Why the Canada-U.S. relationship will stay the course


The relationship between Canada and the United States is about the relationships between the people of our two countries. From our shared beginning as colonies, our families and economies have been interwoven. As evidenced during the American Revolution through the plight of families divided between patriots and loyalists, we are two sides of the same coin. U.S. President Donald Trump is arguably the inevitable next chapter in American politics, the same way that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exemplifies the character of a Canada determined to be a world leader, despite (or because) of its middle-power status. The differences between these two leaders are the result of two separate political pendulums, each operating at its own pace and at separate spots within the cycle.

The concerns on how the relationship between these two leaders plays out should not eclipse our two nations’ reality. As trade is not conducted between governments, relationships are not managed by heads of state or government. The U.S.’s complex political environment includes lawmakers in Congress, at the state level and municipal leaders — the proximity between the two countries has created an intricate web, more resilient for the number of threads. No place is this more visible than on the northern frontier of the American Midwest.

Chicago was placed in exactly the right spot to serve as the hub for commerce in the U.S. The city is on the banks of Lake Michigan, roughly halfway between the resources of the Great Plains and the western frontier and the eastern markets. A northern-tier city, Chicago is in temperament much like Toronto. The threads that pull Chicago and Toronto together include the full range of human experience, from sports to the arts, business, government, diplomacy, individual relationships and families. Today, Canada is Chicago’s number one market for exports of goods and services. Businesses with cross-border connections include companies such as BMO/Harris, Bombardier, Manulife, Boeing and Motorola.

The nuts and bolts of the bi-national relationship are the same as those between Chicago and Toronto. The idea that two men define it is, in the simplest terms, ridiculous. While photographers, headline writers and meme practitioners alike may have adored the bromance of Trudeau and former president Barack Obama, and pundits delighted in the awkward moments between Obama and former prime minister Stephen Harper, the bilateral relationship is not about hugs, handshakes or shared jokes. As Canadians and Americans alike will remember in the days and months ahead, the business of the bilateral relationship is just that – business.

The roadmap forward in these times of crisis-driven narratives is one of incremental steps and transactions. Philosophy and ideology have never been the basis of the relationship between these neighbours and should not become so now. The peer-to-peer meetings that took place the week before the prime minister went to Washington are far more substantive than the meeting between the leaders. The real work of government is done in the preparation for those cabinet-level meetings.

The pre-clearance agreement signed almost two years ago is emblematic of the work done by the two bureaucracies, literally years in the making. In two trips to Washington, the Trudeau government has managed to use this agreement, still to be put into force, to bring cohesion to the discussion and joint statements. But the reality of the work done on that agreement, on those deliverables, is that it is incremental, slow-moving, and the result of hundreds of person-to-person relationships developed over time.

Which brings us back to where the relationship between the U.S. and Canada is the most deeply felt – our families. The bloodlines of our two countries are more intertwined than any supply chain. What unites us is our common ancestry, not just because of our shared history as colonies, but our stories of immigration. There are families spread out on both sides of the border that originate on other continents. Finding yourself on one side or the other of the 49th parallel is as much a trick of fate as anything else. But these are the connections that create the layers and multiple facets that will facilitate the success of the relationship in the long run.


Sarah Goldfeder is a Principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa and a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. A former U.S. diplomat, she served as special assistant to two U.S. ambassadors to Canada.