How a Donald Trump presidency could affect Canada

In terms of policy or bilateral relations, Donald Trump has had little to say specifically about his northern neighbour. Yet some of his pronouncements, particularly about trade, could have ramifications for Canada if he were to occupy the White House.

Would Trump be an 'America first' trade protectionist who puts up walls around the U.S.?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures before speaking at a campaign event in South Carolina Monday. Its primary is Sunday, and he is still leading the field. (The Associated Press)

No presidential nominee talks more about Canada than Donald Trump — although it's almost always in the context of Ted Cruz's birthplace (Calgary) and whether it should disqualify the Texas senator from running for president. 

In terms of policy or bilateral relations, though,Trump has had little to say specifically about his northern neighbour. 

He did tell CBC's Meagan Fitzpatrick that he "loves Canada" and that, unlike his plans for Mexico, "I wouldn't build a wall on the border."

What's more, he appears to be onside with his Republican rivals when it comes to supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, and the oil industry in general. 

Yet some of his pronouncements, particularly about trade, could have ramifications for Canada if he were to occupy the White House.

For example, in a 60 Minutes interview last year, Trump declared that the North American Free Trade Agreement is "a disaster" and that he would renegotiate it if he's elected president. He also opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Barack Obama-led deal with Pacific Rim countries, minus China, that was recently signed, but not ratified, by Canada.

Donald Trump: 'I love Canada'

8 years ago
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Republican primary frontrunner says he would not build a wall at U.S.-Canada border

"Trump clearly is very much an isolationist when it comes to trade, which obviously is the most important issue we have with the U.S," said Donald Abelson, a political science professor at Western University and director of The Canada-U.S. Institute.

​"If you do buy into the bravado and do buy into the policy pronouncements, it's all going to be about 'America first' and everyone else second and what kind of ripple effect does that have on us."

A Trump presidency "would certainly have a huge impact on the U.S. so there's no question it would affect the bilateral relationship as well," Abelson said.

"All the issues that we've flagged over the last number of  years ... will be exacerbated should Donald Trump somehow make his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."

A thicker border?

Abelson also questioned whether Trump might establish more impediments to trade, impediments that would make it more difficult for Canadian goods and services to cross the border. 

Donald Trump talks to Scott Pelley, host of 60 Minutes, outlining his election platform, including a pledge to break or renegotiate NAFTA. (60 Minutes/CBS)

And would he care about violating the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement? "He seems to be the kind of person who will shoot first and ask questions later,"  says Abelson.

There is also a concern that while Trump might not build literal walls at the Canadian border, he could thicken them by calling for more border security out of fears that Canada's recent influx of Syrian refugees could somehow pose a threat to the U.S.

He has said he would ban Muslims coming into the U.S. and send back Syrian refugees. "I suspect someone  like Trump would easily buy into the immediate post 9/11 rhetoric that Canada was somehow at fault for allowing some of the hijackers to cross our borders into the U.S., which was obviously incorrect," Abelson said.

Still, other observers, such as political scientist Brian Bow, the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University, says much of Trump's talk on issues that could affect Canadians is just that — talk. And in that respect, he may not be that much different than past candidates.

On NAFTA, for example, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said during the 2008 campaign that they would renegotiate the deal, and it never happened.

"It doesn't mean much at all. It's a way of signalling to voters 'I can do better in terms of making everybody happy, but it's also a way of saying I'm not bound to past commitments. I will do more for you than my predecessors did," Bow said.

"At this point almost everybody gets that everybody who says I'm going to renegotiate NAFTA doesn't literally mean I'm going to renegotiate NAFTA."

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said they would renegotiate NAFTA during the 2008 presidential nomination campaign. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

And while it is certainly possible there could be some tightening of the border over Canada's refugee policy, that wouldn't necessarily mean it would be laid at the feet of a Trump presidency. U.S. lawmakers have already expressed concerns that Canada is taking shortcuts while screening refugees.

"The only real difference between him and other Republican candidates is that he would be a bit more outspoken about it, or more willing to say the version that is politically incorrect and profoundly undiplomatic," says Bow.

Christopher Sands, director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that while it is difficult to predict the outlines of a Trump presidency, given that he's laid out so few concrete policy initiatives, he believes the real estate mogul will take a business-like approach to Canada. 

"My suspicion is that, bilaterally, Trump would be the business guy he is and say 'Hey, Canada is our number one customer, I love Canada, great place, nice people.'"

"He's not a hard-core conservative who is going to say 'I miss Stephen Harper.' Trudeau is fine, but he'll say 'let's focus on business, let's do good deals.' And that will be his mantra."

Sands agreed that Trump's threats over NAFTA are mostly bluster, and that his beef is mainly with Mexico, where he has threatened to impose taxes on American companies that establish cheap-labour plants there.

"NAFTA is unpopular because of Mexico, but it never has really been unpopular because of Canada. So my guess is Canada gets a pass."

The biggest challenge of a Trump presidency would be its unpredictability, and how some of his policies, like threatening to confront China over trade, might affect the economy or the dollar.

"That's the indirect way that Canada gets hit," Sands said. "But we'd be suffering with you."