OTTAWA—Whoever wins Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election, Canada is faced with the possibility of prolonged civil unrest and uncertainty in the U.S., its most important economic and security partner, experts say.
“It’s a very tricky situation (for the Canadian government),” said Christopher Sands, the director of the Wilson Centre’s Canada Institute.
Sands said should there be a delay between Nov. 3 and a winner emerging — similar to the uncertainty after the 2000 presidential election that saw George W. Bush installed in the Oval Office — the Canadian government will have to take a “wait and see” approach.
“It was very awkward for the Chrétien government to handle that, so the first rule was just wait and see. Even things that you would normally expect, like a congratulatory call, seem awkward because it wasn’t really clear who to congratulate,” Sands said.
Trudeau and his cabinet have steadfastly refused to comment on the divisive presidential contest south of the border. The prime minister’s script, when asked by reporters, focuses on his confidence that American democratic institutions can adequately adjudicate the election, his willingness to work with any U.S. president, and that Canada is prepared for any eventuality.
According to a senior federal source, the government has been preparing for both possible outcomes, a Trump second term and a Biden victory — unlike in 2016, when they were caught largely flat-footed by Trump’s victory. The source agreed to speak about internal government deliberations on the condition they not be named.
A third possibility — a disputed election result leading to court challenges and potential chaos — has received less attention within government. But the source said the Trudeau government is very aware such an outcome is possible.
The International Crisis Group, an independent research organization focusing on conflict, warned Wednesday that the “ingredients for unrest” are there after Tuesday’s vote.
“The electorate is polarized, both sides frame the stakes as existential, violent actors could disrupt the process and protracted contestation is possible,” the group warned in a research paper.
“Beyond the implications for any Americans caught up in unrest, the election will be a harbinger of whether its institutions can guide the U.S. safely through a period of socio-political change. If not, the world’s most powerful country could face a period of growing instability and increasingly diminished credibility abroad.”
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The group advised foreign leaders to “press U.S. counterparts to respect democratic norms” and “take care not to recognize a winner prematurely.”
There does not seem to be much of an appetite within the Trudeau government to lecture Americans about democratic norms, however. Instead, Trudeau’s inner circle believes — or at least hopes — that America’s institutions can handle the election.
“I believe the institutions in the United States will be strong enough to handle whatever comes their way,” said John Baird, Canada’s former foreign minister, in an interview with the Star on Friday.
Baird said he believes a “Team Canada” approach — similar to the cross-partisan efforts in the NAFTA renegotiations — can work again to deal with whoever is in the White House. That’s despite Canada’s own domestic divisions, with tensions high in Western Canada and the usual partisan bickering in the House of Commons.
That’s likely because the economic threat of U.S. unrest is existential for Canada. Roughly 75 per cent of Canadian exports go to the U.S., with nearly $2 billion in two-way goods and services trade each day. Both Biden and Trump have trumpeted “Buy American” policies on the campaign trail, which could pose a significant threat to Canadian industry.
Trudeau and senior officials have briefed Canadian premiers about the U.S. political situation, and on Thursday spoke with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — not exactly the prime minister’s biggest fan — about the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Democrats oppose.
Trudeau can also likely count on the support of Premier Doug Ford, who embraced the Team Canada efforts during NAFTA renegotiations, in any dust-up with the White House.
“Our responsibility as a government is to prepare for different eventual outcomes, and that’s what we’re focused on. Every step of the way, as we’ve been able to over the past many years, we will continue to stand up and defend Canadian interests, look for greater opportunities for co-operation, look to deepen the already close ties between Canada and the United States regardless of the outcomes,” Trudeau said in a press conference Thursday.
“We will continue to work with whomever the Americans choose as their president, to move forward in constructive ways.”
With a file from the Associated Press.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier
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