OTTAWA – Anyone looking for a political decoder for how the Trudeau government might be interpreting Donald Trump’s latest spate of anti-Canadian trade rhetoric could do worse than American comedian Stephen Colbert.
The late-night television personality lampooned Canada’s polite response to Trump’s claims that Canada’s lumber and dairy policies have been “rough” on the U.S. or a “disgrace” that is hurting U.S. dairy farmers.
Colbert poked fun at Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr — depicted as a cartoon beaver — for saying he “disagreed strongly” with the Trump administration’s imposition of new duties on Canadian softwood lumber.
“Them’s fightin’ words — that’s Canadian for (expletive deleted),” Colbert deadpanned late Tuesday.
The Trudeau government is resisting the urge to drop the rhetorical gloves, sticking to its muted, don’t-offend-Trump message discipline. But insiders suggest the last week has put that to the test.
One source says the government is making a concerted effort to resist the urge to be drawn into a tit-for-tat rebuttal to Trump’s outbursts and wants to keep things on a professional, respectful keel — and sticking to what it sees as hard and fast economic facts.
“More broadly in terms of our approach to the United States, I would describe it as polite, but firm,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday in a conference call from Berlin, where she was attending G20 meetings.
“I think this is probably a pretty Canadian approach … it’s good to be polite; it’s good to treat people with respect,” Freeland added.
“I want to assure Canadians that I am absolutely firm and absolutely tough and strong.”
She said she is optimistic a new softwood deal can reached and that it will be a win for both Canada and the United States.
Freeland said she has had discussions with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in recent days and some progress has been made, but there’s no sign of a deal yet.
But Freeland made it clear that she sees Canada is in good shape moving forward on the file, saying the country is still the largest consumer of U.S. exports.
“I worked in the private sector for most of my life and I think what everyone in the private sector knows is you need to treat your customers well and you should treat your No. 1 customer particularly well,” Freeland said.
“That’s a really important message to take to the United States … they need us and they ought to treat us accordingly.”
Ross has said that lumber and dairy have erupted as irritants because they are not properly addressed in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump had threatened to scrap if it can’t be renegotiated.
However, the White House said late Wednesday that Trump has told the leaders of Canada and Mexico that he will not pull out of NAFTA and that the leaders agreed to “proceed swiftly” to enable the renegotiation of NAFTA to the benefit of all three countries.
Freeland said the U.S. is dependent on Canadian softwood because its own industry can’t meet domestic demand.
“Lumber prices are high right now and the reality is the United States needs our lumber,” she said. “Middle-class Americans who want to buy a house need Canadian lumber to do that.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he told Trump in a Tuesday phone call that the U.S. Commerce Department levelled “baseless allegations” when it imposed new, unfair duties on Canadian softwood this week.
But in a separate conference call with the provincial premiers earlier on Tuesday, a readout from Trudeau’s office said the prime minister underlined that “while Canadians are polite and fair, we will always strongly defend Canadian interests.”
So, how did all this polite Canadian disagreeing go down with the Trump White House? Not that bad, according to the White House readout of the Trump-Trudeau phone call.
“The two leaders discussed the dairy trade in Wisconsin, New York State, and various other places. They also discussed lumber coming into the United States,” the White House said.
“It was a very amicable call.”
Trudeau and Trump talked on the phone again on Wednesday night.
“The two leaders continued their dialogue on Canada-U.S. trade relations, with the prime minister reinforcing the importance of stability and job growth in our trade relations,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.