Opinion: Trudeau’s NAFTA talk draws line in the sand

By any measure, the past week will go down as the defining one in Justin Trudeau’s current term of office.

With back-to-back make-or-break decisions on the pipeline and the trade files, the prime minister is rewriting the terms of engagement on two crucial battlefronts for his government, but also for Canada.

For better or for worse, he is also recasting the image he projected to voters a little more than two years ago.

Back in the 2015 campaign, Trudeau offered himself to Canadians as a climate-change champion. On Tuesday, his government announced it was purchasing a pipeline in a dogged attempt to bring more Alberta bitumen oil to the Pacific coast.

Then on Thursday, the prime minister traded his so-called sunny ways for fighting words vis-à-vis the United States, ordering more than $16 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. products in the process.

At the time of his election victory no one, including Trudeau himself, could have predicted that there would come a week when he would nationalize a pipeline and engage in a tit-for-tat tariff battle with Canada’s largest trading partner.

But then it is a rare prime minister who is the master of his own circumstances.

Jean Chrétien, at the time of the unity crisis, and Stephen Harper, when he had to deal with a global financial meltdown, could both testify to that.

One may come to look back on the past week as the moment when Trudeau’s government came of age – with both the baggage and the experience that attends to that.

Voters will have to decide next year if they are comfortable with the grown-up version of the political leader they invested with a majority government in 2015. But whether Trudeau remains at the helm or not after the next election, the consequences of the two calls he made this week will outlast the current Parliament.

The choice to take over the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline almost certainly commits the federal government to the project for the longer haul. And the events of this week have marked a watershed moment in the Donald Trump-era Canada-US relationship.

One has to go back more than a decade, to Chrétien’s refusal to join the American-led war on Iraq, for the last really big bump on the Canada-U.S. road.

Over the course of 45 minutes, Trudeau uttered some of the harshest words a prime minister has directed at an American administration in decades.

It is not every day that a Canadian head of government pointedly notes that they are dealing with a U.S. administration that is short on common sense.

It is also not every day that a prime minister uses a news conference to dig in his heels in a trade negotiation.

By revealing that he renounced an attempt to try to settle the NAFTA file face to face with Trump last week, after the administration made the talks conditional on Canada accepting a five-year sunset clause on the tripartite trade arrangements, Trudeau did just that.

This is a line that Canada had drawn in the NAFTA sand early on.

With his comments on Thursday, the prime minister cemented that line in what appears to be fast solidifying concrete on both sides of the NAFTA negotiating divide.

Against the backdrop of potentially polarizing Liberal decisions, one might have expected the Conservative opposition to end the week on a high.

Instead, the reflexive partisan instincts that attend opposition politics ended up getting the better of Andrew Scheer and his party.

By turning their guns on the Trudeau government on a day when the U.S. was turning its protectionist cannons on long-standing allies in the international community, the Conservatives missed the forest for the partisan trees.

On that score, it will suffice to contrast Scheer’s tone-deaf contention that Trudeau is responsible for Trump’s latest indiscriminate round of tariffs with the unequivocal support given to the prime minister’s response by, among other leading Conservatives, Alberta’s Jason Kenney and former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall.

At last check, neither is a member of Trudeau’s fan club.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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