Federal Conservatives call for special Commons study of Canada-U.S. relations

The federal Conservatives are calling for a special House of Commons committee devoted to Canada-U.S. relations.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says study could focus on economic recovery post-pandemic

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is pushing for a new parliamentary committee to study Canada-U.S. relations. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal Conservatives are calling for a special House of Commons committee devoted to Canada-U.S. relations.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Thursday that Canada's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is linked to the United States, and more needs to be done to protect Canadian workers and families from policies of the new Biden administration.

Their motion would see the committee focus on the economic relationship between the two countries, and notes, given the ongoing pandemic, "the need for a serious plan for the economic recovery that recognizes the integration of the North American economy."

While the proposed committee would have a broad mandate, the Conservatives want emphasis placed on two areas: Buy American provisions being advanced by U.S. President Joe Biden, and the case of an Enbridge pipeline known as Line 5, which some U.S. officials want to close.

"We're standing up for hundreds of thousands of jobs in Canada, families that depend on trade access with the United States, our closest ally, our closest trading partner," O'Toole said.

"I would hope the other parties join us in standing up for those working families, those unionized jobs in steel and aluminum that have suffered with tariffs ... and the mills in British Columbia closed because of no softwood lumber agreement."

If the Conservative motion is passed in the Commons, the new committee would be tasked with producing reports on those issues by certain deadlines, and also have the power to call the deputy prime minister, foreign affairs minister and the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. as witnesses.

During Thursday's debate in the Commons on the motion, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said he is open to the idea of the new committee, but he noted several other parliamentary committees on trade and foreign relations already exist.

"However, there's a very special relationship here between Canada and the United States," Garneau said when asked by a Conservative MP whether he would support the creation of the new committee.

"The creation of the committee, as being proposed today, will add another forum for discussion on the matters that concern us as Canadians in our dealings with the United States, and we are certainly open to that."

Vaccine procurement strategy

The committee would also explore what work the government is doing with the U.S. to procure a steady stream of COVID-19 vaccines.

O'Toole said Canada and the U.S. need to co-ordinate on vaccines and PPE "to make sure we have access, and we're not blocked by Buy American. To recover our economy, to secure our future, having that trade access, that preferred relationship with the United States is key."

Most Opposition day motions are not binding on the government, though they can be used to create political pressure for action. But MPs can choose to create committees within the House of Commons with a simple vote.

The call for a Canada-U.S. special committee has echoes of a previous successful attempt by the Conservatives to get a committee struck to focus on Canada-China relations, over objections from the Liberals. O'Toole spearheaded that effort when he was the Conservative foreign-affairs critic.

Protectionist policies, pipelines

Both Buy American provisions and the future of Enbridge Line 5 are hot-button political issues. The pipeline carries millions of litres each day of the liquids used in propane, traversing parts of northern Michigan and Wisconsin with an end in Sarnia, Ont.

The governor of Michigan wants the pipeline shut down and environmental activists are pressing Biden to support that in the spirit of his recent decision to cancel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Conservatives accused the Liberals of not doing enough to convince Biden to change his mind on Keystone, and now say more needs to be done to ensure Line 5 stays open to protect the associated jobs.

Biden is also advocating for protectionist Buy American policies, an issue Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did address on a call with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris earlier this week.

"Prime Minister Trudeau has had projects cancelled by the U.S. multiple times," O'Toole said.

Canadian businesses have raised concerns they'll be stopped from bidding on U.S. government contracts, and Trudeau's office said part of his call with Harris was about "avoiding the unintended consequences" of a Buy American approach.

Garneau said the federal government is continuing the campaign it began during the Trump administration to persuade American politicians at all levels that "open, transparent trade between the two countries is in both of our interests."

"We will continue to carry that message not only to the federal administration, but to governors and other American politicians to ensure that protectionism does not creep into the relationship that exists between the two countries," Garneau added.