Canada quietly prepares for the possible challenges of a Biden presidency

While Joe Biden's ties to Canada are deep and wide, his campaign platform has more than a touch of protectionism to it. The Trump presidency put new strains on the Canada-U.S. relationship. Would a Biden presidency be better for it?

Joe Biden's ties to Canada run deep — but his party's bent towards protectionism may run deeper

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gives the thumbs-up as he arrives at the airport in Richmond, B.C. in 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Joe Biden dropped in on Ottawa back in December 2016 — just a month before becoming the former U.S. vice president — to salute a Canadian-American relationship that would soon be tested by Donald Trump.

"The partnership between Canada and the United States is among the most robust, most complex and most important in the world," Biden told premiers and Indigenous leaders as his host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, sat by his side. "We are deeply interconnected in every way. Our people. Our economy. Our environments."

Those were reassuring words coming from a man who knows Canada well, whose personal and professional connections to this country are deep — and who could very well be the president-elect of the United States next week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrive at a state dinner in Ottawa on Dec. 8, 2016. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The family of Biden's first wife came from Canada; they visited often before she was killed, along with their young daughter, in a horrifying traffic accident in 1972.

At a dinner party during that same December visit four years ago, Biden said his sons wanted to be Mounties when they grew up.

"We are more like family than allies," he said at the dinner. "At least, that's the way the vast majority of Americans feel about Canada and Canadians, and I hope you feel that way about us as well."

Even Biden's choice for running mate on the 2020 Democratic ticket has strong Canadian ties. Sen. Kamala Harris spent her high school years in Montreal, where her mother was a professor at McGill University.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) accepts the Democratic vice presidential nomination on August 19, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Harmony ... up to a point

So, would a Biden win be good for Canada?

Observers say harmony would replace at least some of the discord of the past four years under President Trump — who deployed tariffs, insults and threats when dealing with his country's largest trading partner.

"There are a number of policy areas in which a Biden administration would be much closer to Canada," said former Trudeau foreign policy advisor Roland Paris, now a professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"Climate change, standing up for allies, defending democracy and human rights at home and abroad ... the list goes on."

There's a 'but', of course.

"It's also true that Joe Biden has run on a nationalist economic agenda and that has to be a concern in Ottawa," Paris said.

Start with the slogans Trudeau and Biden chose for their pandemic economic recovery plans. Trudeau's is "build back better." Biden's is "build America back better."

Protectionist tendencies 

Biden's platform doesn't see Canada in the same light the candidate did four years ago.

Biden's recovery plan includes "Buy American" measures in its $400 billion procurement strategy and commits to attracting new investment and returning manufacturing supply chains to the United States.

He also would rescind federal approval for the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline project — still seen by many Canadians as a critical support for an energy sector in trouble. And despite his 36 years in the Senate, including two stints as chair of the powerful foreign affairs committee, Biden has never shown any inclination to solve the softwood lumber problem — the biggest, longest-running bilateral trade dispute between the two countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump's reliance on tariffs to correct what he sees as trade imbalances has made the Canada-U.S. relationship less certain. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

It all represents a threat to the trading partnership — not the kind of threat that Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum represented, but one that still will require vigilance on the federal government's part to protect Canada's access to the U.S. market.

Democrats are, by tradition and inclination, more protectionist than Republicans because of their strong ties to the labour movement and a political base highly concentrated in urban America.

Ottawa braces for a sweep

Paris said the Trudeau government will have to be nimble in protecting Canada's interests — especially if the Democrats also gain control of the Senate on Tuesday.

"I think there is likely to be strong support if that happens for a new Buy America approach by a Biden administration," he said. "It points to the importance of Canada redoubling its efforts to reach out to politicians at all levels of government."

Canada has been preparing for the possibility of a Democratic sweep. Trudeau spoke this week to his ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, and the 13 Canadian consul-generals across the country.

One Canadian official, speaking on background, said the Biden and Harris connections to Canada have been "overblown" by the media.

But there are other ties. Biden's campaign chair, Jen O'Malley Dillon, worked with Liberal operatives in advance of the 2015 Canadian election. Susan Rice, former national security adviser to Barack Obama, is married to a Canadian and also has close ties to both Biden and the Trudeau team.

Canadian officials have been renewing their contacts with American policy makers, emphasizing a shared commitment to reducing climate-changing emissions and promoting a coordinated North American response to the pandemic — including cooperation on vaccine research and the production of personal protective equipment.

"Joe Biden is a known commodity," said Peter Boehm, a long-serving Canadian diplomat before his appointment to the Senate. "He knows the files. He has a long track record from his time in the Senate and vice-president, so it won't be a steep learning curve if he becomes President Biden."

Trudeau and his team are not taking sides ahead of Tuesday's results. And even if Biden wins, his personal connections to Trudeau and Canada guarantee nothing as far as the bilateral relationship is concerned.

He'll still be paid in U.S. dollars to defend U.S. interests — no matter how close his ties to this country might be.

WATCH: How a Biden presidency might affect Canada

What a Biden presidency could mean for Canada

3 years ago
Duration 6:42
If Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election, Canadians could feel the impact in areas like energy, trade and defence.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.