Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka on February 13, 2017. Photo: Ivanka Trump/Twitter

It is fitting that 2017 came to a close with a visit from Donald Trump’s secretary of state, former oilman Rex Tillerson. When the year began, the Trudeau government signalled it planned to focus laser-like on the new administration in Washington.

The first step was to replace former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion as global affairs minister. The new minister, Chrystia Freeland, has a degree from Harvard and worked as a high-profile journalist in New York City, London and Moscow. The Liberal brains trust calculated that with her worldliness and charm the one-time globetrotting journalist would have more success than the earnest and professorial Dion.

Earlier, Trudeau had named lobbyist extraordinaire David McNaughton to represent Canada in Washington. Global affairs professionals were not happy with that choice.  If the prime minister had passed over career diplomats in favour of an eminent statesperson such as John Manley or Bob Rae it might make sense to career civil servants. But McNaughton is a backroom operator who played a key role in the Liberal election campaign. The professionals considered his appointment to be something of an insult.

Now McNaughton looks like exactly the right person at the right time. He is, true, a long-time Liberal partisan, but he has always been on the big business wing of his party. And as an added bonus, McNaughton’s wife, Leslie Noble, was for many years a powerful figure in the Ontario Conservative Party, which can’t hurt in Republican Washington.

Trump ended electoral and refugee reform

And so playing the Trump card became the ineluctable obsession of the Justin Trudeau government in 2017.

The prime minister even used the orange boogieman as an excuse to ditch his much-vaunted electoral reform exercise. Changing the voting system, we should not forget, was the promise Justin Trudeau made more than a 1,000 times before he broke it in January 2017. His excuse: We Canadians cannot afford to expend any of our limited supply of energy on the arduous exercise of improving our democratic system. We have no choice but to focus all of our energy on coping with Mr. Mercurial-and-Unpredictable in Washington.

The Trump factor also convinced the Liberal government to put a major overhaul of refugee policy on hold.

In 2012 the Harper Conservatives had changed the refugee rule in ways both Liberals and New Democrats considered to be unfair. For instance, Harper’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, created a new designated country of origin rule. Asylum seekers from those countries, which include such problematic cases as Mexico, Hungary and Poland, get much shorter shrift than others. 

Prior to November 2016, the Liberals had been preparing to ditch the designated country provision as part of a major reform of refugee law. Then our American neighbours elected an immigrant-and refugee-phobe to their highest office.

Plus, shortly after the U.S. election, the prime minister told the world, through Twitter, that Canada would remain a safe and welcoming haven for the persecuted of the world, even if the U.S. would not.

Refugee claimants from such countries as Eritrea and Haiti who were languishing in the U.S. took Justin Trudeau at his word. Many decided to enter Canada unofficially, through farmers’ fields and unguarded back roads. Had they tried entering at official border crossings almost all would have been sent back stateside. That’s because of the safe-third-country agreement Canada signed with the U.S. more than a decade ago. Once asylum seekers are safely on Canadian soil, the Canadian government cannot deport them without a refugee hearing.

Many Americans who bothered to pay attention to this odd phenomenon were incredulous at Canada’s willingness to treat these desperate folks as human beings and not irksome burdens.

But team Trudeau did not want to push the dyspeptic new U.S. president too far. Nor did it want to send too strong a message to migrants anxious to get out of Trump’s U.S. that Canada was opening its doors wider. Thus, it decided to put the entire refugee reform process on the back burner. Ironically, the immigration and refugees minister who made that call is the first refugee to hold the job, Ahmed Hussen.

The A-Team goes to work

Trudeau’s dealing-with-Trump team includes not only McNaughton and Freeland, but also defence minister Harjit Sajjan, retired general Andrew Leslie (who was named Freeland’s parliamentary secretary early in the year), the new trade minister François-Philippe Champagne, and others heavy hitters, such as Ralph Goodale at public security and former astronaut Marc Garneau at transport.

Collectively, the team launched a major charm offensive in the U.S. in 2017, aided by the prime minister’s global celebrity status. They focused not only on the U.S. president’s dysfunctional apparatus, but also on the Congress and on state governments.  

Trudeau established something of a relationship with Trump’s daughter Ivanka. During the PM’s visit to Washington early in 2017, Justin T. and Ivanka staged a stiff and stilted showcase of women entrepreneurs for the benefit of the president and the media. Ivanka’s daddy seemed to enjoy it, if he is capable of enjoying anything.

The Canadian prime minister also squired the first daughter to a Broadway performance of “Come From Away”, the hit musical that celebrates how the people of Gander, Nfld., welcomed thousands of diverted U.S. airline passengers on 9/11.

The NAFTA re-negotiations required more than charm and public relations, however. Once talks got underway, it became quickly apparent that the Trump administration’s approach is heads-you-lose-tails-I-win. There were a series of negotiations in 2017 conducted as a kind of three-country road show, all futile — given the obdurate attitude of U.S. negotiators.

Part of the Trudeau government’s NAFTA strategy has been to rhetorically welcome the chance to modernize the agreement. In that spirit, Trudeau’s team has put such issues as gender, Indigenous rights and the environment on the table. Canadian Conservatives are livid at what they call gratuitous provocation of the U.S. president. Trump’s idea of gender inclusion is to appoint right-wing billionaires’ wives to big jobs, such as ambassador to Canada. But, in fact, the Canadian negotiating position is almost entirely an exercise in symbolism. It is mostly a stalling tactic, since the Trump team is not ready to negotiate seriously. Not yet, at any rate.

Evidence of that, if we needed any, came toward the end of the year, when Trump volubly, if inaccurately, complained about Canada’s (non-existent) trade surplus with the U.S.

“I like the prime minister very much. Prime Minister Trudeau. Nice guy. Good guy,” the U.S. president told a rally in Florida, where he had gone to boost support for Roy Moore in the special senatorial election in nearby Alabama. “No, I like him [Trudeau]. But we had a meeting… He said, ‘No, no, you have a trade surplus.’ I said, ‘No we don’t.'”

The U.S.  president claimed Canada has a $17 billion surplus with his country.  That figure includes only goods, however. When you include services, the surplus favours the U.S. by $12.5 billion. Those are the U.S. government’s own figures.

Still, while the Liberal government in Canada might chide the U.S. on trade, it is moving carefully and gingerly. Such caution partly explains why Trudeau demurred at the Asia Pacific meeting in November when others suggested reviving the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) without the U.S. The Americans withdrew from the trans-Pacific agreement almost as soon as Trump was sworn in. Trudeau has the right to fear that Trump would see active Canadian participation in the TPP as a provocation, which would make the already tense NAFTA talks even less productive.

No to saying no to nukes and helping with North Korea

On other international matters, the Canadian government has long boycotted the worldwide discussions on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, siding with NATO’s nuclear members against most of the world. But if Canada might have been tempted to belatedly soften its view in deference to common sense and the world community, the Trump factor quickly stifled that temptation. It is just another way in which the bully in the White House has come to define and circumscribe Trudeau.

Secretary Tillerson’s meeting in Ottawa on December 19 was a way of featuring the not totally loony branch of Trump’s political family. It is an open secret that the secretary and the president do not get along. Tillerson has never denied calling the president a moron. In revenge the White House keeps leaking rumours that the secretary is on his way out.

The role for Trudeau and Freeland in all this is to give both the president and his secretary of state a win. And they seemed to have pulled that off. Canada will host a foreign ministers’ meeting on “security and stability” on the Korean peninsula, in Vancouver, early in the New Year, on January 16.

Foreign ministers from many countries will, in the words of the joint communiqué, “demonstrate solidarity in opposition to North Korea’s dangerous and illegal actions and work together to strengthen diplomatic efforts toward a secure, prosperous and denuclearized Korean peninsula.”

Trump will brag that he made this happen, that the world is lining up with him to oppose the reckless Kim Jong-Un.

Tillerson will breathe a sigh of relief. Strengthening diplomatic efforts, and in a multilateral fashion at that, beats the hell out of tweeting childish insults at the North Korean leader.

If all goes according to plan, they should both be saying, “Good job Canada.”

Photo: Ivanka Trump/Instagram

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...