Pandemics don’t come with detailed instruction manuals for government.
But Canada does have a playbook for trade disputes with the United States, and Justin Trudeau’s government hauled it out to deal with Donald Trump’s America first hoarding of pandemic-fighting supplies.
The attack was familiar; so was the response. Canada used all the same techniques to fight Trump’s pandemic protectionism — except for targeted retaliation — as it did during previous trade disputes.
Initially, Canada appeared to be caught off guard late last week when medical mask manufacturer 3M, which also has operations in Canada, revealed that it had been ordered not to fill a Canadian order.
Perhaps no one should have been surprised that the U.S. president’s penchant for turning global matters into trade wars includes, it seems, an international pandemic.
The initial weeks of the COVID-19 crisis had seen the U.S. and Canada acting in harmony, mutually closing their borders to all but essential traffic and getting the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement swiftly through Parliament.
But whenever the going gets tough — and a pandemic is about as tough as it goes — Trump goes “America first.”
Canada’s now well-worn response has three basic, predictable pieces:
Phone diplomacy — a massive flurry of phone calls between Canadians and their American contacts and counterparts.
Co-ordinated, federal-provincial communications, with the provinces often playing bad cop, while Ottawa plays good cop.
Extremely limited contact between Trump and Trudeau themselves, with the prime minister saying as little as possible to avoid inflaming the president.
All of those strategies were put into use after the 3M announcement last week. Did it work? Maybe, although just what was agreed to wasn’t entirely clear on Monday night, when 3M said it had a deal with the White House to send a shipment of N95 masks to Canada. In the Prime Minister’s Office, they are familiar enough with how Trump has operated in the past to know they’re not out of the woods yet.
Meanwhile, while the federal government had done its diplomacy, the provinces made some noise.
One of the most angry denunciations came from Newfoundland, where Premier Dwight Ball reminded the U.S. of how his province had taken in stranded American plane passengers after 9/11. Yes, he went there (and with the full blessing in advance from Ottawa, reportedly).
“To say that I’m infuriated with the recent actions of President Trump … is an understatement,” Ball said on Sunday. “Newfoundland and Labrador will never give up on humanity. We will not hesitate for one second. If we had to repeat what we did in 9/11, we would do it again.”
While all that went on, Trudeau stayed true to the playbook. He refused to say anything beyond bland declarations in favour of Canada-U.S. relations, and a vague hint here and there of what the U.S. stood to lose if it escalated things — pulp from B.C. that goes into making the masks, for instance, or the extensive cross-border traffic of medical personnel between Windsor and Detroit.
Canada is still looking for a more definitive exemption from Trump’s pandemic protectionism, and the PMO is still optimistic it can be obtained. The government has never dealt with a pandemic before, but Trump’s America first reply to it, is familiar to the point of predictable.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.