Hebert: Bouquet may be hiding thorns

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, Donald Trump handed Justin Trudeau the rose he coveted on Monday in Washington. Like all roses, it comes with thorns. Only time will tell whether those thorns matter more than the flower itself.

Until then, the first face-to-face meeting between the prime minister and his new counterpart in the White House can be said to have gone about as well as could be expected. That’s not just because the two did not wrestle each other to the ground over the course of not one but two handshakes.

Trudeau got what he most wanted in the shape of a statement straight from the horse’s mouth that when it comes to improving the American economy, Trump mostly sees trade with Canada as part of the solution.

If the intense federal lobbying of the past few weeks has been about anything, it has been about driving home the point that on trade, the United States and Canada benefit from being under a common umbrella. That could be important if and when NAFTA comes up for renegotiation, as it could frame the U.S. outlook on the talks on less adversarial lines than many in Canada feared.

Canadians with long memories might reflect on the irony that in another era, under a prime minister of the same last name, the interdependence of the two economies tended to be portrayed as an existential problem. Now it is an ideal to preserve and protect with all the means at the disposal of a federal government. By a twist of electoral fate, Trudeau is the keeper of Brian Mulroney’s free-trade legacy. But at what cost down the road?

Since Trump’s inauguration, the prime minister had strived to not let obviously deep differences on immigration and refugee policy poison the Canada/U.S. trade well. Confronted with the contradictions in their approaches Monday, the two leaders observed a tacit pact of non-aggression.

Trudeau stuck to his guns on the notion that Syrian refugees are not by definition a security risk without sticking those guns overtly in the face of the president. Even as Trump promoted his travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, he took a pass at an opportunity to link the measure to the security of the Canada/U.S. border.

That may be for another day.

For if there are thorns in Monday’s bouquet of words they would be found in the section of an otherwise boilerplate joint communiqué that recommits the two countries to pursuing the harmonization of their border services.

A bill currently making its way through Parliament would give U.S. border agents new powers to question, search and even detain Canadian citizens on Canadian soil.

Existing arrangements already allow American border officials operating inside Canada’s major airports under a long-standing pre-clearance agreement between the two countries to implement whatever version of Trump’s travel ban finds favour with the U.S. justice system.

Then there is Canada’s designation of the U.S. as a safe country for refugee purposes, a measure that prevents most people who land in the United States from applying for refugee status in this country.

No one envisaged a Trump-style travel ban at the time those measures were put in place.

But if the president does stick with plans to selectively ban immigrants, refugees and visitors to the U.S. on the basis of their country of origin, it will be hard for Trudeau to continue to look the other way and at the same time pretend that Canada is leading by example by sticking to its principles.

In any event, for now, many in this country – in particular in corporate Canada – will take comfort in the notion that Canada is not on the Trump administration’s hit list.

For his first face-to-face meeting with his new American counterpart, Trudeau had brought along a gaggle of senior cabinet ministers and advisers. Rarely has Canada had as much face time on a single day with as many members of a rookie American administration. It would not have happened if Trump had not wanted to play along.

It might be best to savour the fragrance of the rose while it lasts!

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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