By Carlo Dade and Shachi Kurl
In Policy Options

February 13, 2017

It’s no mystery why the topic of “women in the workforce” was a centrepiece of the first face-to-face meetings between Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump on Monday. It’s a low risk subject for both sides, with the Canadian Prime Minister showing early leadership among G-7 leaders by making half of his cabinet women, and with the President’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump suggesting it’s an area of interest to her.

While bromides and sunny ambitions dominated this first meeting, in the longer term hard interests and the tougher reality of trade dependence will define the relationship – causing considerable angst in Canada. As they say, “things are about to get real.”

Nowhere does this seem more evident than in shifting public opinion on the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In 2014, Canada’s NAFTA partners accounted for well over three-quarters of the country’s exports of goods and close to 60 per cent of the country’s exports of services. At the provincial level, NAFTA exports accounted for over half of every provinces’ exports including Asia-focused B.C. and Europe-focused Newfoundland and Labrador. For Alberta and New Brunswick, NAFTA accounts for over 90 per cent of exports of goods.

Yet, despite the obvious importance of this trade pact to economies across the country, public opinion hasn’t always reflected much affection for NAFTA. Back in 1993, the three-country agreement was opposed by nearly 60 per cent of Canadians.

And although the ensuing decades have seen the public and political stance morph into something far more supportive of trade in general, as recently as last summer, feelings about NAFTA were lukewarm at best: just one-in-four (25%) thought the agreement had benefitted Canada, the same number (26%) said it had hurt the country.

What a difference a change in administration makes.

With Donald Trump in office and the possibility of NAFTA actually disappearing an imminent reality, it appears Canadians are rallying around the agreement.

In just eight months, Canadians across the country – with the exception of Atlantic Canada – have had a proverbial ‘come to Jesus’ moment on free trade with the US and Mexico. In the latest Angus Reid Institute study, nearly half (44%) of the respondents say NAFTA has benefitted Canada. About one-in-ten (13%) say it’s hurt the nation. (The study was based on a survey conducted from February 6 – 9, 2017, among a representative randomized sample of 1,508 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum.)

What the polling tells us is that in the face of some bellicose rhetoric from south of the border, Canadians are recognizing the importance of the trade relationship and its impact on jobs, and mobility.

Beyond trade, an even trickier issue for Canada and one that may well split public opinion will likely come on questions of compromise on security.

At the joint news conference Monday, Trump didn’t bite when a Canadian reporter asked about the fact Canada was taking in tens of thousands of refugees, while the United States was barring them based on security concerns. But what happens if the Trump administration eventually makes demands on Canada to alter its refugee acceptance policies or tighten the border? Considering Canadians take about 40 million trips to the US each year and that about half of these are same-day car trips, restrictions at the border will have a massive impact on daily life beyond the millions of jobs involved and the US$2 billion in trade that crosses the border daily.

Nearly three-quarters of Canadians think NAFTA is a pact worth staying in; numbers that have improved as a real threat of the US withdrawing has emerged. It’s not clear how far people in this country are prepared to go to preserve the agreement. They might not be keen to align with the US, for example, on refugee policy or giving American border agents the power to arrest Canadians in Canadian airports.

The meeting in DC between the PM and US president is just the first of what will be many such meetings at international summits, regional events and one-on-one meetings. What is clear is that this first meeting may be the easiest as the road only looks harder, for the PM and for Canadians, from this point forward.

Carlo Dade is the director of the Centre for Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation and a Senior Fellow in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. He is also a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and a senior associate with the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

A public policy analyst, Shachi Kurl directs research, communications, partner development and operations at the Angus Reid Institute. She brings 15 years of experience to her role, spending the first part of her career as political reporter and as a representative for the small business community. Shachi is a recipient of the prestigious Jack Webster award for Best TV Reporting. A frequent columnist and commentator, she holds a degree in Journalism and Political Science from Carleton University in Ottawa and serves on the boards of the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation and the CKNW Orphans’ Fund.