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What's at stake for Canadians in the U.S. election?

Last Updated Oct 30, 2020 at 5:28 pm EDT

This combination of Sept. 29, 2020, file photos shows President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Patrick Semansky

The relationship between Canada and the United States is unique.

The two countries share the world’s longest border and they are arguably more symbiotic than any other pair of nations on the planet. Yet, Canadians take much more of an interest in what’s happening south of the border than the other way around.

It’s nearly impossible not to get sucked into the soap opera that is American politics and Canadians will surely be watching on November 3.

While our neighbours to the south could stand to notice us a little bit more, the reality is that we rely on them a whole lot more than they rely on us.

It’s easy for Canadians to muse at the political firestorm south of the border and think of ourselves as mere spectators with the best seats in the house.

The truth is we have a lot on the line as well.

Roland Paris is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He says what happens on election day in the U.S. matters a lot for Canadians.

“Our relations with the United States are certainly the most important priority of Canadian foreign policy,” he says. “They always have been, they always will be.”

So what exactly is at stake for Canada and Canadians? Here are some key things to consider as it pertains to the result of the 2020 presidential election.

Relationship with Ottawa

Canadians themselves have been faced with a potential federal election in recent weeks. Despite what happens in the coming days, barring a significant shift, it seems Justin Trudeau will be our Prime Minister well into the next presidential term.

Paris, a former policy advisor to Prime Minister Trudeau, thinks one thing that would certainly change with a new President would be the tenor of the relationship between our two nations.

“Trump has, at various times, threatened and insulted Canada. I think we can expect a more respectful kind of language from Joe Biden who has previously described Canada-U.S. relations as ‘like a family.’”

President Trump hasn’t displayed a commitment to NATO and hasn’t shown much of a willingness to stand up for America’s allies. For these reasons among others, Paris thinks Canada could stand to benefit from a president whose views lineup a little bit closer to our federal governments.

Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord whereas Biden has pledged a commitment to rejoin the agreement. The former vice president has also taken stances on gun control and immigration that more closely align with Trudeau’s positions.

Canadian officials need to remain vigilant and attentive to Canada-U.S. relations no matter which candidate wins. The federal government has to operate with Canada’s best interest and that means maintaining a working relationship with whoever ends up in the White House.

Despite the occasional volatility from Trump, Paris says our federal government has managed to maintain that working relationship and doesn’t expect that to change if the incumbent is reelected to another term.

“The relationship between Trudeau and Trump is decent. Our government has maintained a pretty effective and constructive relationship with the Trump administration.”

Canada has been managing a whole array of issues and increased its contacts at all levels of the U.S. political system to help deal with any problems before they can escalate.

As an example, Paris highlights the Trump administration’s attempt to block the sale of medical masks to Canadian customers. He thinks the issue was effectively managed before it created supply problems in this country.

Economy and trade

It’s no secret that Canada hugely relies on access to the American market. They are our biggest trading partner and it isn’t particularly close.

The U.S. is the destination for about three quarters of Canadian exports. That represents about a fifth of Canada’s entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Stakes are always big when talking Canada-U.S. trade relations, at least from a Canadian perspective.

Carlo Dade, another senior fellow at the University of Ottawa with a long history in international public policy, feels that Trump has been willing to wield his power more recklessly than presidents of the past. This has created a new wrinkle in the relationship.

“Trump has created a very real fear and worry and degree of uncertainty amongst Canadian businesses,” he says.

The big fear is the current president could enact unilateral trade actions through national security or other means that could potentially paralyze the ability to trade.

According to Dade, reigning in those powers with a new president who won’t be as reckless would be a huge change for business in Canada.

Biden would bring more stability and restraint, but that doesn’t mean those issues completely go away. He’ll likely face push back from congress members who have backed the moves Trump has made.

Paris agrees that a Biden administration would be less likely to use national security tariffs against Canadian imports. But he cautions that the democratic candidate has been running on an economic nationalist platform, calling for the biggest “buy america” plan in U.S. history.

“Canada could be at risk of getting sideswiped by new protectionist measures whether Trump is reelected or Biden is elected.”

Environmental policies

Views on climate change might well stand as the biggest contrast between the two candidates. Trump and Biden are night and day on environmental issues.

As mentioned, Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. The centrepiece of his economic policy is a green recovery plan, which he claims will focus on building jobs and restoring U.S. manufacturing in the clean tech sector.

Paris doesn’t pull any punches when discussing Trump’s stance on the environment.

“Trump doesn’t really have environmental policies,” he says. “His main efforts in the area of the environment have been to undue the protections that the Obama administration put in place.”

If Biden is elected and keeps his promises of his green economic plan it could offer an opportunity for the two nations to work together on joint strategies for a post-pandemic recovery.

However this will inevitably create challenges when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline. A project that Biden has long opposed and a project that our federal government currently supports.

Dade lives in Calgary and says he wants Keystone XL to go through as much or more than anyone else. He says he senses a bit of uneasiness from Albertans about the prospect of a Biden presidency and what it could mean to Canada’s energy sector.

Speaking in a news conference recently, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he was hopeful the project could still be completed under a Biden presidency.

“We are working with many people in the United States who support this project, including many in the democratic party,” he said.

Where do Canadians stand?

It’s probably true that politics in the U.S. have become more polarizing than at any point in most of our lifetimes.

“But I don’t think that American politics are particularly polarizing in Canada,” says Paris.

He believes that the majority of Canadian are turned off by the current Presidents behaviour and that reflects in the opinion polls.

A recent study from 338Canada shows that approximately 80 percent of Canadians support Biden in the upcoming election compared to 20 percent for Trump.

Support for Biden landed somewhere between 80 to 90 percent in every province except for Alberta where only 68 percent of Albertans support a Biden presidency.

Dade thinks those numbers are merely a reflection of the uneasiness about Keystone XL.

“When Albertans stop and think of the total damage that a Trump presidency has caused to Canada through the steel and aluminum tariffs, through his complete lack of appreciation for the sacrifices that Canada has made, I would hope that 32% is a moment in time.”

He says that given some reflection, he would expect that number to come down.

According to a Pew Research study, released in September, Canadians’ views on their neighbours to the south are more unfavourable now than they have been in recent history. Only 20 percent of Canadians have confidence in Trump as U.S. President, a number that lines up with the 338Canada poll.

A key finding in the Pew study shows that in 2020 only 35 percent of Canadians have a favourable view of the U.S. in general. That’s the lowest number since the polling began in the year 2000. The number then was 72 percent. That fell off a little bit during the Iraq war but remained well over 50 percent through the Bush and Obama years.

The steep decline started in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration.

“I think the experience of being targeted by the Trump administration has been jarring for Canadians and their leaders,” says Paris. “It has exposed the vulnerability of Canada to aggressive actions by the United States in ways that few had anticipated before the Trump election.”