The Canadians could see the trouble looming in the summer of 2016. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s trade minister at the time, found herself, along with millions of Canadians, fixated on the unfolding United States presidential election, and it was becoming impossible to overlook the gathering clouds of protectionism. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were each casting aspersions upon Nafta as if it were self-evidently a bad deal for American workers, especially for the hollowed-out working and middle classes in the Midwestern states, like Ohio and Michigan, that would decide the election. Incredibly, at least according to Trump, America’s seemingly benign and milquetoast northern neighbor was an economic predator taking advantage of its naïve neighbor; America was the victim and Canada the villain.
American ignorance about Canada has long been a fact of life — and an eye-rolling joke — for Canadians. But with the election of Trump, Americans’ lack of knowledge suddenly appeared to the inner circle of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to be a geopolitical threat. What was most troubling was less that Trump lacked a sophisticated understanding of Canada-United States relations but that he apparently deliberately didn’t care to develop one. He seemed to treat facts as negotiating tools, as if conducting diplomacy with an ally was the same as a brass-knuckled, zero-sum Manhattan real estate transaction. At a closed-door fund-raiser, Trump bragged about this tactic, gleefully recounting a White House meeting with Trudeau in which he insisted, against Trudeau’s protestations, that American had a trade deficit with Canada. “I didn’t even know,” Trump told the crowd. “I had no idea.” He then doubled down on his fact-challenged assertion via tweet: “P.M. Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn’t like saying that Canada has a Surplus vs. the U.S. (negotiating), but they do … they almost all do … and that’s how I know!”
Trump’s deficit claim was based on measuring trade in goods, but trade balances are commonly measured by goods and services, and by that score, the website of the United States trade representative acknowledged that rather than having a trade deficit with Canada, the United States had a relatively small but substantial trade surplus of $8.4 billion in 2017. Canada is the second-largest trading partner with the United States, with commerce of $673.9 billion in 2017; Canadians buy more goods from the United States than from China, Japan and the United Kingdom combined; nearly nine million jobs in America depend on trade with Canada. No nation is more deeply entwined with the United States, the weave so complex that it is no exaggeration to say that each country depends on the other for economic well-being, civil order and survival, though of course the United States has a much, much larger economy and Canada is more at the mercy of its neighbor.
This interdependent relationship raised difficult questions for the Canadian government in light of Trump’s evident animosity and imperviousness to facts. How to politely make the case for free trade and Nafta in a way that didn’t insult the thin-skinned president? How to make an evidence-based argument in a post-truth political environment? How to respectfully, firmly but subtly, preferably attracting as little attention as possible — qualities that Canadians understand well — guide Trump to change his mind about Canada? Put another way, how to engage in a covert propaganda campaign aimed at Trump, without upsetting his elephantine ego?
Soon after the election, an elite unit known as Team Canada was established inside the prime minister’s office to forge connections with the new administration; Freeland was promoted to minister of foreign affairs and put in charge of the most consequential portfolio in generations for a nation suddenly in peril. She and a select few of Trudeau’s senior aides quietly made their way to New York to meet with Jared Kushner and other top transition officials, always away from the press and Trump Tower to avoid giving any impression of grandstanding during the chaotic early days of the transition.
Scores of Canadian officials subsequently fanned out across America, from cabinet ministers to consuls general, meeting with more than 300 members of Congress and 65 governors and lieutenant governors. Informally, aides discreetly but systematically set out to establish relationships with incoming senior White House officials, the soft-power ingratiation efforts methodically assigned, including the prime minister’s accompanying Ivanka Trump to the Canadian feel-good Broadway musical “Come From Away.” Freeland, whose portfolio included befriending her three counterparts — the secretary of state, the commerce secretary and the United States trade representative — placed on her desk a quote from President Reagan about Canadian-American relations that began: “We’re more than friends and neighbors and allies; we are kin.”