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PETER MCKENNA: Provinces should butt out

Provincial involvement in Canada-U.S. relations more likely to cause damage with Washington

Published on July 15, 2017

Former British Columbia Premier Christy Clark flexes her muscle in this CP filephoto.

©THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

It is true that Canada needs to be firing on all diplomatic cylinders when it comes to negotiating with the embattled Donald Trump White House.  

There is no disputing the fact that Ottawa will need a concerted and sophisticated effort from Canadian diplomats in Washington, officials in Global Affairs Canada, senior strategists in the PMO and businesspeople with corporate contacts in the United States.
But the Trudeau government should be very careful about enlisting the involvement of provincial premiers in this endeavour. It could easily end up backfiring in a big way - and to Canada’s detriment.
Take the recent threat of former British Columbia Premier Christy Clark to impose a ban on the shipment of U.S. thermal coal through B.C. ports (or even slap an inordinately high tariff on shipments of U.S. coal). That loose talk managed to raise the hackles of U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
But as then-Premier Clark saw it: “With our ban on moving thermal coal, we have got the Americans’ attention. We aren’t going to be weaklings.” Maybe so. But we’re playing a very risky diplomatic game here.
The truth is that shining a spotlight on the workings of the bilateral relationship undermines one of Canada’s advantages vis-á-vis the United States. We really don’t want to get the attention of U.S. officials. Being on the American radar is one of those things that has proven in the past to work against Canadian interests.
Sometimes the less the Americans know and focus on Canada, the better off Canadians will be. The old adage of ignorance is bliss certainly rings true in the case of Canadian-American relations.
In addition, raising the ire of officialdom in Washington does not serve Canadian interests well. The last thing that the Trudeau government needs is to get into a shouting match with the Trump administration.
While provincial premiers look to bolster their political or electoral standing in their respective provinces, they lose sight of Canada’s overall national or country-wide interests. That is where Ottawa has to step in and instruct provincial governments to stand down and keep their powder dry.
The federal government knows only too well that in any set of negotiations with the U.S., Canada would lose badly in a war of trade retaliation and hyperbolic rhetoric. It is counterproductive for Canada to get bogged down in bargaining sessions based on raw power capabilities or the ability to inflict punishment. Ottawa desperately wants to keep the focus on merit and evidence-based arguments involving the specific case at hand (whether that be NAFTA or softwood lumber).
Furthermore, by having Canadian premiers insert themselves into U.S. domestic politics by threatening punitive measures - and here I include Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s musings about retaliatory actions should various U.S. states adopt Buy America legislation - it can quickly poison the bilateral diplomatic well.
More important, it leaves open the possibility that the U.S. government could similarly intercede in Canadian domestic politics - including closely-contested provincial election campaigns.
The federal Liberals should also be concerned about various provincial softwood lumber envoys publicly discussing the issue and U.S. intentions. Ottawa wants to make sure that there are no conflicting messages on this important bilateral file. Prime Minister Trudeau, then, should make it clear to the provinces in no uncertain terms that Ottawa speaks with only one voice on softwood lumber.
The other potential problem materializes when the provinces are not all singing from the same hymn sheet. Those differences can actually serve to strengthen the negotiating hand of Washington at Canada’s expense.
It also opens up the possibility for U.S. officials to play one province off against the other and thus substantially complicate the negotiations for Canada - to say nothing of making life incredibly more difficult politically for the Trudeau government if it has to eventually choose sides.
I know that Prime Minister Trudeau thinks that the provinces can be a helpful component of Canada’s Trump strategy. But their involvement is more likely to actually damage relations with Washington, to undermine our negotiation position and to jeopardize our national interests.

- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.