Want to understand current Canada-US relations? Look at the 1930s

One of the reasons it’s hard for Canadians to understand fully the threat posed by Trump and deeper currents in US politics is that Trump has ripped up the rulebook that has governed the Canada-U.S. relationship for over seventy years. There’s just no equivalent to anything that’s happened in most of our lifespans. Certainly nobody in power has ever dealt with a U.S. that’s as belligerent and counterproductively self-interested as the US is under Trump (and, lest we forget Iraq, was under Dubya).

But as those of us who study North American politics will recall, we have been here before, back in the 1930s, a much different time in the Canada-US relationship.

A quick Google Scholar search on historical Canada-US trade wars led me back to John Herd Thompson and Stephen J. Randall’s foundational book, Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies. And, well, the parallels between the Canada-U.S. relationship then and now are … illuminating.

US xenophobia and implementation of self-harming economic policies? Check.

“As a response to the deepening Depression, the same Congress that shut the border to Canadian migrants effectively closed it to Canadian potatoes, beef, butter, and poultry exports with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, the highest duties in US history.”

Canadian (failed) efforts to remind the US how much we mean to them? Check.

“Prime Minister Mackenzie King quietly sent a series of emissaries to warn President Hoover of Smoot-Hawley’s serious economic and diplomatic effects. The Literary Digest and The Nation made the same case to the American public: Canada was the ‘best customer of the U.S.A.,’ two-way trade was the highest between any two nations in the world, and Canada bought one-third more from the United States than it sold to that country. Why jeopardize this with a tariff war?”

American attempt to strike a deal are botched by a president’s incompetence? Check.

“The president offered the prime minister an exchange: he would exempt Canada from the new tariffs in return for a Canadian promise to cooperate in one of Hoover’s pet projects, a St. Lawrence Seaway to open the Great Lakes to oceangoing ships. … But Hoover doomed the deal by leaking the offer to the press.”

Canadians get their backs up, guaranteeing a trade war? Check.

“Trading a seaway for a tariff exemption would mean yielding to U.S. pressure before a binational audience, and the prime minister understood that it was time to cater to his country’s psychic need to stand up to Uncle Sam. King rejected Hoover’s proposal to link the seaway and trade issues and retaliated for Smoot-Hawley with countervailing tariff increases and additional levies on steel and on fruits and vegetables. Canada had fired the second shot in the North American theater of the international trade ware that exacerbated the Great Depression.”

Although the past isn’t necessarily prologue, Thompson and Randall’s history lesson also holds some possible lessons for the future.

Lesson 1: There’s going to be lots of political hay to be made by appealing to anti-American sentiment.

“This counterattack did not save King’s Liberals from defeat in the Canadian election of July 1930. As in 1911, the opposition Conservatives played the card of anti-U.S. chauvanism with consummate skill. … Once in office, the new government’s first actions were to pass a five-page list of tariff increases and to slam Canada’s doors and to slam Canada’s door against immigrants.”

[Note: Would a federal Conservative government be so stridently anti-immigrant in a now-multicultural country? Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government will provide an early indication.]

Lesson 2: Politicians should tamp down the expectation that trade diversification will protect Canada. We’re stuck with the United States

“Prime Minister Bennett proposed to replace vanished trade with the United States with expanded trade within the British Empire. He had scant success, however, in his attempts to reach reciprocal tariff agreements with Britain and the other Dominions. A much-publicized Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa in 1932 aroused U.S. fears of a British Empire trading bloc, but its practical results were few. The United States never need have worried that its economic influence on Canada would diminish: even as tariff warfare and the Depression cut the total volume of Canadian-U.S. trade in half in the early 1930s, the Canadian economy intertwined with the American. …”

Lesson 3: Personalities matter, but circumstances matter more

“Hoover’s ignorance of and indifference to Canada contributed a dimension of difficulty to U.S.-Canada relations, as did Bennett’s abrasive personal manner, but long-standing circumstances, not personalities, were at the root of bilateral problems. …”

[Note: And as I’ve argued elsewhere, our current circumstances do not favour a return to the status quo.]

The first step to avoid repeating history is to recognize what history you’re in danger of repeating. In order to craft a realistic strategy for dealing with the post-NAFTA era, those charts showing how much Canada trades with all the U.S. states aren’t going to do much good. Time to dust off those old history books.

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