OTTAWA — As Canada teeters on the brink of a potential trade war with the United States, the Trudeau government has adopted the same motto invoked by the British as they braced for the Second World War: Keep calm and carry on.
That was the message Tuesday as U.S. President Donald Trump continued to take personal shots at Justin Trudeau, blasted Canada’s dairy industry and threatened to make Canadians pay for the prime minister’s alleged effrontery.
Trudeau and his ministers were careful to say nothing that would add fuel to Trump’s ire, hoping it will dissipate once the president is no longer stressed about his historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Behind the scenes, they were trying to re-establish normal relations — professional and respectful, if not always in agreement — and keep lines of communication open with American officials.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who will be in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday, is hoping to meet with U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer to resume discussions on modernizing the North American Free Trade Agreement. And Finance Minister Bill Morneau is also planning to meet with his American counterpart, Steve Mnuchin, in Washington this week as well.
“From Day 1 (of NAFTA negotiations), we have said that we expected moments of drama and that we would remain, we would keep calm and carry on through those moments of drama,” Freeland said.
For his part, Trudeau cheered Trump’s bid to broker a deal to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, but he stayed mum on the president’s persistent trash talk.
“We support the continuing efforts by the president on North Korea, (and) we look forward to looking at the details of the agreement,” Trudeau said. “On (Trump’s) comments, I’m going to stay focused on defending jobs for Canadians and supporting Canadian interests.”
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said Canada has worked hard for decades to establish good relations with the U.S. and “we have no interest in turning up the heat.”
International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne echoed that sentiment, saying, “We’ll continue to do diplomacy the Canadian way, which is to be positive, to be constructive and to make sure we are firm to defend our industries and our workers.”
Early in the day, it seemed the Trump administration might also be trying to dial back the invective. Trump’s chief trade adviser, Peter Navarro, acknowledged an error in asserting “there’s a special place in hell” for Trudeau, whom he accused Sunday of bad faith diplomacy and stabbing Trump in the back after he departed early from the G7 summit in Quebec.
“My job was to send a signal of strength,” Navarro said Tuesday at a Wall Street Journal event. “The problem was that in conveying that message I used language that was inappropriate.
“I own that, that was my mistake, those were my words.”
But Trump himself couldn’t seem to let go of his annoyance with Trudeau, even as he celebrated signing a historic de-nuclearization agreement with North Korea.
In a post-signing news conference and in an interview with ABC News, the president recounted how miffed he was to hear Trudeau’s G7 wrap-up news conference, where the prime minister reiterated Canada’s intention to impose counter-tariffs on U.S. goods in retaliation for Trump’s imposition of crippling tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.
“That’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” Trump said in Singapore. “(Trudeau) learned. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.”
He asserted, with no evidence, that Trudeau only dared to say Canada wouldn’t be pushed around because he didn’t think Trump, who was on board Air Force 1 en route to Singapore, would see him.
“I have a good relationship with Justin Trudeau, I really did. Other than he had a news conference that he had because he assumed I was in an airplane and I wasn’t watching,” Trump said.
“I see the television and he’s giving a news conference about how he ‘will not be pushed around’ by the United States. And I say, ‘Push him around? We just shook hands!'” Trump said. “We finished the (G7) meeting and, really, everybody was happy.”
Trump also continued to denounce Canada’s system of supply management to protect the domestic dairy, egg and poultry industry, which levels tariffs of up to 300 per cent on American imports of those products.
“It’s very unfair to our farmers, and it’s very unfair to the people of our country,” he said. “It’s very unfair, and it’s very unfair to our workers, and I’m gonna straighten it out. And it won’t even be tough.”
In response, Trudeau, who has vowed to defend the system, made a point of making an unannounced visit to a “downtown diner” set up near Parliament Hill by farmers to demonstrate the high-quality food supply management helps provide. He also met privately with dairy farmers in his office.
Trump’s criticisms Tuesday were not as personally barbed as the Twitter storm he unleashed Sunday on Trudeau, when he called the prime minister “very dishonest and weak,” among other things. That slight change in tone could herald, as Canadian officials hope, that the tiff will have no lasting impact on relations between the two countries, particularly on the crucial NAFTA file.
Freeland said Canada’s approach to the trade talks remains unchanged: to work for a win-win-win compromise while being “absolutely resolute in defence of the national interest.”
“From the beginning we have said that our approach would be to hope for the best, to work for the best possible outcome but always be prepared for the worst, to have a Plan B, C, D, E and F — and maybe to the end of the alphabet.
The NAFTA talks have stalled since Trump last month imposed 25 per cent tariffs on steel from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminum. The Trudeau government has announced it will impose dollar-for-dollar, retaliatory tariffs on metals and a range of other U.S. products, starting July 1.
United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann called on the government Tuesday to impose the counter-tariffs immediately. And he called for financial aid for workers hurt by the U.S. tariffs.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also urged the federal government to get serious about drafting a rescue plan for steel and aluminum workers, who are going to feel the brunt of the initial impact of the dispute — and soon.
“Sometimes when we think about tariffs, when we think about a trade war, we lose sight of the real impact, and that’s on workers,” Singh told a news conference.
“We’ve got to look at what supports are available to ensure that if their jobs, their livelihoods are compromised, what can the government do to support these folks.”
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press