sovereignty. Are you going to build that base in the North or not? We want to know what you're doing.'"


Canada's federal government is pushing forward with its plans to legalize cannabis. Several American states have already legalized marijuana, but the U.S. could be in for a big change on that front under Trump.

During Obama's mandate, the federal government took a hands-off approach. Trump's new pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in his confirmation hearing this month that he "won't commit to never enforcing federal law" prohibiting pot possession.

With the potential U.S. resistance to legalization in mind, Robertson argues Canada may want to slow down its own plans.

"We may decide to move more slowly than the government has talked about simply because we don't want to put red flags in front of this administration when they're in the midst of a really tough negotiation on trade. I think that's the kind of thing the government will think twice about."

The federal government has promised to table legislation to legalize marijuana in the spring. It's less clear how long it would take to pass that legislation and whether provinces and municipalities would also be given time to adapt their own rules and procedures.


Trump has also declared war on unnecessary government regulations of all shapes and sizes, pledging during the campaign to seek out and eliminate "every wasteful and unnecessary regulation."

If Canada doesn't follow suit, Burney argues it could create headaches.

"Pharmaceutical goods, medical instruments, anything like that that is going to be regulated by either government. Wouldn't it make sense for us to look at ways of doing that jointly rather than separately?" said Burney.


It was only about six months ago that Justin Trudeau, Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto engaged in an awkward three-way handshake and declared the Paris agreement to fight climate change "a turning point for our planet, representing unprecedented accord."

Together the three also agreed to work together on a series of measures to fight climate change including, making 50 per cent of power generation in North America "clean" by 2025.

Trump has said he plans to cancel his country's commitments under the Paris agreement, eliminate the U.S. Climate Action Plan and revive the U.S. coal industry.

Some Conservatives have suggested Trump's change in direction means Trudeau should reconsider his plans to put a price on carbon. Trudeau has maintained that putting a price on carbon is "the right thing to do."

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