A few years before he was elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau came to an outdoor party hosted by Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay.
It was August 2013 and the barbecue at MacAulay’s farm in eastern P.E.I. was part of a summer retreat for the federal Liberal caucus. Several thousand people flocked there to share a burger with the increasingly popular leader who was working hard to turn the party around after it was reduced to third party status in 2011.
I’m not suggesting that MacAulay’s folksy barnyard barbecue was any kind of a turning point, but it was a positive experience for a beleaguered caucus that needed badly to re-connect with Canadians. Two years later, Trudeau led the Liberals back into power with a majority government, including a sweep of all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada.
And MacAulay, who last served in the federal cabinet in 2002 as Solicitor General under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, was appointed Trudeau’s minister of agriculture. It’s a key portfolio, especially in the midst of an impending trade war that has the U.S. demanding, among other things, that Canada dismantle its supply management system as part of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) negotiations. The system limits imports of dairy, poultry and eggs (through stiff tariffs) into Canada and sets fixed prices. For decades, it has helped to stabilize farmers’ incomes.
So far, despite the inflammatory rhetoric from President Donald Trump, Canada isn’t budging. Earlier this week Trudeau and MacAulay – a former farmer – made an impromptu visit to a supply management outdoor food event near Parliament Hill to reiterate government’s support for the system and to reaffirm that supply management was a non-starter in NAFTA negotiations.
Yesterday, MacAulay was back home at his farm in Midgell hosting his U.S. counterpart, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. To the degree that Trump listens to anyone as he threatens to tear up NAFTA, it’s imperative those closest to him understand Canada’s position. Given the president’s preoccupation with supply management, MacAulay has a tough job, one that may be made a bit easier by a good relationship he has forged in earlier meetings with Perdue.
Last summer, they met with Mexico’s agriculture secretary Jose Calzada in Savannah, Georgia. In a joint statement, the three agreed NAFTA has helped the agricultural sector and consumers in all three countries and that, in context of the $85 billion in agriculture trade that flows between the three countries, differences are relatively few.
But in today’s heated trade climate, one of those differences is clearly supply management and it promises to be a challenge for MacAulay. Bilateral talks with Perdue and MacAulay’s charm offensive in the setting of his family farm may make an impression on Perdue, but will the American agriculture secretary be able to convince his boss that Canada’s supply management really is off the table? Given Trump’s utter unpredictability, all bets are off.
Still, it’s a hopeful sign that leaders of the countries’ agricultural departments, through dialogue and mutual respect, are attempting to better understand each other’s position and search for a way forward.
Trump and his surrogates might take a lesson from that kind of diplomacy on the farm.
- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.