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Beyond the Ballot: Federal Election 2019 Canada-U.S. Relations

This is part of a series of regional updates by our cross-country team, who are in-jurisdiction experts regarding the on-the-ground dynamic of the Federal Election.

By: Hunter Doubt, Senior Consultant 



Historically, foreign affairs’ issues do not tend to the move the dial one way or another for the majority of Canadians voters during a federal election. Canadians, and consequently party leaders, tend to be more focused on domestic policy priorities – everything from healthcare, to jobs, to affordability issues, and all of which have been highlighted endlessly by leaders throughout this campaign.

But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that our domestic affairs are not immune to the influence of foreign affairs. In the globalized economy we find ourselves in, one country’s actions can have a profound impact on us here at home.

Case it point, Canada-US relations.



A Quick Recap

In just the four years since our last federal election, relations between our neighbours to the south have changed drastically. Look no further than the top. The leadership “bromance” that was Trudeau and Obama quickly evaporated in just one year upon the surprise election of Trudeau’s polar opposite, President Donald Trump (although, Obama’s endorsement of Trudeau’s re-election this week signals the bromance is still very much alive).

Over the course of the next three years, more than just disputes around softwood lumber produced sour spots between our two countries. Instead, the renegotiation of NAFTA, the imposition of unjustified steel and aluminum tariffs, a tougher stance on supply management, public shaming on NATO funding, and even the President himself labeling Trudeau as ‘dishonest’ and ‘weak’ after the G7 in Canada, has produced one of the more challenging times in Canada-U.S. relations in recent memory.

One of the first tests for the next Canadian government (whatever that may look like after Monday) will be how best to manage the relationship moving forward, especially at a time of heightened partisanship in the south in the context of impeachment proceedings and in the midst of a 2020 U.S. presidential election. Both of these, while out of Canada’s control, have practical knock-on effects for policy currently on the table and, more generally, for future Canada-U.S. relations

Here are just a few items to keep in mind moving forward.




It has been nearly a year since the leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the new Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), or NAFTA 2.0. While signed by the leaders, CUSMA requires that each participating country’s legislature ratify the agreement in order for it to come into force, something up until now only Mexico has achieved. In the dying days of the last Parliament, the Liberals did bring CUSMA to the floor of the House of Commons, but only made it past first reading before the summer recess.

From a purely political perspective in Canada, not having CUSMA fully in force has had its benefits and drawbacks for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. On the latter, industries that depend on trade with the U.S. are in a state of limbo and, consequently, many business investment decisions remain in flux. On the other hand, the new deal was not overly popular in Quebec for those involved in the dairy industry. Not having the deal fully in force yet in a key province for his re-election helps. He has noticeably been quite quiet in Quebec on touting CUSMA, while doing the opposite in blue-collar towns such as Hamilton and Windsor.

For their part, the opposition parties have only touched on CUSMA on the campaign trail. Andrew Scheer, as recently as this week, reiterated that the Liberals “caved” on CUSMA and did not get anything new for Canadians out of the renegotiations. While Jagmeet Singh has had to walk back notions of his party’s calls for CUSMA to be “torn up,” calling instead for a “better deal” in terms of increased labour and environmental protections. What this may mean in a potential minority government situation is anyone’s guess.

These calls for stronger environmental protections are echoed by Democrats in the United States House of Representatives who, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have stalled ratification because of it. Congress’ chances of ratification in the next few months in the midst of impeachment hearings is hard to picture. Moreover, the Democrats will not want to see the President get a “win” ahead of the presidential campaign, which begins in earnest in the new year. This leaves the very real possibility that the U.S. may not ratify the deal until 2021 with a new Congress, even perhaps a new president.



Safe Third Country Agreement

Before 2017, most Canadians likely had not heard of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the U.S. Now, the agreement has received a good amount of fodder in both the leaders’ platforms and during debates, likely in an effort to persuade Quebec voters. As a reminder, over the last two years there have been an influx of 50,000 irregular migrants crossing the border from the United States and mainly into Quebec.

The STCA essentially states that asylum-seekers cannot claim refugee protection in Canada if they arrive at an official border checkpoint from a country that is considered safe, such as the United States. That is why tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been crossing into Canada through unofficial entry points on foot along the Canada-U.S. border, giving them the ability to claim that refugee status.

The Conservatives contend that this is a “loophole” in the agreement that must be renegotiated. This would require convincing the president to renegotiate and would also mean the U.S. would undoubtedly have to deal with more asylum claimants themselves. The NDP have called for the agreement to be “suspended,” given a clause in the agreement that allows either country to temporarily suspend the agreement without the need for a prime minister to directly engage with the U.S. president. For their part, as the government when these irregular migrations began, the Liberals have consistently rejected calls to suspend or cancel the agreement and have instead pointed to their record of responsibly responding to the influx, including Budget 2019 measures and funding for an increased CBSA presence.




In 2015, Justin Trudeau promised not to buy the U.S. military F-35 warplane to replace the air force’s aging CF-18 jet fighters. Built and designed by Lockheed Martin – the world’s largest defence contractor – the organization is nevertheless one of three competitors (including Boeing and Saab) who have until the winter to submit their bids in the $19 billion competition launched by the Liberals in July to supply Canada with 88 jets.

In early May, the U.S. government, who is charged with conducting negotiations with Canada on the F-35, threatened to pull the fighter jet out of the competition due to the insistence by Canada that it receive guaranteed industrial benefits (i.e. mandatory investments in the Canadian economy) if it purchased the F-35s. The ask was not well received by Washington. They are, however, still in the mix and will await the decision of presumably the next government to decide the outcome of the bid.




Former ambassadors, David McNaughton (photo: Alex Tétreaul) & Kelly Craft (photo: Chris Wattie/REUTERS)


On a lighter note, both Canada and the United States will be looking in the near term for new permanent representation in each other’s countries in the role of ambassador.

David McNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the United States since 2015, resigned at the end of August to pursue a career in the private sector. A long-time Liberal and close friend of Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, McNaughton was generally well received both here and south of the border. Kirsten Hillam is currently acting as Canada’s ambassador and had been Canada’s deputy ambassador since 2017.

On their end, Kelly Craft, the first female to ever hold the title of the United States ambassador to Canada, was recently appointed by the president to become the United States ambassador to the United Nations. Craft served just 16 months as ambassador and saw mixed reviews. Rumours have swirled over her replacement, with the one gaining the most traction being long-time Republican donor and physician, Aldona Wos, who is also the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia.


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