President Trump or President Clinton? Either one could be trouble for Trudeau: Chris Hall

Justin Trudeau has proven himself to be pretty darn good at the retail side of politics, selling Canadians on the virtues of his government’s progressive agenda even when it’s come with larger budget deficits than originally forecast.

But when he responded Thursday to a question about the U.S. presidential election race, the prime minister was suddenly very careful with his pitch.

“One of the things that is, normal, whenever the presidency of the United States goes from one individual or another is there are going to be changes,” he said, pausing before and after using the word “normal.”

“And there’s going to be a need for Canada to reaffirm the issues that are important to Canadians. To our businesses, to travellers, to our place in the world and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was very careful with his words Thursday when asked to weigh in on next week’s U.S. election and what the outcome could mean for Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That was it. The kind of anodyne statement politicians use when called on to say something without really saying anything.

Officially, and publicly, this country and its prime minister are showing no preference in the campaign south of the border. That’s also normal. No country wants to be seen as interfering in the domestic politics of another — especially when the other country is the United States.

Both unpopular

What’s not so normal is that the race to lead our closest ally, most important trading partner and the most powerful nation on Earth is being contested by two people who leave voters on both sides of the border so cold.

Polls suggest Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are both unpopular. Enough column inches have been written about their unlikability to rival the CN Tower’s reach to the sky.

Polls, both in the U.S. and Canada, underscore the concern.

One poll released this week by Vancouver-based Insights West suggests 81 per cent of Canadians are worried about a Trump win on Tuesday. Just under half of those surveyed said they would be very or moderately concerned if Clinton emerges victorious.

“Dissatisfaction with Clinton is profound,” says New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, who is in Washington, D.C., this week with a Canadian delegation that will visit several states in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote.

“She represents the system in an election where people want to overthrow the system.”


‘Dissatisfaction with Clinton is profound,’ says New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, who is in Washington, D.C., this week. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Cullen has met with congressional staff from Alaska and Washington state, from both parties, to discuss cross-border co-operation to protect salmon stocks and ban oil tankers from the West Coast — major issues in his B.C. riding.

“What they’re saying is they have no idea what will happen, no idea how the Canada-U.S. relationship will be affected until after the election is over.”


Kim Richard Nossal, a Queen’s University political science professor, says there’s not much to like about either candidate from a Canadian perspective.

Both are anti-trade. Both have shown little interest in this country, or talked of the importance of the North American relationship.

But Trump, he says, is the wild card.

“The fact he hasn’t been able to attract any serious policy experts to his campaign is a concern to establishment Republicans and to every government in the world.”


Trump mimics a choking gesture as he holds a campaign event in Pensacola, Fla., on Wednesday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Nossal says it’s hard for Canadian Embassy staff to know who to meet from the Trump campaign, or to determine who the key players will be if he wins. That makes a Trump presidency as unpredictable as the candidate himself.

“If Donald Trump becomes president, the government here will still have to work with him to advance whatever shared agenda there is, to ensure that Canadian businesses and interests are represented in Washington.”

Clinton, too, will be a challenge on several policy fronts, starting with trade. She’s said she will renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Rim deal the U.S. and Canada both signed. There’s also concern about her past support for Buy American and other protectionist measures.

Nothing in her campaign suggests she’s interested in closer ties with Canada, or the same tight working relationship with Trudeau that Barack Obama had.


U.S. President Barack Obama and Trudeau seem to have a very strong working relationship. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Canadian officials in the U.S. have been working overtime to identify key figures in both the Democratic and Republican camps, and to plan for the transition from Obama to the next occupant of the White House.

The list of priorities is relatively short, but hugely significant.

  • Climate change 

​Trudeau has said Canada will impose a national price on carbon by 2018, and that could put this country out of step with its biggest trading partner.

Trump says climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese and, if elected, he will roll back Obama’s initiatives to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Clinton supports the Paris climate accord, but would face serious obstacles if the Republicans retain control of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Bottom line: Canada’s price on carbon will make this country a more expensive place to do business, and might require the Trudeau government to impose a tax on goods made in a country without a similar pricing system.

  • Syrian refugees

Trump has repeatedly said refugees from the Middle East represent a security and terrorist threat, and many experts believe a Trump victory would be an incentive for the U.S. to harden the northern border.

  • Softwood lumber

An export industry worth billions of dollars to Canadian producers is fast regaining its stature as a serious bilateral irritant. Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman continue to talk, but it’s unlikely a new deal can be reached before Obama’s term in office expires.

  • Energy

Trump would approve Keystone XL. Clinton wouldn’t. For supporters of the oilsands, a Trump win would be a huge boost in getting the oil flowing to export markets. It could also ease the pressure on the Trudeau government to approve Trans-Mountain and Energy East — domestic pipeline projects that are opposed by environmentalists and many Indigenous groups, key constituencies in the Liberals’ 2015 election victory.

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Protesters carry a fake oil pipeline during a protest to highlight global environmental and social issues in Montreal back in August. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

And finally, there’s the long-standing tradition of inviting U.S. presidents to make Canada their first official visit in office.

On this point, there is total agreement among the experts and former diplomats. Trudeau will extend that invitation to the 45th president of the United States, whoever he or she may be.

Follow the U.S. election on Tuesday, Nov. 8 with CBC News

CBC online: Our day starts first thing in the morning at with news and analysis, then as polls close you can get live results and insights into the conversations happening on the ground and online. We’ll cover the story from a Canadian perspective all day until a new U.S. president is declared.
CBC Television:  America Votes, the CBC News election special with Peter Mansbridge, starts at 9 p.m. ET on CBC-TV and CBC News Network.
CBC Radio One: Our election special hosted by Susan Bonner and Michael Enright starts at 8 p.m. ET.

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