Blasting the Bigotry without Blasting the Bigot: Canada’s complicit response to President Trump

 Photo: Toronto Star

Photo: Toronto Star

The world of diplomacy is a volatile bubble. Foreign policy walks a fine line between the cordial and combative, and it must strike a delicate balance between a nation’s strategic interests and its assumed values, which more often than not conflict. U.S. President Donald Trump and all his tact have unquestionably aggravated this existing minefield. But while government heads around the globe have been doing an awkward dance, trying to appropriately position themselves in front of a temperamental administration and the rest of the world, the Canadian government has fallen into a comfortable rhythm. Their foolproof scheme for dealing with Trump? Blast the bigotry without blasting the bigot. It’s as diplomatic as diplomacy can get, and it’s an unconscionably reckless charade.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been dodging direct criticisms of Trump with little backlash since the Donald was just a rogue reprobate in the Republican primaries. When Trump first touted his plans for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Trudeau’s response as our newly-minted PM was to suggest that, well, he didn’t really need to offer a response. “Canadians are very aware of my feelings on this,” he shrugged, “And they, by the way, sided pretty clearly against the politics of fear and division in our election here.” This comment— and the many more like it that accompanied Trump’s ascent to presidency— was buttressed by concerns of international propriety: one ought not to interfere in the domestic squabbles of another country. What’s more noteworthy is that despite his non-answers, Trudeau has still been sitting pretty on the world stage, even heralded by the Washington Post as humanity’s definitive Anti-Trump. If international media is any metric, Trudeau can have his political capital and spend it, too.

At first glance, ours appears to be a calculated approach: the strength of Canada’s economy— and by extension, our capacity to innovate, invest, and inspire— is tightly knotted to our southern neighbours. In 2016, 76 per cent of Canadian exports streamed into the U.S., and those exports alone constitute a hefty 23 per cent of our country’s overall GDP. Vehicles, mineral fuels, precious metals, and wood top the list of products moving below the forty-ninth parallel, illustrating the expansive orbit of American money across Canadian industries. The U.S. also drives around 45 per cent of all foreign direct investment in Canada. Clearly, we have a stake in playing nice, and no doubt these facts loom large in our prime minister’s sure-but-sly digs at the Trump administration’s antics.

But it’s important to evaluate where exactly all this passive aggressiveness is getting us; reality seems like a classic case of rhetoric failing to meet legislation. In late January, when Trump made good on his promise to suspend refugee resettlement, Trudeau became the people’s champion as his aptly-timed messages about welcoming asylum-seekers racked up over 500,000 retweets and 1,000,000 likes. This neatly distracted from the fact that Canada has no intention of upping our intake of refugees, waiving the Safe Third Country Agreement which forbids refugees in the U.S. from seeking asylum in Canada, or sponsoring refugees that were destined for the U.S. but are now stranded. In fact, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen rejected the notion that Canada would adapt any of its policies to relieve global tensions exacerbated by the new U.S. government. What this means is that Trudeau’s sloganeering won’t manufacture a substantial fix for the precarious gap left by Trump’s rabid isolationism and Islamophobia.

Another angle to contemplate is how Canada is poorly positioning itself in the international arena. To start, there’s a distinct inconsistency in our choice to hold our noses when dealing with Trump but take a hard line with, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both men have demonstrated an egregious disdain for freedom of press, the right to political opposition, and women’s rights, but only one has drawn the explicit contempt of our government. Canada’s reluctance to poke the bear has given politicos beyond our borders free rein to manipulate the narrative around our internal affairs. After the tragic mass shooting at a mosque in Sainte-Foy, the perpetrator was misidentified as a Moroccan-Canadian by Fox News and cited as justification for the travel ban by Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Perhaps a less hands-off Canadian government would have taken the opportunity to lament how the shooter’s motivations were likely rooted in his reverence for Trump’s own brand of xenophobia.

Aside from these practical and political repercussions, there is a moral crater in Canada’s indirect approach to Trump. Beneath the starched realm of statecraft lie very human stories with very human implications, and simply put, prioritizing civil rights should not be torn and tempered by borders. While cultural relativism might muddy the boundary between right and wrong, there is something intuitively unjust about implicating an entire people in a crime they did not commit. And when history looks back on Canada’s role in the Trump administration, our country will not have the privilege of being labelled anything other than complicit in appeasing and normalizing those injustices. There is a time and place for diplomatic convention; this era of international politics, corroded by a rancid bog of Trumpism, is not it.