A few days before Donald Trump is sworn in as US president, one of his key advisers will arrive in Canada.
Kellyanne Conway will not be in Ottawa to meet with the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, or senior Canadian officials. Instead, the woman who managed the final months of Trump’s campaign will be in Alberta for a tour of the Fort McMurray oil sands and a speaking gig at a fundraising dinner for a Conservative advocacy group.
The Alberta Prosperity Fund, the group that invited Conway, have trumpeted what they describe as a “historical” visit. “Her visit to Alberta at this time should send a strong signal to Canadians on the importance of this province to the United States,” Heather Forsyth, the organisation’s chair, said in a statement announcing the visit.
Conway’s pre-inauguration jaunt – and uncertainty over how much should be made of the visit – is a potent symbol of how the longstanding relationship between Canada and the US stands to be upended by the Trump presidency.
Few countries have as much at stake. “Canada has no closer friend, partner and ally than the United States,” noted Trudeau as he congratulated Trump following the election. Three-quarters of Canada’s exports went to the US last year. Nearly 400,000 people a day cross the shared border, while roughly 2.5 million Canadian jobs depend on trade with the US.
Trump has so far offered little indication that he plans on doing Canada any favours, said Lawrence Herman, a trade lawyer with Toronto’s Herman and Associates.
Instead Canada seems likely to be a target of Trump’s protectionist trade agenda.
“We need to be prepared for some dark and stormy days ahead with our American neighbours,” said Herman. “Canadian softwood lumber, beef exports and dairy supply management are all on the Trump shortlist.”
The bulk of Canada’s trade with the US flows through Nafta, the trade agreement routinely disparaged by Trump as the “worst deal in history”. Trump has vowed to renegotiate the deal and raised the spectre of withdrawal if the US fails to secure a better deal for its workers.
Within days of Trump being elected, the Canadian government expressed its willingness to renegotiate the agreement. “I think any agreement can be improved on,” David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to Washington, told reporters. “If they want to have a discussion about improving Nafta then we are ready to come to the table to try to put before the new administration anything that will benefit both Canada and the United States and obviously Mexico also.”
Much of Trump’s ire during the campaign was directed towards the loss of American jobs to low-wage countries, said Craig Alexander of the Conference Board of Canada. But Canada, he pointed out, is not a low-wage country.
Still, any thickening of the border or protectionist policies could have dire impacts. Canadian provinces carry out more trade with American states than with each other, he noted.
The high level of integration between the two countries means that any tax cuts or incentives handed out south of the border – such as Trump’s pledge to reduce corporate tax rates from 35% to 15% – could create competitive challenges that Canada would be forced to address, said Alexander.
A Trump presidency could have some benefits for Canada. Any policies enacted by Trump that are perceived to be less welcoming for immigrants could be a boon for Canada, a reality hinted at on election night as Canada’s main immigration site crashed after an overload of visitors.
Trump’s plans to resurrect the TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline have also been cheered in some quarters. In congratulating Trump on his “impressive victory”, Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper said: “Canada/US partnership is strong. There is much to do, incl. moving ahead with KXL.”
When the US rejected plans for the pipeline last year, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, said in a statement he was “disappointed in the decision”. One year on, Trudeau has pushed forward with plans for a Canadian pipeline, offset by plans to impose a minimum price on carbon and phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030.
One of the biggest threats posed by Trump is his reticence to engage in the fight against climate change, said Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “We should be concerned about his pledges to deregulate in terms of environmental policy, the threat to leave the Paris accord, lifting caps on coal plants.”
The resulting divergence in climate change strategies on either side of the border could make Canadian companies less competitive compared with their American rivals and put pressure on Canada to abandon its fledgling climate change efforts. Speaking to reporters soon after the election, Canada’s environment minister insisted Trump’s victory would not force Canada to rethink its green strategy. “We’re moving forward, as is the world,” Catherine McKenna told reporters. “Everyone is absolutely committed to climate action.”
Where Trump may see success in forcing a change in government policy is in defence spending. During the campaign, Trump railed against allies that fail to meet Nato’s agreed target of spending 2% on the military. Analysts were quick to point to Canada, where defence spending has fallen to a record low of 1% of GDP with no increase on the horizon.
Recent weeks have allowed for a fuller picture to develop of what the Trump presidency could mean for Canada, said Wesley Wark, a national security expert at the University of Ottawa. “Like 99.9% of the global population, the Canadian government was, I think, taken completely by surprise by the Trump victory,” he said. “The government is now beginning, across many departments, to try and come to grips with it in early days.”
In areas such as border security and intelligence, the picture that emerges is worrisome. The trust factor that has long characterised the relationship between Canada and the US may be difficult to sustain under the Trump administration, said Wark.
He pointed to the contrast between Canadian openness to Syrian refugees and Trump’s hard line on immigrants and “extreme vetting” of Muslims. “A Trump White House will not look kindly or with any understanding on Canadian refugee policy. It will demand proof that Canada is not threatening North American security by admitting such refugees; it may even demand change. The tone will be nasty.”
The Trump presidency could also prove to be a moral quandary for the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, given the leading role of the US. “For the Canadian government there’s going to be increasing concern about whether the intelligence they’re receiving from the United States is going to be politicised to a degree that would make it unreliable or untrustworthy,” said Wark.
If the Trump administration chooses to embrace some of the legal practices from the George W Bush era around torture or extraordinary rendition, Canada may be forced to re-evaluate the intelligence it hands over to the US, said Wark.
“We’ve never had to deal with the United States as an intelligence power whose conduct of intelligence might be so different and divergent from what we would expect,” he added. “So it really puts us in a bind, where it’s rarely been over decades of Canada-US cooperation.”