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Trump need not be a curse for Trudeau

By Chantal HÉbert      

As of this week, making sense of Canada's place in the Trump universe will require Trudeau's full attention—and potentially some course corrections.

It is a rare prime-ministerial agenda that is not at the mercy of events beyond a federal government's control, writes Chantal Hébert. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Until this week, Justin Trudeau was as much in command of his government’s agenda as a majority prime minister could hope to be.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory that is no longer true.

There are a few files whose handling is truly central to the success of a Canadian prime minister.The unity of the federation is one.

Keeping the channels open between the White House and Ottawa and the border open between Canada and the United States is another, and not just for the obvious reason that when the protectionist instincts of our main trading partner kick in—as they have through Trump’s campaign—the economic prosperity of the country is at risk.

When there is a real and credible threat on either of those fronts, the task of leading the fire brigade falls squarely on the shoulders of the prime minister, even if that means other priorities have to take a back seat.

As of this week, making sense of Canada’s place in the Trump universe will require Trudeau’s full attention—and potentially some course corrections.

Intellectual and political resources will have to be redeployed along the Canada-U.S. front including—if and when Trudeau proceeds to a mid-mandate shuffle—within the cabinet.

Trump’s campaign has invested a new dose of legitimacy in the anti-immigration rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent in western Europe. On the heels of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, his victory could have a ripple effect in next year’s French and German national elections.

Trudeau is currently seen as the rising progressive star of the current political generation of world leaders. A year from now, he could also be a lonely planet.

Talking about a ripple effect, Canada’s Conservative party seems destined to serve as an echo chamber for the kind of populist rhetoric that got Trump to the White House.

On Wednesday, leadership contender Kellie Leitch celebrated the outcome of the U.S. vote as a victory of the people over the elites. She doubled down on her contention that Canada needed to stand guard against letting in immigrants without vetting their values.

Notwithstanding Leitch’s mantra, the Canadian consensus that a Clinton presidency would have been a preferable outcome for Canada was a wide one. It was one of the rare issues that found Jason Kenney, the former federal immigration minister who would unite the right in Alberta, and his New Democrat nemesis, Premier Rachel Notley, on the same page.

That consensus will not outlive the outcome of the American election.

A Trump presidency did not go into the mix of the calculations that have attended Liberal decisions on issues as central to the federal agenda as energy and climate change.

Trudeau was already walking on a wire as he strived to balance a more activist climate change strategy with the approval of more pipelines to get Alberta oil to tidewater. That wire is now frayed.

It will be harder to make the case for carbon pricing across Canada in the face of an American administration with no interest in partaking in the international arrangements to mitigate climate change.

It will be tougher to sell controversial pipeline projects in Canada if those become hostage to a take-no-prisoner fight that pits Trump against the North American environmental movement.

Public support for Canada’s role in the combat mission against Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in the Middle East may be in shorter supply after Trump is installed as U.S. commander-in-chief.

It is a rare prime-ministerial agenda that is not at the mercy of events beyond a federal government’s control. Past experience suggests that needs not be a curse.

After the federalist near miss of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Jean Chrétien had to retool. Ditto in the wake of 9/11. Stephen Harper, similarly, had to alter his government’s fiscal course at the time of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Both leaders turned these imposed challenges into opportunities, gaining strength from the unexpected hurdles thrown unto their paths. In each of their cases, it was unforeseen events of a great magnitude that became the defining features of their mandates.

A word in closing: Trudeau is expected to invite Trump to make Canada the destination of his first foreign visit.

President Barack Obama’s maiden trip to Canada in 2009—much like his final one last June—was punctuated by spontaneous outpourings of popular affection. But when he rolls out the red carpet for Trump, the prime minister may have to call upon a central casting agency for extras to pose as fans of the incoming U.S. president.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

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