Use the F-35 as leverage

Canada and the United States have had a long and mostly fruitful trade relationship. But don’t ever consider for a moment that we’re equal partners.

Canada and the United States have had a long and mostly fruitful trade relationship. But don’t ever consider for a moment that we’re equal partners.

More often than not, the elephant we sleep with, as Pierre Trudeau once called our neighbour, is a gentle giant that comes with a lot of heft. Hence, we enjoy the illusion of being a truly independent nation — as long as we don’t mind a Hollywood-dominated movie industry, U.S.-based auto manufacturers in our “Canadian” industry and NHL finals in our “Canadian” game playing on behalf of two of the U.S.’s largest cities.

See what I mean?

Once every decade or so we get cocky and come up with a winner invention that threatens our neighbour. Some of us are still old enough to remember the story of the Avro Arrow, a fighter plane developed in the 1950s that was, by all reports, destined to be a world-beater.

That is, until the U.S. took a look at it, realized this Canadian product was not part of its domestic military-industrial complex and announced it would not buy. Canada was much too decent (and smart) to sell its masterpiece to America’s enemies, and thus the project died.

Of course, not every Canadian flop is the fault of the U.S. Sometimes we do it to ourselves.

BlackBerry really was a world-beater for a time, and ultimately failed largely because their chief executives took their eyes off the ball. Can’t blame the U.S. for that one.

Which brings us today’s trade standoff. Canada is sitting on a massive reserve of bitumen in Alberta’s oilsands. Although the U.S. has had recent success developing its own domestic oil and gas supplies, there is no question that over the longer term it will need what we have. And yet, the current U.S. administration treats oilsands producers as though they are pariahs, to be ridiculed for their flagrant destruction of the environment.

Think of the irony: this condemnation comes from a country — even if it is successful in meeting recently announced coal-sourced carbon emission reductions — that will still put out greenhouse gases at a higher multiple that what comes out of Fort McMurray. But then, who needs to hear the facts when there’s a handy stars-and-stripes narrative to wrap yourself in?

Just as was the case with recent trade disputes over Canadian softwood lumber and later Canadian beef, Canada can howl at the injustice but find very little genuine recourse. If the U.S. wants to reject our bitumen, then there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop them.

We can, however, choose not to be suckers. Which is where the ill-advised F-35 fighter plane enters the picture. The F-35 is a controversial aircraft — not just because of the announcement in recent days that it is a danger for having only one engine. There are plenty of other reasons, including the fact that over its lifespan, it will be the most expensive fighter aircraft ever built and it still can’t deliver all the versatility our military says it needs in a fighter.

In short, it’s a bit like buying a Rolls Royce to commute to work — expensive to own and maintain, and actually less useful than a Nissan Rogue.

So, why haven’t we written this lemon off already?

We are not privy to the truth. Who knows what intense backdoor lobbying is going on, even as you read this? As I said, when the elephant rolls over, if you don’t stay nimble, you’re in danger of getting squashed.

I’m not suggesting we start a trade war — that’s a zero-sum game. Our relationship with the U.S. works well on many levels and we should keep it that way.

That said, if they don’t want our bitumen, then we are easily entitled to conclude — and, to be clear, not as petty retaliation — that the F-35 is a very bad deal for our country.

As for selling our oil, there are markets farther afield that would gladly buy it if we could get it to them. But it seems we can’t have a mature conversation between provinces about how to do so in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. On that score, then, if we don’t fully realize the potential of the oilsands, we have only ourselves to blame.

Ultimately, this little trade spat may be good for us. If it forces us to develop new trade partners, we will certainly be better off — and economically more independent — as a nation.

Doug Firby is editor in chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media (