Why Canada’s Trudeau Had to Sign a Trade Deal with the U.S.

President Trump welcomes Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau to the White House in 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
He’s less popular than Trump, his party is trailing in the polls, and he couldn’t afford facing the heat coming his way if he failed to cut a deal.

It’s no secret that President Trump and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau don’t get along.

In June, as both nations threatened each other with tariffs during negotiations to rewrite the NAFTA trade deal, Trump tweeted that his 46-year-old Canadian counterpart was “weak” and “dishonest.” Trudeau responded by boasting that Canada “will not be pushed around” by its bigger neighbor.

But three months later, both countries came together, along with Mexico, to announce a new multilateral trade deal called the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). Although all sides gave ground, it was the Canadians who gave up the most and blinked first. Trudeau simply couldn’t afford the domestic political heat he’d face if he proved unable to cut a trade deal with Canada’s largest trading partner.

The conventional wisdom is that it is President Trump who is in political peril, with his approval rating stuck around 45 percent and with Special Counsel Robert Mueller nipping at his heels in the ongoing Russia investigation. But Trudeau’s approval rating in the latest National Campaign Research Poll is down to 39 percent. His Liberal party trails the opposition Conservative party, led by Andrew Scheer, by 39 percent to 37 percent, with the next election due to be held no later than October 2019.

A poll by the research firm Ipsos last month found that a majority of Canadians, 52 percent, said they were ready for a leader who would “break the rules” or otherwise represent an anti-establishment viewpoint.

For Trudeau’s Liberals, that’s a warning flare. Indeed, Liberals have seen their support collapse in three consecutive provincial elections since June. In Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec, which together represent 65 percent of Canada’s population, Liberal governments suffered disastrous defeats.

Doug Ford, the brother of the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, led the Conservative party to a smashing victory in June. His party captured 76 out of 124 seats on a platform of tax cuts and a promise to end Trudeau’s unpopular carbon tax. Trudeau’s Liberals collapsed and now hold just seven seats in Ontario’s parliament.

Then in September’s New Brunswick election, Liberal premier Brian Gallant won only 21 seats in the 49-seat legislature, leaving him well short of a majority. He survives in office on life support as other parties negotiate to form a different government.

Then finally there was French-speaking Quebec, Canada’s second-biggest province. On October 1, the Liberal provincial government was swept from power by François Legault’s center-Right Coalition Avenir Québec party. It marked the first time in more than 50 years that a party other than the Liberals or the separatist Parti Québécois won an election in the province.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon, the head of the free-market Montreal Economic Institute, said the election was a milestone. Expressing his personal views, he told me:

The election of a completely new party to government represents a historical change. We now operate outside the decades-old paradigm of the fight between Quebec Separatists and those who want to have Quebec remain part of Canada.

What should worry Justin Trudeau the most is that his party was thrown out in Quebec despite a good economy. Unemployment is at a record low, the province’s debt had been reduced, and the Liberals had somewhat restrained spending. Legault’s populist party was swept into office in part for supporting populist ideas such as reducing legal immigration by 20 percent, deporting immigrants who fail a test of French language skills and “Quebec values” after three years, and supporting a measure that would ban the wearing of religious symbols — including head scarves —for public employees who deliver services.

There is no way that Trudeau — who is so politically correct that he recently chastised a woman for referring to “mankind” rather than “peoplekind” — can compete on those issues. His party is in the grip of those who support an extreme version of a multicultural, largely secular Canada.

As Canadian journalist Michael Harris notes: “All bets are off for the next federal election in Canada. . . . Being the incumbent is no longer an advantage, even when you are great selfie material.”

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