There’s long been a saying — when the U.S. sneezes, Canada catches a cold.
The meaning is this: as Canada’s traditional closest ally and most important trading partner, anything that happens in the U.S. casts ripple effects up over the northern border.
Four years ago, American voters made a decision with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump that rippled not only through their own highly divided country but also around the world, most particularly in Canada.
Workers here have felt the effects of repeated trade tariffs, the American withdrawal from the world stage and key alliances, and a virtual upending of any and all diplomatic and political norms.
According to an Ipsos poll done exclusively for Global News, the turmoil of the last four years has Canadians watching closely, with most saying they believe a Joe Biden presidency would better protect Canadian interests, while many also report concerns about the potential for sectarian violence.
Seventy per cent of those polled said a Biden presidency would be good for Canada, while 22 per cent said a second term for Trump would be better for Canadian interests.
Albertans were the most likely to say they felt a second term of the Trump presidency would be the best outcome for Canada, while Quebeckers, British Columbians, Atlantic Canadians and women overall are most likely to say they wanted a Biden presidency.
However, 60 per cent also said they are worried about the potential for violence if Trump loses.
Trump has repeatedly signalled he is not committed to a peaceful transfer of power, which leaves 68 per cent of Canadian Baby Boomers, 59 per cent of Millennials and 55 per cent of Gen Xers concerned.
Half of Gen Z Canadians also reported feeling worried at the potential for violence.
“It really points to a bigger concern,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. “Whether Donald Trump was just a one-off, freak type of accident, or whether he is representative of really deep divisions in American society that will continue on no matter who is elected.”
“They’re seeing scenes that are pretty shocking,” he added. “They’re worried that this will be one of the outcomes if President Trump loses.”
It’s not a concern without merit, experts say.
“I’m quite concerned about the divisions that exist within American society that have been exacerbated over the last several years,” said David McNaughton, former Canadian ambassador to the U.S.
“My concern, if it was uncertain or unclear as to who had won, would be that some of the people who are enemies of Canada and the United States would take the opportunity of uncertainty or chaos in the U.S. to make mischief,” he said.
“That’s happened before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again. And that’s a real security concern for us.”
Trump presidency amplified derision of science
The question of security is a prominent one in any discussion of what the last four years have meant for Canada and what effect either a Trump or Biden presidency will have going forward.
Just within the concept of national security are myriad questions around everything from border measures to trade wars and resulting effects on vital supply chains, the security of intelligence and information sharing, and all kinds of critical infrastructure from food supplies to fuel and medicines.
The latter is particularly important given the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation and a leading expert on international affairs, said many of the challenges Trump has sown over the last four years are being seen even in Canada in how people are responding to public health advice.
“This presidency has also not just created this lack of trust in public health experts, but also really amplified the voices of what was ultra-right fringe movements,” she said, pointing to Trump’s attacks on science, denigration of informed expertise, and frequent amplification of falsehoods and lies.
“Simply, we’re all sharing very similar news. A lot of the information is transcending the borders. We’ve seen a rise in popularity of outright movements of conspiracy-based types … All of that is, frankly, kind of damaging for the Canadian public sense of confidence in their public health abilities.”
Momani pointed out that while it is important to note Trump was not the first to sow seeds of doubt in public institutions and experts — global trust levels have been sinking for years — he has used his presidency to turn what used to be fringe conspiracies into mainstream misinformation.
And that denigration of public experts and facts has seeped into Canada, too.
There have been anti-mask protests taking place across the country in recent months along with the proliferation of QAnon conspiracy theories in Canadian churches and on social media platforms.
And while Canada has not yet seen as rapid a spread of those kinds of extremist false beliefs, experts have warned that far-right extremism is growing here, too, with an estimated 300 far-right groups active in the country.
The last four years have only fuelled their growth.
With U.S. polls indicating a sharp rise in the number of Americans who believe violence is justified if their side loses the election, the question becomes what steps Canada is taking to prepare for disruption.
Canadian strategy: damage control
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stressed in recent weeks that the government is hoping for a clear result on election night but taking steps to prepare for “disruptions” if that is not the case.
And experts say if the last four years have shown Canadian leaders anything, it’s the critical need to be able to control the damage of disruptions coming from south of the border.
The NAFTA renegotiation and Trump’s attempt to use tariffs as leverage offered a clear opportunity for Canadians to mobilize a broad group of stakeholders from farmers to business groups to state and local leaders to push for changes to protect a shared interest.
But the question now becomes, how will Canadian leaders apply those lessons in what is widely expected to be a chaotic and potentially even violent period of determining the winner of the election?
“If there is one thing that I think Canadians should know of the last four years, it’s that we have managed to avoid significant damage,” said Thomas Juneau, associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.
“The last four years of Trump have been difficult, but the actual cost to Canada has been limited. We’ve managed to mostly successfully mitigate what could have been far worse in terms of the impact on Canada of a Trump presidency. What would the next four years look like if there’s a second Trump term?”
Momani offered a stark assessment.
“A second-term presidency can also mean one is more forceful because it’s the last-term presidency,” she said. “We may, in fact, see Trump take this as an opportunity to enact many of the very controversial policies that he thought he couldn’t get away with in the first term.”
“So it is a scary time,” she continued, pointing in particular to the U.S. retreat from its traditional role as a defender of human rights at a time when such rights are facing existential challenges in many parts of the world.
“One has to really wonder — and I can go very dark — what he is capable of doing.”