How can Canada respond when the world goes nuts?

With limited power of coercion and big exposure to risk, Canada’s best path is to lead by example

With all the political insanity that’s accrued in the United States since President Donald Trump won the election in November 2016, there are many within our community who have criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not taking the opportunity during his visit to the White House on Feb 13 to lambaste the US president as a dangerous racist sex offender.

Leaving aside the likelihood that these critics would have also called Trudeau a hypocrite for doing so, there’s little to gain for Canadians if Trudeau were to take that tack.

Sure, we could all enjoy a momentary perch on the moral high ground for calling out the president’s depravity. But ultimately, we’d be left with our prime minister having angered a famously temperamental man who’s known for his efforts to destabilize those who anger him.

It feels good to say “damn the consequences, this is about what’s right!” But the fact is that the consequences of Trump pulling any of the retaliatory levers available to him could be drastic. A trade war or border shut down — even the threat of one — would devastate the Canadian economy. We are uniquely exposed to the whims of the US president, with $400 billion of our exports — about 20 percent of the whole economy — destined for US markets.

Sparking a row with Trump will do very little to help women and minorities in the US; in fact, it’s likely to backfire. And it could make things a lot worse for minorities in Canada.

Trade, border or immigration wars with Canada would have crippling effects across our country. And any economic downturn would have the worst impact on Canada’s most vulnerable, including many queer people and the working poor, who tend to have precarious employment to begin with.

Moreover, by keeping an open line with the US government, Trudeau may be able to leverage a relationship to protect Canadians in the US — for example, by lobbying for Canadian Muslims or queer people who find trouble at the border.

Of course, I’m not letting Trudeau off the hook either. Canada should stand up for its values and show leadership in these times by setting the example.


In the near term, this should include working with Parliament’s MPs and senators to advance the trans rights bill that’s currently stuck in the Senate, and the repeal of the sodomy law which hasn’t advanced beyond first reading. As the US government and several states target and eliminate LGBT rights, Canada should continue to show the alternate path. And as the government moves forward with plans to make identity documents more inclusive of trans Canadians, it will also need to have the ear of someone in Washington to ensure that, for example, trans people’s passports are accepted at the border.

On the issue of refugees, Canada should immediately move to accept more refugees, to put substance on the thus far empty words Trudeau tweeted in the wake of Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Xtra’s ongoing investigation into the shutdown of LGBT Iranian refugees and its consequences have brought the issue to attention, but the fact that Canada done nothing to address it is an absolute embarrassment and should spark an immediate reversal of policy. Expanding the private sponsorship program could also help move refugee claims more quickly.

Such measures, when played correctly, could actually have an impact in the United States. Photos and videos of Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees played all over American news — and even on The Daily Show — last year. Continuing to be that counterpoint to the immigration hysteria in the US could move the needle on public opinion.

Further efforts, such as a temporary suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which bans refugees from entering Canada at regular border crossings, should also be seriously considered to stem a growing humanitarian crisis as refugees make the trek across the border on foot in the Canadian winter.

Trudeau should also slow plans to legislate for expanding the powers of the US border patrol at Canadian airports.

While we can hope that this disaster of a presidency will be short, Canadians need to prepare for possibility that we may need to live with Trump for the long haul. The best defense for our values of inclusion and openness will be for us to demonstrate them fully ourselves.

Rob Salerno is a playwright and journalist whose writing has appeared in such publications as Vice, Advocate, NOW and OutTraveler.

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