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What's at stake for Canadians in the U.S. election?

Last Updated Nov 3, 2020 at 5:48 pm MDT


A look at some of the key impacts the U.S. election could have on Canada and Canadians

Many Canadians say they're interested in what happens during the U.S. presidential election, and will be watching

The relationship between Canada and the United States is unique.

The two countries share the world’s longest undefended border and they are arguably more symbiotic than any other pair of nations on the planet. Yet Canadians generally take much more of an interest in what’s happening south of the border than the other way around.

It’s nearly impossible not to take notice of what’s happening in American politics and new polling shows many Canadians will be watching this Nov. 3.

According to Leger’s new survey, 77 per cent of Canadians polled say they are either very or somewhat interested in the presidential election.

When it comes to that interest, more than half of those polled in Canada — 55 per cent — say they’ll be watching or listening for results on Election Day, with British Columbians the most likely to do so across Canada at 65 per cent.

But with interest also comes some concern. Leger has found 30 per cent of Canadian respondents say they’re “very worried” about the outcome of Tuesday’s election, while 45 per cent say they’re “somewhat worried.”

Roland Paris, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, says what happens on election day in the U.S. matters a lot for Canadians.

“Our relations with the United States are certainly the most important priority of Canadian foreign policy,” he says. “They always have been, they always will be.”

So what exactly is at stake for Canada and Canadians? Here are some key things to consider as it pertains to the result of the 2020 presidential election.

Relationship with Ottawa

Canadians themselves have been faced with a potential federal election in recent weeks. Despite what happens in the coming days, barring a significant shift, it seems Justin Trudeau will be our prime minister well into the next presidential term.

Paris, a former policy advisor to Trudeau, thinks one thing that would certainly change with a new U.S. president would be the tenor of the relationship between our two nations.

“Trump has, at various times, threatened and insulted Canada. I think we can expect a more respectful kind of language from Joe Biden who has previously described Canada-U.S. relations as ‘like a family.’”

President Trump hasn’t displayed a commitment to NATO and hasn’t shown much of a willingness to stand up for America’s allies. For these reasons among others, Paris thinks Canada could stand to benefit from a president whose views lineup a little bit closer to our federal government’s.

Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord whereas Biden has pledged a commitment to rejoin the agreement. The former vice president has also taken stances on gun control and immigration that more closely align with Trudeau’s positions.

Canadian officials need to remain vigilant and attentive to Canada-U.S. relations no matter which candidate wins. The federal government has to operate with Canada’s best interest and that means maintaining a working relationship with whoever ends up in the White House.

Despite the occasional volatility from Trump, Paris says our federal government has managed to maintain that working relationship and doesn’t expect that to change if the incumbent is reelected to another term.

“The relationship between Trudeau and Trump is decent. Our government has maintained a pretty effective and constructive relationship with the Trump administration.”

Canada has been managing a whole array of issues and increased its contacts at all levels of the U.S. political system to help deal with any problems before they can escalate.

As an example, Paris highlights the Trump administration’s attempt to block the sale of medical masks to Canadian customers. He thinks the issue was effectively managed before it created supply problems in this country.

Economy and trade

It’s no secret that Canada hugely relies on access to the American market. The U.S. is the destination for about three quarters of Canadian exports; that represents about a fifth of Canada’s entire gross domestic product (GDP).

Stakes are always big when talking Canada-U.S. trade relations, at least from a Canadian perspective.

Carlo Dade, another senior fellow at the University of Ottawa with a long history in international public policy, feels Trump has been willing to wield his power more recklessly than presidents of the past. This has created a new wrinkle in the relationship.

“Trump has created a very real fear and worry and degree of uncertainty amongst Canadian businesses,” he says.

The big fear is the current president could enact unilateral trade actions through national security or other means that could potentially paralyze the ability to trade.

According to Dade, reigning in those powers with a new president would be a huge change for business in Canada.

Biden would bring more stability and restraint, but that doesn’t mean those issues completely go away. He’ll likely face push back from Congress members who have backed the moves Trump has made.

Paris agrees that a Biden administration would be less likely to use national security tariffs against Canadian imports. But he cautions that the Democratic candidate has been running on an economic nationalist platform, calling for the biggest “buy America” plan in U.S. history.

“Canada could be at risk of getting sideswiped by new protectionist measures whether Trump is reelected or Biden is elected.”

Environmental policies

Views on climate change might well stand as the biggest contrast between the two candidates; Trump and Biden are night and day on environmental issues.

As mentioned, Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. The centrepiece of his economic policy is a green recovery plan, which he claims will focus on building jobs and restoring U.S. manufacturing in the clean tech sector.

Paris doesn’t pull any punches when discussing Trump’s stance on the environment.

“Trump doesn’t really have environmental policies,” he says. “His main efforts in the area of the environment have been to undue the protections that the Obama administration put in place.”

If Biden is elected and keeps his promises of his green economic plan it could offer an opportunity for the two countries to work together on joint strategies for a post-pandemic recovery.

However, this will inevitably create challenges when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that Biden has long opposed and a project that our federal government currently supports.

Dade lives in Calgary and says he wants Keystone XL to go through as much or more than anyone else. He says he senses a bit of uneasiness from Albertans about the prospect of a Biden presidency and what it could mean to Canada’s energy sector.

Speaking in a news conference recently, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he was hopeful the project could still be completed under a Biden presidency.

“We are working with many people in the United States who support this project, including many in the democratic party,” he said.

Where do Canadians stand?

While American politics seems, outwardly, to have become more polarizing, Paris says things are seen through a different lens here.

“But I don’t think that American politics are particularly polarizing in Canada,” says Paris.

He believes that the majority of Canadian are turned off by the current president’s behaviour and that has been reflected in recent opinion polls.

recent study from 338Canada showed that approximately 80 per cent of Canadians supported Biden in the upcoming election compared to 20 per cent for Trump.

Support for Biden landed somewhere between 80 to 90 per cent in every province except for Alberta, where only 68 per cent of Albertans supported a Biden presidency.

Dade thinks those numbers were merely a reflection of the uneasiness about Keystone XL.

“When Albertans stop and think of the total damage that a Trump presidency has caused to Canada through the steel and aluminum tariffs, through his complete lack of appreciation for the sacrifices that Canada has made, I would hope that 32 per cent is a moment in time.”

He says that given some reflection, he would expect that number to come down.

According to a Pew Research study, released in September, Canadians’ views on their neighbours to the south were more unfavourable now than they had been in recent history. Only 20 per cent of Canadians said they had confidence in Trump as U.S. president, a number that lined up with the 338Canada poll.

A key finding in the Pew study showed that in 2020 only 35 per cent of Canadians have a favourable view of the U.S. in general. That’s the lowest number since the polling began in the year 2000, when the number was 72 per cent. That fell off a little bit during the Iraq war but remained well over 50 per cent through the Bush and Obama years.

The steep decline started in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration.

“I think the experience of being targeted by the Trump administration has been jarring for Canadians and their leaders,” says Paris. “It has exposed the vulnerability of Canada to aggressive actions by the United States in ways that few had anticipated before the Trump election.”