What’s next for Canada-U.S. relations in the wake of the recent U.S. midterm elections? Is the coverage of American politics taking up too much airtime in Canada? How can the media fight against the moniker of “fake news”? Are there more surprises to come with the USMCA trade agreement?
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland joined The National co-hosts Rosemary Barton and Adrienne Arsenault, CBC News Washington correspondent Keith Boag, and Washington Post journalists Aaron Blake and Karoun Demirjian to discuss these topics and others during a special edition of “The National Conversation” this week in Toronto.
Canadians posed questions in person and on social media to the panel, covering an extensive range of issues that have relevance on both sides of the border. Here are excerpts from that discussion:
U.S. midterm elections
Did the results of the U.S. midterms make it harder for diplomatic relations?
Chrystia Freeland: When I saw those results, I said what I think every Canadian government always says after every U.S election, which is a core job of any federal government of Canada, a core job of any Canadian foreign minister, is to have a working relationship with whoever the Americans elect. And that was our job before Tuesday, and that is our job after Tuesday, and that will be our job after the 2020 elections. We Canadians are pretty good at working with the Americans, it’s been a core job of Canadian federal governments for as long as we’ve been a country and we’re good at working with all different types and flavours of Americans and that’s what we’re going to keep on doing.
Can Canadians trust Trump?:
Were you surprised by the midterm election results?
Karoun Demirjian: You could have made this guess a year ago: that the House was inclined to go Democratic, that the Senate [and] the races that were up this year, it looked like the Republicans should hold onto the Senate, unless something went very wrong. The president, as angry as he was the next day in that press briefing, had to be breathing a sigh of relief because he didn’t lose the Senate. Because it means that he can push ahead with this Republican plan to get as many conservative judges on the course as possible, which is the long-term game that could really change the general culture of the country over the next generation. But Democrats are going to start investigating him on Day 1; they’re probably not going to try to impeach him because that would risk too much. But that’s just going to create fights between Congress and the White House, between the two houses, between Democrats and Republicans. And if the last two years were divided and acrimonious in the United States, just buckle in, because it’s going to be worse coming up.
Aaron Blake: I think what we saw on Tuesday was a combination of the growing frustration and the fact that the president wants to use the media as his foil. And also perhaps some frustration as to how the election had gone the night before, where the president suffered the largest defeat for a Republican House since 1974. It was not a good night for him and I think there was frustration showing there.
USMCA trade agreement
Why were tariffs imposed during the negotiations?
Chrystia Freeland: There was some surprise in Canada, and I think around the world, when the tariffs were imposed. There is no reasonable argument to have imposed these tariffs on Canada — that’s what we said at the beginning. It is actually absurd. And that’s why when the tariffs were imposed, we said that we would impose retaliatory measures. And we did. Our retaliation is balanced, it is perfectly reciprocal dollar-for-dollar retaliation, it went into force on July 1, and our tariffs will remain in place until the U.S. tariffs are lifted. So Canada’s position is: Lift these tariffs now, they’re hurting everybody.
Are tariffs good for Canada and the U.S.?:
What was the biggest concession you made during the negotiations?
Chrystia Freeland: Any negotiation, obviously, involves compromise; that’s why it’s a negotiation. Otherwise we would just have our list of what we want and get it. I think probably the issue — which Canadians are very aware was a difficult one and where the U.S. wanted increased access — was access to the Canadian dairy market. I feel comfortable with the deal that we struck. The level of increased access is comparable to was what agreed to by the Conservative government in the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] negotiations. That was a compromise that we offered to the United States as part of a broader deal. Another thing that we got rid of, which I am really pleased about, is something that was known as the energy ratchet clause, which committed us to selling a certain portion of our energy exports to the United States. To me, that impinges on our sovereignty and I am glad that that is gone too.
Did Canada have leverage in the negotiations?
Chrystia Freeland: Well, there’s always leverage. Canada is the largest market for the United States — larger than China, Japan and the U.K. combined. So we do have leverage in the relationship. But we think it’s important to use leverage in the right places. We believe in rules, we believe in laws, we believe in procedures, and we believe that everything should be kept in its own lane.
Do you feel like Canada is still an American ally?
Chrystia Freeland: We are very much an ally of the United States, and they are very much our ally. We are partners in NATO, we have shared obligation to one another under Article 5, and equally importantly, we are partners in NORAD. NORAD is the only joint command that the United States participates in in the world. It’s a joint command of Canadians and Americans, and that close relationship is essential because of geography, because of this vast unmilitarized — and really used by human beings — border. So, yes, of course we’re allies.
Aaron Blake: I think the president actually projects the way a lot of Americans feel about this relationship. Maybe not in the exact words that he uses. But he views even longtime allies, even neighbours, as business partners, as competitors and as adversaries when it comes to jobs, when it comes to trade deficits. It’s all part of making deals. There was an interview just a few weeks ago in which the president was on 60 Minutes and he was asked about imposing tariffs on Canada, on Japan, on South Korea. And Lesley Stahl said, “Why are you doing this to our allies?” And the president says, “What’s an ally?” He’s questioning the very notion of an ally and I think the treatment of countries like Canada is very much an outgrowth of that. He is challenging the very notion that a country like Canada needs to be treated any differently than a country like Russia does.
Does Trump consider Canada an ally?:
Should we be concerned with the rise of populism in the U.S. coming to Canada?
Keith Boag: What Donald Trump has done, that he probably didn’t intend to do, is make people more aware that they can’t take anything for granted now. And we have the good fortune to be able to learn this from a distance. Our friends in America do not: they have to live through it. What’s happening in the United States is not a small story. It is a huge story … and I don’t intend in any way to sound condescending about that, but alarm bells should be going off all over the place about this. There’s nothing that he will not toss aside, rip to shreds, grind down if that happens to be in his personal interest. And I think we have to be hardened against this, and speak truthfully, and with the principles of objectivity and some detachment and accuracy as always. But we can’t be blind to what’s actually happening here, because it’s not normal.
Trump and the media
Do Canadian news outlets focus too much on American politics?
Adrienne Arsenault: Well, I mean you can’t choose your family. I’m sorry, mom. Look, we have no choice. We were just talking backstage that when Paul Hunter, another Washington correspondent, went down to the U.S. in the 2016 election … a pastor said to him, “Why are you here?” And then the pastor stopped and answered his own question and said, “Oh, I guess you’d want to know if your neighbour’s house is burning down.” Right? You’d stick your head out the window and smell for smoke. So there’s an element of that going on. We have no choice, for good and for bad. What happens there affects us. Are we spending too much time on the American story? You know, it’s interesting. Sometimes people say that and then on the night of the midterms, CNN in Canada had well over a million viewers. Now that’s interesting for CNN in Canada. So when Canadians tell you they’re not interested, I’m afraid they’re not telling the truth.
How does the term ‘fake news’ affect the media?
How do you effectively cover Trump in the media?
Aaron Blake: It’s a constant situation where we’re adjusting, figuring out new ways, re-evaluating ourselves. I think what you’re seeing in the latter parts of the 2018 midterms is that it’s not just that they stopped airing these rallies live, they stopped airing them. And then once they were over, they instantly did a bunch of fact-checks about exactly what was said in the rally and why it was wrong. We are seeing a change of course. I think, though, that there are some people that wish that if we ignored President Trump, they think that he might just go away. They think that by putting the things that he says out there — even if we’re fact-checking them in real time — somehow this is doing him a favour. I disagree with that. I think that’s too cynical to think that the people can’t understand what’s true and false, if you’re telling them what’s true or false. We may need to increase media literacy to get people to actually understand what we’re telling them, but there is no amount of fact-checking that I think is too much. If people don’t care that the president is saying things that are false, that’s on them, and you’re probably not going to get through to them anyway.
Were you surprised by the heated exchange between Trump and CNN journalist Jim Acosta?
Adrienne Arsenault: I watched what happened there with Jim Acosta … sort of as a warning for us here. And a couple of things come to mind. I can’t personally imagine the intestinal fortitude of being a White House correspondent right now; he must have a stack of Rolaids somewhere. But I also think there’s a trap — and that’s taking the bait of sort of becoming so frustrated that you stand up again and start arguing with the president. And I can understand on a human level how that happens, but I see it as a warning sign to the rest of us: that this is a time that we’re being challenged as journalists and it’s evermore important to just do your job and be calm and try to stay above reproach. Because people are looking for you to take the bait.
Watch the exchange in question between Trump and Acosta:
Aaron Blake: What we just saw in the video there, and what actually happened, was an extension of what we’ve been seeing for the better part of three years and the rhetoric at his rallies, where he’s been calling the media fake news. It’s been occasional clashes in the briefing room with reporters. There was one point at which CNN was declined from attending an event in the Rose Garden in the White House. They have scaled back the number of daily briefings to almost nothing. So the White House is taking these kinds of punitive measures as we move along in order to try and get more favourable coverage or to punish coverage that they don’t necessarily appreciate.
Keith Boag: It undermines us. I think [Washington Post executive editor] Marty Baron has it right: “We’re not at war, we’re at work.” And that kind of scene makes it look as if we are at war. We can’t afford that, because we won’t win that. It services the argument that the president is making to his most loyal supporters — that we are their enemy too. I think it’s important to understand what the president’s doing here, very clearly though. He’s not trying to push back against just a news story or the negativity of what he perceives to be their coverage: It is really an attempt to undermine the public’s trust in all media to persuade them that there is another reality that can be defined by the president alone. And that is such a dangerous thing, because a free press is a cornerstone of a free democracy. And so his attacks on the press in that context are an attack on democracy. It’s a difficult thing for us to cover. We are used to covering things that fall within what can be defined, I think, as legitimate controversy. And I think we’re good at that even though we make mistakes; we know how to do that. But too many things with this president have fallen outside legitimate controversy into an area of deviance — and we’re still learning how to cover that.
Chrystia Freeland: It is important for political leaders, political leaders particularly of democracies, to speak out for journalists. I think a lot of us have been thinking a lot about what makes democracies, democracies. And maybe a simplistic way of thinking about it is it’s just that people vote — a democracy is where you democratically elect your leaders. But I think a lot of people have been realizing that a democracy is much more than that. It’s about a set of institutions and a set of behaviours that hold those elected leaders to account and hold them in check.
Watch the full ‘The National Conversation’ on the future of U.S.-Canada relations here: