Thomas Walkom

Nationalism is being forced on Trudeau

Like his father, Pierre, Justin Trudeau is an internationalist. Pierre Trudeau found the nationalism of his native Quebec narrow and confining. And he was never entirely comfortable with the economic nationalists in his own Liberal Party.

But he recognized both were powerful forces and acted accordingly.

Bilingualism was his attempt to defang Quebec separatism.

The National Energy Program was in part an attempt to counter the power of multinational oil companies operating in Canada.

In hindsight, the elder Trudeau — with his plans to regulate foreign investment and his decision to have the government purchase its own oil company — seems a champion of nationalism.

But at the time, he was a reluctant one, who had been forced into the role by the zeitgeist of the moment and a visceral dislike among many Canadians for two powerful occupants of the White House, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

So it is with Justin Trudeau. The current prime minister is by instinct a cosmopolitan who talks of a Canada wide open to the world.

He has explicitly disavowed his father’s National Energy Program and, as evidenced by his stubborn refusal to impose a so-called Netflix tax on foreign video streaming, has little interest in using the state to support cultural nationalism.

He has no sympathy for Canadian newspaper publishers who argue that federal tax policy is biased in favour of foreign internet giants such as Facebook and Google.

When the younger Trudeau became prime minister three years ago, these internationalist positions reflected the mood of the times. They seemed modern and digital. It was easy to dismiss economic or cultural nationalists as out-of-date anti-Americans.

But U.S. President Donald Trump has changed all of that.

With his trade war and his explicit attacks on Trudeau, he has breathed new life into a chippier form of Canadian nationalism.

When Trudeau declared last month that he wouldn’t be bullied by Trump, there were cheers around the country.

When Trump reacted furiously to that, Canadians cheered even more.

Grassroots movements devoted to boycotting American products have sprung up. Asked about this, Trudeau smiled and said Wednesday that he always encourages people to buy Canadian.

On Friday, the government announced it would spend up to $2 billion to support industries and workers affected by Trump’s punitive tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. As well, it said it would go ahead with plans to retaliate by imposing equivalent tariffs on U.S.-made goods.

“We will not escalate and we will not back down,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

You could almost hear Canadians cheering again.

Trump has reawakened a powerful force in Canada. Trudeau understands the politics of this and has rather cleverly used it to his advantage.

When his office discovered last week that Stephen Harper was meeting senior Trump officials in Washington, it managed to insinuate, without exactly spelling anything out, that the former Conservative prime minister was acting as a fifth columnist against Canada in the trade war.

If the trade war ends quickly, Trudeau need not do much more than he has. The financial aid announced Friday will get affected industries over the hump until matters return to normal.

But if the trade war lags on or intensifies, as Trump has threatened, there may be no normal to return to.

That’s when Trudeau, like his father, may be forced to embrace the messier part of nationalism – the protectionism, the use of state power to restructure industry, the insulation from the vagaries of world markets.

In the long run, the answer for Canada may well be to reduce its dependence on the U.S.

But as Pierre Trudeau discovered when he tried to diversify trade, the long run can take an inordinate amount of time to reach.

In the meantime, people have to eat. In a world where nationalism is on the rise, Justin Trudeau will find that declaring his fidelity to the principles of free trade and open markets is not enough.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer in Toronto.

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