Francois-Philippe Champagne had a lot he wanted to say. Just a few days earlier, his boss, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was embroiled in a rather nasty spat with U.S. President Donald Trump over steel and aluminum tariffs. As Canada’s Minister of International Trade, Champagne was determined to remind the private sector that his government would not be bullied.
“We don’t sell things to each other, we build things together,” Champagne declared in front of a congregation of Canadian and international industry leaders in an impromptu speech at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal last week. “America is an important trading partner, but there has never been a better time to diversify!” he continued, to a raucous standing ovation from a crowd that seemed to have, in a matter of minutes, donned hats of Canadian nationalism.
If Canadians were ever inclined to outwardly display their patriotism, there would be no better time than the present.
Let’s consider the play by play of the last couple of weeks. The Trump administration’s decision to throw its weight around in the midst of NAFTA negotiations by imposing steep tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminium did not go unnoticed by Canada. In fact, Trudeau responded in kind, slapping retaliatory tariffs back, and then a whole host more on a list of American products. That provoked a backlash from the US president, who accused Trudeau of being “weak and dishonest” following the G7 Summit in Quebec. Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow followed that up with claims America had been “stabbed in the back” by Trudeau.
And on Tuesday, a ranting Trump accused Canadians of buying products south of the border “like shoes,” then “smuggling” them back home, because “Canadian tariffs are so high.” He presumably means HST — a 13 percent national tax levied on most Canadian goods and services, which has nothing to do with trade tariffs nor the American consumer.
At this point, it’s more than just the federal government that is irked. Trudeau was gifted bipartisan support following Trump’s G7 attacks, with even the likes of newly elected Ontario premier Doug Ford, often cast in the image of Trump, and Alberta Conservative leader Jason Kenney denouncing the trade war rhetoric emanating from the US.
Now, calls to “boycott America” are emerging, despite the fact that Canadians are the biggest purchasers of U.S. goods in the world.
A day after the G7 summit, the hashtags #boycottUSA and #BuyCanadian started trending on social media. At a grocery store in downtown Toronto, Kelly McKenzie, a 35-year-old accounting executive told VICE News that she was determined to only buy Canadian products — she says she’s “disgusted” by Trump and wants to have “nothing to do with America.” In Salmon Arm, British Columbia, Tony Woodcock told USA Today that he is opting to purchase a Japanese-made car instead of an American-made one. “I will stop all my purchases [of American cars] until the Trump administration deletes the tariffs on Canadian goods.”
But the idea that Canadian patriotism, and its derivative — anti-Americanism — is somehow just a month-old phenomenon is simplistic. It has been bubbling just below the surface of what Americans like to call “Canadian politeness,” erupting only when American exceptionalism spills onto Canadian turf.
“Anti-Americanism is the default Canadian religion, our secular religion,” argues Jack Granatstein, a Canadian historian and expert in Canadian foreign policy. “We are the Loyalists, the losers in the American revolution. When you have someone like Trump, the big bully American pushing around the little Canadian, that anti-American sentiment emerges.”
It is common for nations who don’t have a deeply-rooted sense of nationalism to adopt one when they feel attacked. The land and sea blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the U.A.E. on Qatar over a year ago due to Qatar’s alleged support of terrorist groups sparked nationwide unity for Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. In the capital Doha, massive portraits of al-Thani cover the exterior of stores and billboards of the leader line roads and highways. An Ipsos poll conducted just days after the G7 summit showed a jump in Trudeau’s approval rating to the highest it has been in four months — a likely effect of the trade dispute Canada is involved in.
Perhaps that is why Trudeau and his team of trade negotiators led by Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland have maintained a steady, no-nonsense posture in response to Trump’s protectionist tendencies, despite Canada being America’s second largest trading partner after China.
“Canada’s policy will be that we will not escalate and we will not back down on President Donald Trump’s tariffs,” Freeland told reporters at a trade committee meeting in Ottawa Tuesday afternoon. “We know that no one will benefit from this ‘beggar thy neighbour’ approach to trade,” continued Freeland, minutes after Trump’s wide-ranging press conference where he accused Canadian travellers of smuggling goods out of the U.S.
“Trump changes his view on things from day to day. You’re not dealing with someone who has a rational perspective or a clearly defined set of objectives,” Christopher Waddell, a business journalism professor at Carleton University told VICE News.
Is it Trump, then, who uniquely ignites the flames of Canadian nationalism? Perhaps not, given that similar cries of anti-Americanism were heard from Canadians in the 70s during the Vietnam War, and again in the early 2000s when the U.S. invaded Iraq. In fact, when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, there were numerous anecdotal examples of students, academics, and regular Canadian travellers boycotting the U.S. altogether. But that attitude was short-lived — travel from Canada to the U.S. by Canadians actually rose by five percent in 2017, after a brief decline.
“This is not new. We’ve negotiated with the Americans for years and years, and our best people are on the American file,” says Granatstein. “Maybe I’ve not seen someone as volatile, but there have been some real sons of bitches in the White House.Trump is worse, but not all that different.”
But the economics of a trade war builds a strong case for anti-American sentiment. A recent report by Scotiabank projects that an all-out trade war, where America breaks all trade ties with Canada, could result in a 1.8 percent contraction of the Canadian economy by 2020, a recession-level squeeze. And despite Canada’s professed prowess on the trade file, it has been decades since the government had to deal with a personality like Trump, who has most recently gone on a rampage against China, slapping $50 billion of Chinese goods with tariffs. Back in 1971, former U.S. president Richard Nixon sparked a trade dispute when he called Pierre Trudeau an “asshole” and a “son of a bitch.
Freeland and Trudeau are seasoned diplomats at this point, but Canadian manufacturers are understandably jittery. If the U.S. follows through on its promised auto tariffs on Canada, auto part manufacturers, primarily in Ontario, will be severely affected. “One in five jobs in Ontario’s manufacturing sector could be a risk,” TD Economist Brian dePratto forecasted in a report this week.
“Look, we cannot win a trade war with the U.S. We are just too small” Granatstein told VICE News. “People will display anti-American sentiment right now, but then when the economy eventually takes a beating — which it will — the federal government will pay the price.”