Behind the stiff upper lip that Justin Trudeau has been keeping in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, he and his government are no less traumatized by the result of the American election than the majority of Canadians.
There is not a single member of the prime minister’s caucus and precious few if any on the opposition benches who did not find the president-elect’s campaign abhorrent. That, in itself, is unprecedented in the modern history of the two countries.
Canada’s current Parliament is made up of members who only a few months ago gave Barack Obama multiple standing ovations. The outgoing president finished his 50-minute address on chants of “four more years.”
If Trump and Obama have anything in common it is that they equally unite Canadians — in strikingly opposite ways.
But little of that was in evidence this week as Trudeau took stock of the outcome of the American election.
By the standards of past Liberal history, or even by the measure of the reaction of some of Canada’s allies, the prime minister’s reaction could almost be described as a non-reaction.
Compare, for instance, Trudeau’s boilerplate statement on Trump’s election with that of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
On the day after the U.S. vote, Merkel drew a clear line in the sand: “Germany and American are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close co-operation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”
Merkel will soon be campaigning in the face of a strong anti-refugee, anti-immigration headwind. To cast herself as a bulwark against the excesses of Trumpism is fair game and, possibly, her best path to reelection.
Trudeau has no need to reassure Canadians as to his attachment to the progressive values that Trump has trampled on his way to the White House. The prime minister has little cause to fear that those who elected him will suffer from a case of Trump-envy. Even at the best of times Canadians tend to prize what distinguishes them from their American neighbours, and these are definitely not the best of times.
So far, Trudeau’s caucus has toed the government’s conciliatory line with a discipline second only to that exacted from his MPs by Stephen Harper. In their days, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin could only have dreamed of as discreet a caucus during a period of high tension on the Canada-U.S. front.
In the lead-up to the heated debate over Canada’s participation in the Iraq War in 2002, Chrétien’s then-director of communications, Francine Duclos, was famously overheard calling George W. Bush a “moron.”
Herb Dhaliwal, then the minister of natural resources, described the former president as a “failed statesman.”
Ontario MP Janko Peric wondered out loud whether Bush actually cared for the people of Iraq.
Canada was watching the Iraq operation from the sidelines when then-Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish stomped on a doll of the American president — a gesture for which she was exiled from the government benches.
Those were pre-Twitter days. One can only imagine the cacophony that would have resulted if Chrétien or Martin’s caucuses had been empowered with the opportunity to vent against the White House in 140-character increments.
But in this instance Trudeau has neither the luxury to have his MPs indulge in Trump bashing nor the political need to do so.
The Iraq episode was undoubtedly a major bump in the road. To a lesser degree, so was Barack Obama’s veto on the Keystone XL pipeline. Both put strains on the Canada-U.S. relationship.
But in each case at least one of the protagonists was on the way out of politics. In 2003 Chrétien was in his last year in office. At the time of the Keystone veto, Obama’s presidency was drawing to a close. The notion that a more amenable partner might be just around the corner was not a delusion.
Trudeau, who is at the dawn of a first mandate, has no alternative but to play the long game. Expectations that he will find productive common ground with Trump are so low that it would normally not take much to exceed them. But then normal is not the first word that comes to mind when one looks at the new North American dynamics.