How should Justin Trudeau respond to Donald Trump on trade and economy?

One of the key architects of Canada’s trade relationship with the United States says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should seek a meeting with president-elect Donald Trump as soon as possible and take action to protect Canada’s competitiveness with its biggest trading partner.

Former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. says Trudeau may have to reconsider his climate change agenda

Republican U.S. president-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

One of the key architects of Canada's trade relationship with the United States says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should seek a meeting with president-elect Donald Trump as soon as possible and take decisive action to protect Canada's competitiveness with its biggest trading partner.

"The No. 1 thing would be to reach out to Donald Trump, ask for a meeting, try to have a frank discussion of what his intentions are so that we could calibrate our own positions accordingly," said Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S.

Burney says the Trump victory should force Trudeau to re-examine his climate change agenda and his plan to impose a national price on carbon starting in 2018.

"If Mr. Trump goes forward as he says on climate change, and we go in a different direction, we are going against the grain of our own competitive position in North America," Burney warns.

'Canada will be the loser'

"We should be recalibrating those commitments, those intentions very carefully. Because if we put ourselves in an uncompetitive position with the United States in terms of manufacturing, energy, agriculture, you name it, who is going to win? Who is going to lose? Canada will be the loser I can tell you."

As chief of staff to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, Burney was  directly involved in the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement negotiations. While ambassador to the US, he played a central role in the negotiations that led to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

That landmark trade agreement was under constant attack in the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Trump calling it the "worst trade deal in history" and vowing to renegotiate its terms or scrap it entirely.

But that promise has been made before during presidential campaigns and gone nowhere. In 2008, even Barack Obama sounded a stridently protectionist note and hinted he might tear up NAFTA to protect jobs in the American industrial heartland.

'It's uncharted territory'

"I think Mr. Trump is a lot of things, but I don't think anyone would put him forward as an expert on trade policy," said Burney. "It's uncharted territory. It's as uncharted for (Trump) as it is for you and me,"

Burney expects Trump will likely consult with key congressional leaders before taking any aggressive action on trade. And he points out that most of the anger with trade expressed during the election campaign was directed at countries such as Mexico and China rather than Canada. 

"I just don't want to get overly agitated at this point," Burney said. "Because I learned early on that not being on the radar screen in Washington is not an unhealthy position to be in."

But Burney says Canada should look east and west to counter some of the uncertainty to the south, before anti-trade sentiments become even more powerful.

With France and Germany facing elections next year, Burney says Canada should call senior European leaders and "urge them to maintain the fragile momentum" on ratifying CETA, the comprehensive trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

And with Trump vowing to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, he says Canada should reach out to economic powerhouses in Asia, such as China and India, and fast-track trade negotiations with them.

"It's the old bicycle theory. If you keep peddling the trade liberalization momentum will be maintained. If you stop and put your foot on the curb you don't know what's going to come across the street."

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6 years ago
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David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.