Repairing Canada/U.S. relations will be a priority for U.S. president-elect Joe Biden after four years of antagonism under the Trump presidency, former ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman said during a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade panel discussion Tuesday.
That task, he said, will have to start with an effective strategy to tackle COVID-19, which will be central to achieving conditions that will allow the Canada/U.S. border to be reopened to non-essential travel.
“One thing that I learned while I was ambassador,” Heyman said during the virtual panel discussion, “is that all roads lead to the border,” whether issues relate to commerce, energy or the environment.
While COVID-19 case counts are climbing on both sides of the border, Heyman said for the U.S. it means “we get our act together on a national strategy and policy with regard to the pandemic, and be able to give Canadians the comfort that we are a trusted neighbour.”
And not only trusted with respect to handling the pandemic, but in other areas as well, Heyman said, to re-establish all important traffic flows for tourism and for other means. Not that rebuilding the relationship will be an easy task and won’t come with different tensions under a Biden administration, though Canada will no longer be dealing with Trump, who viewed the relationship as transactional and isolationist.
Heyman was joined on the panel by James Moore, the former B.C. MP and cabinet minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government and Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, a public-opinion research group.
Angus Reid is finalizing some research on that Canada/U.S. relationship, Kurl said, which found that Canadians have some serious reservations about our southern neighbour that won’t instantly be resolved by a new president in the White House.
“It’s true that with a Biden presidency, we’re going to see a lot of the symbols, the courtesies, the niceties of that relationship immediately re-established,” Kurl said, “and those things do matter.”
However, the Canadian public has watched divisions grow in the U.S. “with not an insignificant amount of horror” over the last four years, Kurl said, whether it’s over political instability or issues of race.
Kurl said a lot of Canadians believe Biden will be better for the Canada/U.S. relationship, but many are also cautious about his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and the “buy-American” sentiment of his economic recovery plans.
“(People) are also … just a little bit shell-shocked by everything they’ve seen over the last four years” and, perhaps, “hedging their bets a little bit about what this means going forward.”
Moore characterized the Canada/U.S. bond as “reasonably strong, all things considered,” including the arbitrary tariffs against trade partners and belligerent chastising of NATO allies in Trump’s “America First” policies.
“The circus has left and will leave (Washington, D.C.) with Donald Trump,” Moore said, but there will be “shock waves that will reverberate through American politics for many years.”
He said, “Trump is a narcissist, he’s also a nihilist” who can’t live without being in the spotlight. So, the Republican Party will likely have to react to whatever he does next.
Then on the Canadian side of the border, Moore said Biden “in a lot of ways threw Canada under the bus” over the Keystone XL pipeline project, which the president elect promised to cancel, Moore said. He hopes it’s a position that can be changed.
“A quarter of Canada’s energy exports are expected to go through that pipeline in the United States, so the Canadian economy cannot recover, in the near term, without that pipeline,” Moore said.
And he added that Canada will have to remind Biden that the “buy-American” sentiments in his U.S. recovery plans would be a violation of the Canada, U.S., Mexico trade agreement, as it was under NAFTA.
“I hope that this is Joe Biden being a little bit more rhetorical and not actually how they are going to do structured policy that would violate the (CUSMA),” Moore said.
Heyman, who was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2014 by Biden as then-vice-president under Barack Obama, said he knows how important that bilateral relationship is to him. However, he also knows Biden’s decisions, such as Keystone XL, will be made in the context of his commitments to rejoin the Paris accord on climate change and the need to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.
“I’m not saying there’s flexibility here, I don’t want that to be the news item,” Heyman said, but “a lot of things can evolve” in conversations between governments and the industry, once the U.S. has a new ambassador on the ground.”