Sleeping Next to an Elephant: Canada’s Stake in the U.S. Election

In 2016, Americans will elect a new commander-in-chief, who will succeed Barack Obama as of January 21st 2017. This year, Americans have a plethora of choices, ranging from the “democratic-socialist” Bernie Sanders to the incredibly controversial Donald Drumpf[1], without forgetting the “establishment” represented by Hillary Clinton. As Canadians look on, they know that whoever gets the keys to the White House in 2016 will have major repercussions on affairs north of the border going forward.

 President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico prior to an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) meeting at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 19, 2015. By Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico prior to an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) meeting at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 19, 2015. By Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Unless they have been living under a rock for the past year or so, all political junkies, including Canadians, have been carefully watching the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. While Canadians think of their 78-day 2015 election as long, our neighbours to the south have been used to election cycles lasting over two years. As election day comes closer, the candidate pool gets smaller, nominees and running mates are chosen for each party, all of it culminating in a final showdown on the first Tuesday of November.

For Canadians, while voting in the American election is not possible, the stakes are high. The result on November 6th will have an enormous effect in Canada. In an event in Washington D.C. in 1969, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said to Americans that “Living next to [them] 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.” Even today, Trudeau Sr.’s words prove to be very much true. When questioned, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized that U.S.-Canada relations are of capital importance, saying that “it’s going to be important for Canadians, for Canadian jobs, for Canadian prosperity to be able to have a positive relationship with whoever Americans choose as their president.”

The return of the Liberals to power in Ottawa, after ten years of Conservative rule, came with the promise of a more transparent, proactive and responsible government. Part of that Liberal platform included a renewed relationship with the international community, which included relations between Canada and the U.S. While Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama seem to be hitting it off fairly well, joking about grey hairs and even planning to have dinner together later this March, the new Canadian Prime Minister will soon have to establish a link with a new partner south of the border.

The relationships between U.S. Presidents and Canadian Prime Ministers have ranged from very friendly to hostile, depending on the period. In the War of 1812, Canadians helped burn down the White House. In 2003, the relationship was strained due to Jean Chrétien’s refusal to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Under Stephen Harper, the Keystone XL pipeline proved to be a controversial, divisive issue between the two countries. President Obama rejected the proposal, and Harper adopted a strong stance against the U.S. saying that he “[wouldn’t] take no for an answer.”   On the flipside, President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Diefenbaker got along quite well, as did Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton. The point is that, depending on who wins the election, the Canada-U.S. relationship could take a turn for the worse or for the better.

While he has done his best to remain as neutral as possible, claiming that he would be overstepping his boundaries if he expressed a preference for a specific candidate, Prime Minister Trudeau has nonetheless hinted that a win by Donald Drumpf wouldn’t make him too happy. At a Maclean’s town hall following the federal election win, Mr. Trudeau said the best remedy to help the Muslim community in light of the rise of ISIL is “keeping our communities united, instead of trying to build walls and scapegoat communities. And I mean to talk directly about the Muslim community. They are the greatest victims of terrorist acts around the world. Painting ISIS and others with a broad brush that extends to all Muslims is not just ignorant, it’s irresponsible.” While Mr. Trudeau does not directly name Drumpf, the choice of words obviously points to proposals by Drumpf to ban Muslims from entering the United states “temporarily”, or to send back all Syrian refugees that have been admitted to the U.S. since the beginning of the civil war.

If Drumpf isn’t compatible with the “sunny ways” ideology of the Liberal government, who would? Out of Drumpf’s Republican opponents, certainly not Ben Carson, who has stated he wanted troops patrolling the Canadian border, as part of his “Seven Steps to a Safer America”. What about Marco Rubio? Perhaps he likes Canada a lot, given that his campaign used a shot of Vancouver in a recent ad to refer to his ideal America (they claim it was an accident, but was it truly??) And what about Ted Cruz? Despite his identification as an American, he was indeed born in Canada, and even faced off against Justin Trudeau in debates during his university days. Perhaps then, the currently left-leaning Liberal government would have an easier time dealing with Democrats Sanders or Clinton, While the ideologies are closer, some policy issues could cause rifts. For example, the Keystone XL pipeline, while not in the spotlight after the Obama administration rejected its fourth phase last November, could resurface. As both Clinton and Sanders have opposed it, this could lead to a difficult situation between the two countries.

In short, sleeping next to an elephant, Canada will inevitably be affected by the result of the next U.S. election. Some have launched a campaign for Canada as a whole to run for President, but the chances of success seem slim, mostly due to constitutional requirement that commanders-in-chief be U.S. citizens. Therefore, Canadians will continue to watch until the night of November 6th, with the hope that whoever steps into the White House sees them as allies, rather than obstacles.

[1] While the author’s opinion of presidential candidates is not the topic of this piece, he cannot resist referring to a certain rich billionaire candidate as “Donald Drumpf”, as he believes all should be proud of their heritage (and also because he happens to be a big fan of John Oliver.)