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Canada-U.S. relations: A look at challenges Justin Trudeau faces

WATCH: Justin Trudeau's full election victory speech

Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is yet again in the hands of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — a person quite familiar with the tumultuousness of his political counterpart south of the border.

And while it wasn’t a driving theme of the election campaign, the relationship comes with heavy baggage that the newly minted leader will need to address.

Between a yet-to-be ratified Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), lingering tensions with China and an erratic American chricounterpart, Trudeau has a full plate.  

Here’s a look at some of the key issues Trudeau will be tasked with handling:

Trade

The new NAFTA is at the heart of trade relations with the United States.

The trade deal was signed in November but must be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries for it to pass into law. So far, only Mexico has done so.

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READ MORE: In 2015, Justin Trudeau declared ‘Canada is back’— so where are we now?

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been pressuring U.S. Congress to pass the bill, but Democrats want amendments before they seal the deal.

Canada wants to synchronize its moves with the U.S.

“One of the things Canada will face is: ‘Do we pass it, as the Mexicans have done, or do we wait?’” said Chris Sands, director at the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s also this question mark as to what the U.S. passes. It’s one of those obscure things that could be explosive, as the U.S. negotiates between [U.S. trade representatives] and Congress on what exactly the bill looks like. ”

While Sands is certain Canada will pass it —“not because it’s great but because it’s necessary to have the framework” — he said there is still a chance for hiccups.

“Anything that the U.S. does on [CUSMA] that is not expected will pose either a big or small dilemma for the next Canadian Parliament,” he said.
Federal Election 2019: Trudeau highlights negotiation record on NAFTA
Federal Election 2019: Trudeau highlights negotiation record on NAFTA

Trump has expressed worry that the passage of the agreement could get less likely with time, alluding to the forthcoming 2020 election.

“It gets more and more political because we get closer and closer to the election,” the U.S. president said.

But things are moving ahead, according to U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who allayed worries earlier this month that an ongoing impeachment inquiry into Trump would not delay approval of the deal.

It’s in Trudeau’s best interest to just sign on the dotted line when the time comes, said Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University.

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“There’s nothing gained by poking the bear in this case,” he said. “The reality is, say, for small tweaks here and there; it’s pretty much the same deal.”

In the meantime, ratified or not, there’s no need to panic, said Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada.

“Don’t forget we have an existing deal, and this existing deal is working,” he said. “This is meant to be an improvement, and that’s what they’re working toward.”

China

It’s been more than nine months since Canada’s relationship with China took a nosedive.

Tensions between the two countries sparked in December 2018 when Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, at the request of the U.S.

Days later, China detained two Canadians. Chinese officials claim it was for unrelated reasons.

The Trudeau Liberals have been under immense pressure to resolve the situation.

READ MORE: Leaders drawing the blinds on foreign policy during election campaign, experts say

“It’s a complicating factor going forward,” said Heyman, who served as ambassador during the Obama administration. “I think the current president continues to make it more complicated for Canada.”

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Trump has offered to mediate problems between Canada and China, but his relationship with China is far messier. The world’s two largest economies have been locked in a year-long trade war, with tariff hikes weighing on global economic growth.

The two sides have made progress in recent weeks but haven’t sealed a deal.

“Canada is caught in the crossfire of the conflict,” said Sands.

Federal Election 2019: Trudeau outlines relationship with U.S., China
Federal Election 2019: Trudeau outlines relationship with U.S., China

“That’s obviously a huge issue because of the two Canadians being held hostage in China, but there’s also the consequence on Canadian agricultural products that are being hit by China.”

Other Chinese pressure on Canada has come in the form of limitations on key exports, such as canola products, soybeans, peas and meat.

“It’s an issue that a lot of Canadians are quite anxious about,” said Sands.

What should Trudeau do on the file?

“Stick to our quote-un-quote traditional Canadian values,” suggested Lander.

U.S.-China trade tensions still simmer after deal
U.S.-China trade tensions still simmer after deal

While Canada may not “dictate the global agenda,” Trudeau has the unique opportunity to promote “soft power” by creating alliances, he said.

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Canada isn’t big enough to stand up some of the “vitriol” coming from China, he added, and it will do no good for the Liberals to respond with similar tough talk.

“On the global stage, the world is very different than in Pierre Trudeau’s time, Jean Chretien’s time, Mulroney’s time. It’s much more bruising. It’s much more divided. Canada is going to have a difficult time pushing an open agenda when the big plays on the stage are closed,” he said.

“We should promote that open side of that open-closed divide and make sure we’re, at least, near the front line of that, especially when the U.S., Britain and China all seem to be wavering on it.”  

Ambassador … who?

A smaller-scale issue, as Sands points out, is the lack of U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Kelly Craft was last to hold the job. As U.S. ambassador to Canada, she played a role in facilitating the new NAFTA agreement and was involved in trying to free the Canadians detained in China.

Craft was appointed in August 2017 but assumed the role of ambassador to the United Nations in September, replacing Nikki Haley. The role has been empty ever since. 

“Typically, that doesn’t matter, but if the U.S. government changes, that’s important, and it’s just as important to the Canadian government,” said Sands.

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“We’re going into a tricky time without a senior U.S. representative to help manage the tensions on all these things.”

Kelly Craft questioned on 300 days absent from post as ambassador to Canada.
Kelly Craft questioned on 300 days absent from post as ambassador to Canada.

On the flipside, Canada only has an acting ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, whose status as deputy ambassador was rolled into acting ambassador after the departure of David MacNaughton. 

Sands said it would be beneficial for the Liberals to fix that quickly.

“If there’s tension, the usual team captains for managing it are not there,” he said.

“Nobody could pick up the phone and get the president and the prime minister directly on the phone and say: ‘OK, how do we not let this get out of hand?’ Instead, it’ll be Twitter diplomacy, probably going in both directions.”

Trump-isms

The experts all agree on one thing — the unpredictability of the man in the White House will continue to pose a major challenge to Trudeau. 

“The problem Canada faces is not unique to Canada,” said Heyman. “The problem is that we have the most radical, unpredictable person as president of the United States. It’s the unpredictability that makes it challenging. I would say we have challenging relationships with allies around the world.”

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Trudeau’s relationship with Trump has seen ups and downs. 

READ MORE: Crowd at Conservative rally in Ontario chanted ‘lock him up’ when Scheer mentioned Trudeau

Between tumultuous trade negotiations and tariffs, it grew particularly tense in June 2018 when Trudeau said Canadians would not be “pushed around” by the U.S. over tariffs on aluminum and steel. Trump responded by calling the prime minister “dishonest” and “weak.”

Trudeau rarely waded into U.S.-Canada relations during the campaign. 

Trump steered clear as well and appeared hesitant when asked to comment on the blackface scandal that plagued Trudeau’s re-election, saying only that he was “surprised.”

He was, however, quick to congratulate Trudeau for his victory Monday night, saying “Canada is well served” under his leadership, perhaps telling of the relationship’s current climate. 

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“I look forward to working with you toward the betterment of both our countries!” the president wrote. 

But the focus shouldn’t be Trump if the Liberal government wants to keep on good terms with the U.S., according to Lander. 

“I think whoever’s in charge needs to recognize that the friends are in Congress and not in the White House,” he said.

Lander pointed to the U.S.-Canada steel debacle as an example of how this works.

“The Canadian government started lobbying through Democrats and Republicans in Congress, saying: ‘You need to rein in your president. We don’t have the capacity to do that. We need you to apply pressure,’” he said. “I think that works, where they started targeting key members of the House and Senate, applying tariffs back on them.”

‘I’m surprised’ Trump comments on Justin Trudeau blackface controversy
‘I’m surprised’ Trump comments on Justin Trudeau blackface controversy

But things could change in 2020, as a new presidential campaign is already in full swing and could very well dish up a new House and Senate with which the Trudeau Liberals would have to contend.

“At this point, today’s advantage could be tomorrow’s disadvantage,” he said. “I think he just needs to recognize that your friends are there, and that’s where you need to apply pressure.”  

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Canada’s acting ambassador to the United States.