OTTAWA—At the height of the global scramble for critical COVID-19 medical supplies like N95 masks and ventilators, Justin Trudeau’s government privately warned the Trump administration not to go down a protectionist road. Or else.
New documents show the Liberals warned the U.S. that if it did, important Canadian exports to the U.S. would also be on the line.
In April, Canada was caught off-guard when then-president Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order a halt to American exports of 3 million much-needed specialized medical masks made by 3M and other medical supplies like ventilators to Canada and Latin American markets.
Publicly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would not retaliate, that his government was working to ensure the U.S. understood trade in essential medical supplies goes both ways across the border.
However previously unreported emails among a massive pile of documents tabled with the Commons show senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Kirsten Hillman, worked out a hardline strategy for a key phone call between chief of staff Katie Telford and “JK” — Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
It was Friday night, April 3, just hours after Trudeau had publicly reminded everyone that nurses and health professionals co-operate across the border at Windsor and Detroit.
But in private, the message delivered to Kushner was punchier, not just how “highly integrated” the cross-border supply chains are. There was an implicit warning.
Brian Clow, head of the Canada-U.S. policy team at the PMO, in an email to Telford said she needed to make clear to Kushner: “Supplies go both ways. Don’t get in the way of that.”
Hillman wrote the key message should be: “The U.S. is not immune to the impact of a disruption — you rely on Canada for personnel, critical components, materials, and finished products.”
Clow wrote Telford could pitch a “Canada-US medical supplies zone. As we both build up our production capabilities, it is in our mutual interest to be working together and sharing.”
Hillman spelled out “concrete examples” to put to Kushner to show it’s a two-way street.
A senior Canadian official told the Star Wednesday the list “was used” in the Telford-Kushner conversation and in other conversations that Canadian officials had with counterparts in the U.S., and said while there was no explicit threat, there was an “implicit” warning in the phone call — that Canadians would expect Ottawa to retaliate — and that it “definitely” had an impact in helping to reverse the U.S. restrictions.
In an email, Hillman said 1,500 to 2,000 health-care workers live in Windsor and commute to Detroit every day “and many others cross from Quebec to work in upstate New York.”
The year before, she said, Canada had exported $6.6 billion in medical supplies to the U.S. “including test kits and medical devices” that Hillman said are “related to fighting COVID-19.” The pandemic began to unfold only in 2020 and so it is not clear which test kits she meant.
Then Hillman listed about a dozen Canadian exports to back the Trudeau government’s argument that the U.S. relies on Canada for “critical services, energy security and food security” including:
- Gloves, gowns, N95 respirators and face masks made by Quebec-based Medicom that helped the U.S. to “offset the effects of an export ban China instituted amid its fight with the new COVID-19.”
- A point-of-care COVID-19 test developed by Spartan Bioscience of Ottawa that the U.S. had “expressed strong interest in purchasing.” (The Canadian company later stumbled when its test kit didn’t function as expected and had to be re-engineered and reapproved by Health Canada.)
- 3M Canada makes filters in Perth for the company’s “high level containment laboratory suits,” and its Brockville plant produced filters for “N99 masks.” Hillman underscored that the filters and lab suits are required by biocontainment laboratories and pharmaceutical companies in the crisis, as well as the fact that the N99 industrial masks “have applications for military gas masks.”
- Several Canadian manufacturers retooled to make thousands of ventilators that “would be manufactured in Canada and then sent to the U.S. to support their needs,” while several Ontario companies switched from producing fabrics for use in aircraft and trains to making “medical masks, gowns, tents shelters & mattress covers” also key to the U.S. fight
Then there was medical research vital to efforts on both sides of the border, Hillman said, including:
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- Canadian vaccine development efforts (though none had been, nor have since been, authorized).
- U.S.-based Gilead, which was conducting a clinical trial of the experimental drug remdesivir as an antiviral treatment, had operations in Edmonton, Hillman wrote. (Remdesivir has since been assessed as an effective treatment in the fight against COVID-19).
Critical Canadian supplies to the U.S. included:
- NB Power “is the electricity provider to northern Maine,” and there are “at least three hospitals in northern Maine that would get their electricity through NB Power,” Hillman said.
- Canada is the source of much-needed tin to the U.S. food canning sector, and America is “in fact short of tin and needs Canada’s ArcelorMittal Dofasco (AMD) to make up their shortfall.” Hillman said Kushner should be reminded “Canada is the #1 export customer for U.S. agriculture and agri-food trade” and that “reliable two-way supply and delivery will be key to ensuring food security during the crisis.”
The 3M company was dismayed as well by the Trump administration’s move to restrict exports, and lobbied the administration in tandem with Canada to be allowed to fulfil its contract obligations.
A senior Canadian official told the Star Wednesday that the support of the 3M company was crucial.
Amid the fight, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters, “It is really a wild west when it comes to buying medical supplies right now. This is a global pandemic and every country in the world is doing its best in a truly fierce competition to get medical equipment.”
Trump publicly sounded unsympathetic, telling a news conference he “took care of the Canadians” and others in allowing cruise ships to dock in Florida. “We could have let them float aimlessly.”
By April 6, however, Trump agreed that 3M could continue to export N95 masks to Canada, though there was still a restricted flow of goods that troubled the company.
A separate Canadian government email exchange shows that through May, 3M anguished over the impact on places like Mexico and Latin America where the crisis was “more challenging” than in Canada.
On May 19, 3M officials informed the Canadian government that the president of Mexico had spoken with Trump “to try and have the export restrictions loosened under the DPA (Defense Production Act).”
“The ask was rejected. They also report that Peru had separately asked the WH (White House) to ease up on their restrictions, which had been rejected.”
The company informed Canadian officials that since there was “only a certain amount of N95s that can be exported each month and since the situation in Mexico is so dire,” it would export more N95s to Mexico rather than to the government of Canada. The result was 340,000 masks, out of an expected monthly shipment of 500,000 destined for Canada in May, were diverted to Mexico instead. The company agreed to make up the shortfall in June, wrote PMO staffer Sabrina Kim.
Premier Doug Ford said last week the whole episode in the pandemic was a turning point for him, and he no longer trusts even the new Biden administration.
“You really see who your friends and foes are. Our closest ally in the entire world and closest friend, United States. I thought I’d see a little bit of a change with the new administration. But again, it’s every person for themselves out there.”
The Biden administration has said it would not allow U.S.-manufactured vaccine products to be exported until after all Americans have been vaccinated.
Ford said, “I remember getting up there and hearing President Trump saying he was going to cut us off with the 3M mask. And I said never again in this country are we going to rely on foreign leaders or foreign countries when it comes to PPEs. And sure enough, with the support and collaboration, all the premiers right across the country, we are now self-sufficient, right here in Canada,” said Ford. “No matter if it comes in the N95 masks or surgical masks or gowns or face shields, we don’t have to rely on anyone.”
Ford said there may not be made-in-Canada manufactured vaccines for “this round, but maybe a booster shot, vaccines for cancer… we’re going to make sure that we manufacture vaccines somewhere here in Canada, but we’re going to work together.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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