Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks Josh Bolten from Business Roundtable about NAFTA. Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

A lot of Canada’s Conservatives were wearing long faces yesterday about the impact of the freshly inked United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on this country’s dairy industry.

As political sins go, this small hypocrisy is a minor one. Why not let the sitting government take the rap for a treaty with our big, bullying neighbour that is certain to be unpopular with a small but vocal and well-financed group of voters inclined to support Conservatives anyway?

What’s more, the current leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada can hardly fail to be mindful of the fact Andrew Scheer became leader last year in large part because he took the side of the dairy lobby against the ideological market-fundamentalism of his rival Maxime Bernier, who for much of the leadership race appeared to be the frontrunner.

Just the same, you shouldn’t believe them.

Movement conservatives have been salivating at the prospect of dismantling supply management in dairy, poultry and eggs for decades. Why do you think Bernier came so close to winning the Tory leadership last year? If the USMCA is a step in that direction, they’ll struggle to hide their satisfaction that Americans are doing their work for them.

If the worst that happens to Canadian supply-managed agricultural industries is a ban on grated cheese from Canada, they got off very lightly, although it will be galling for them to hear U.S. President Donald Trump boasting that he Made America Grate Again!

Puns aside, even a 3.6-per-cent opening in the market to large-scale American producers has the potential to dramatically impact smaller Canadian dairies, driving down prices paid to producers and pushing some out of business.

This will not be the end of it, either. Canadian market fundamentalists, many still in CPC ranks, will continue beavering away at dismantling supply management. If they can use the USMCA as an excuse, they’ll be delighted to do so. If they can also blame the Liberals while shedding crocodile tears for the poor farmers, so much the better.

In the meantime, Cap-C Conservatives led by Scheer will continue to claim that, had they been in power, they would have negotiated a better deal with Trump than the Canadians led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

How? By kissing Trump’s posterior sooner and more passionately? By promising to campaign for him in 2020? (Devin Dreeshen, c’mon down!) By letting their affinity for Trump’s policies and prejudices persuade them to roll over on everything, as they advocated pretty much right up until the moment there was a deal?

Under the circumstances, this is probably the best deal that could have been achieved, and it is at least possible that Trudeau’s negotiating team — which included at the advisory level former Opposition leader Rona Ambrose and other Tory heavy hitters — did better because they stuck to their message than they would have if they’d hurried to sign, as the Opposition demanded.

Mexican auto workers will even be getting a raise to $16 an hour — above the $15 top Canadian minimum wage that came into effect in Alberta yesterday to the noisy consternation of the local fast-food industry. In the long run, this will be good for Canadian and U.S. autoworkers and their Mexican counterparts alike.

Regardless, it’s always easy to say you could have steered a better course when you don’t have your hand on the tiller. Canadian Conservatives are masters at this charade.

If you think I’m wrong, remember that it was Conservatives who gave away the Canadian store in the first place with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1987.

That was when we handed over control of our economy to another country, despite warnings by patriotic Canadians that it would be all but impossible to take it back. And that was what gave an anomalously bad U.S. president such a strong hand when it came to “re-negotiating” CUSFTA’s successor agreement, NAFTA.

But as Britain’s looming Brexit catastrophe shows, these so-called trade agreements are easier to get into than to get out of.

Even hard-core opponents of globalizing trade treaties would likely have, upon reflection, realized that under the circumstances of 2018 there was not much to be done but negotiate the least awful deal possible.

By that measure, Trudeau and Freeland appear to have succeeded, if only because what we ended up with isn’t a catastrophe, a disaster, or even much of a change.

It may be, of course, as many commentators have observed, that all that was really required was a new name that Trump — in deep trouble with literally half the United States electorate thanks to his latest pick for the U.S. Supreme Court — could take to voters before next month’s mid-term U.S. Congressional elections.

More likely, though, some horse-trading was inevitable because professional negotiators had been given a mandate.

Meanwhile, giving NAFTA 2.0 a new name makes it explicit that Trump has enjoyed a limited success on trade — which he will, of course, claim to be the greatest trade victory in American history.

As for USMCA, it’s not such a bad name for a so-called free trade agreement with the United States, for two reasons:

1. It drops the word “trade,” which NAFTA had very little to do with anyway. It will remain a corporate rights deal designed to limit the rights of workers and voters in all North American countries.

2. It implicitly references the threat that lurks behind almost all globalizing trade deals: The United States Marine Corps, commonly known as the USMC.

If it’s mildly insulting because it puts Canada behind Mexico in Trump’s affections, so be it. Like our dairy farmers, we got off lightly. The day may come soon when it’s not so good to be publicly identified as a friend of President Trump.

Canadians would be wise, of course, to try seriously to diversify our trading relationships with the rest of the world.

But with this speed bump on the road to total American domination out of the way, I imagine not much more than lip service will be paid to that worthy goal.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...