Elephants in the room, Trump, Trans Mountain, and the future of Canada

Trump welcomes Canada's Trudeau before their about the NAFTA trade agreement at the White House in Washington

October, 11, 2017 U.S. Donald Trump meets Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House. Interesting hand gesture, in retrospect. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

There’s an “elephant in the room” regarding the Government of Canada’s controversial decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipelines, existing and planned, from Kinder Morgan Canada, a subsidiary of a much bigger company based in Texas, for $4.5 Billion.

And its name is Donald Trump.

Yes, it’s easily understandable why the purchase is controversial; and not just because the sacred political grail of “taxpayers’ money” is about to be spent on something that should by rights be a private-sector enterprise, with government-regulatory approval, of course.

In the best of all possible worlds, and in normal times, I’d be right there in the front row with my placard calling for the end of the fossil-fuel age and saying a resounding “no” to the construction of any more virtual-dinosaur pipelines.

But this is far from being the best of all possible worlds. And as for normal times, I bet I’m not alone in feeling nostalgic for a time, say, a couple of years ago, when whatever else was happening somewhere, there was an underlying stability in our world: a few, important, fundamental things that could be taken for granted, the long-standing friendship of two close allies along the U.S.-Canada border, for example.

But, that can no longer be taken for granted, in a world where everything now seems possible, and not in a good sense. The checks and balances, norms and conventions, and yes, a free press, that have sustained and protected the world’s greatest democracy are not understood or respected by the demonstrably unstable man who currently occupies the White House as President of the United States of America, and its Commander-in-Chief.

Is that where it begins, this ongoing, radical disruption of the world’s geo-political power structure? Or was there a back-channel understanding, an arrangement between two — and maybe later three — power-hungry men? The initial idea being that if the American election of 2016 went a certain, preferred way the spheres-of-influence map of the world would be remade.

I follow the news closely, and occasionally happen to get lucky in catching a particularly interesting talking-head comment. And so it was I landed for a moment on CTV when one such commentator was weighing in on Trump’s decision to impose 25 and 10 percent tariffs respectively on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. Most are long-standing allies, members of NATO, the G7, and what has been called the “Western Alliance.”

Like many others, this commentator was baffled by Trump’s trade attack on allies, with Russia and China easily being much greater threats to the power of the U.S. on the world stage. “Putin and Xi Jinping must be smiling now,” he said.

I also caught a revealing comment made by Trump himself just over a week ago in one of those impromptu scrums he holds with reporters on the White House lawn on his way to or from the presidential helicopter. It was in reference to the cancelled summit with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un. As of this writing it’s on again.

“Everybody plays games,” Trump said that day as he welcomed North Korea’s conciliatory response to his abrupt withdrawal from the planned June 12 summit. Trump’s letter informing the North Korean dictator of the cancellation blamed North Korea, included expressions of seeming regret, but also an incongruous reference to the “massive and powerful” U.S. nuclear arsenal, “that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

About the same time, he took to twitter to complain Canada and Mexico were being “very difficult” in the ongoing NAFTA re-negotiations talks. He said the two countries had been “spoiled” by a deal that had been too good for them, but “horrible, horrible” for the U.S.  Many Americans, including a growing number in Congress, would disagree.

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“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt,” the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, in a 1969 speech to the Washington Press Club.

That was before Canada’s first free-trade agreement with the U.S., without Mexico, in 1988. Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of a Progressive Conservative government of Canada, and a strong proponent of free trade. Indeed, it was the big issue in the federal election that year.

Mulroney has helped advise the current Liberal government under Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, on how to handle the current, extended NAFTA renegotiation talks with the U.S. I imagine he has told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the initial free-trade talks with the U.S. never envisioned the likes of Trump.

Trudeau has walked a fine line with Trump. He has been to the White House, sat with him by the fireplace, shook his hand, and no doubt looked into those strange eyes for whatever they might reveal.

I did not read or hear Trump’s name mentioned in post-deal coverage of the Trudeau government’s purchase of Trans Mountain. I did, however, hear his Question Period response to a query from Conservative Opposition Leader, Andrew Scheer, about the wisdom of spending that much public money to buy a pipeline company. The previous Conservative government never did such a thing, Scheer said.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper traveled to the U.S. and lobbied hard for approval of a new pipeline into the U.S. from Alberta when Barack Obama was president, But Obama remained adamant in his opposition. Approval of the Keystone pipeline was one of Trump’s first official decisions.

Trudeau responded to Scheer by explaining, over a tumult of heckles from opposition Conservatives, that the Trans Mountain expansion is designed to sell more of Canada’s oil to markets other than the U.S.

According to Natural Resources Canada, 99 percent of Canada’s crude oil exports go to the U.S., at the rate of 3.08 million barrels per day (in 2016), and at a discounted price. Canada has the world’s third-largest oil reserves, mostly in the tar sands. But because of the location of much of Canadian refinery infrastructure, Canada also has to import oil, mostly from the U.S.

There’s an underlying urgency in the Trudeau government’s purchase of Trans Mountain, a need to get on with construction of the new pipeline without delay, though the deal isn’t supposed to close until August.

A Backgrounder on the Department of Finance Canada’s website notes the expansion project was approved by the federal government on November, 29, 2016 after the National Energy Board concluded it was in Canada’s public interest. The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office also issued an environmental assessment certificate. But a newly-elected NDP government raised renewed environmental concerns. The federal backgrounder calls them “unnecessary and politically motivated delays” that resulted in Texas-based Kinder Morgan deciding it could not proceed as planned.

The fate of the Trans Mountain expansion will likely be decided in court, over the question of which government – federal or provincial – has final jurisdiction, to build, or stop, such a project.

I understand why Justin Trudeau is so anxious in this and other ways to make Canada less dependent economically on the U.S., and I hope the Trans Mountain expansion gets built.

Trudeau’s tone has changed since Canada’s initial NAFTA charm offensive began last year. He has called Trump’s “national security” reason for justifying the new tariffs “offensive” considering Canada fought side-by-side with the U.S. in the Second World War, and “in the mountains of Afghanistan.”

The misuse of that national-security justification by Trump, whose relationship with the truth is dubious, could be a slippery slope leading down the anything-is-possible road to disaster for Canada, I fear.

Speaking of the elephant in the room, what if a successful renegotiation of the NAFTA was never on? What if it was all about getting rid of free trade with Mexico and bringing Canada to its economic knees? And what then? A one-side annexation offer from Trump to resource-rich Canada? Or, he just walks in and takes over. He knows by now Canada’s military is tiny and under-equipped compared with the U.S., and that counts for a lot in the Trumpian world. Who’s going to stop him? Britain, once but no longer, great, from his point of view? The Queen of Canada? France? Great Bastille Day parades, but another fallen empire consoling itself with pomp and ceremony. Germany? NATO?

Putin, gives a wink and a nod; after all, he gets to continue recovering the old Soviet Union borders and sphere of influence, plus control of cyberspace.

China? Xi Jinping, now dictator-for-life, waiting knowingly and patiently for China’s global-destiny pieces to fall into place; the “sleeping giant” fully awakened, Napoleon’s warning forgotten.

Think it can’t happen? Think again. It’s already happening. And very soon it will be unstoppable.

Yes, Canada’s purchase of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and the planned expansion is in Canada’s public interest, and an urgent one at that, if the continued existence of this good country means anything.

And whatever other action Canada could do to make itself far less economically dependent on the U.S., and less vulnerable in other ways, would have been a good idea a long, retrospective, time ago.

 

 

A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in June, 2018

 

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