Trump-Trudeau tiff is the latest in a history of President-PM disputes

Written by Ron Stagg, Ryerson University. Photo credit The Canadian Press/Justin Tang. Originally published in The Conversation.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the G7 leaders summit on June 8, 2018. Trump sent angry tweets about his Canadian host shortly after the summit ended.

Canadians were puzzled by Donald Trump’s suggestion that national security concerns required tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum — and then stunned even more by the U.S. president’s personal attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the aftermath of the G7 summit.

What perhaps was more bewildering was Trump’s threat to punish Canada for Trudeau’s rather mild rebuke about the tariffs. Even some Americans were so shocked that they leapt to the defence of Canada.

The short-term effect of this one-sided confrontation is causing a drop in value of the Canadian dollar, and calling into question the success of NAFTA talks with a belligerent U.S. administration.

While this very public spat is perhaps the most publicized disagreement between an American president and a Canadian prime minister, there have been notable confrontations in the past.

JFK and Dief disliked each other

In the modern era, perhaps the spat that came closest in tone to the current one was between John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, only in that case both sides were confrontational.

The reasons for the animosity were numerous. Diefenbaker, from an earlier generation, came from a modest background. He saw Kennedy as a spoiled rich kid. Kennedy felt that Diefenbaker, who spoke in language suited to the 19th century and tended to lecture, boring and pedantic.

The Canadian was an anglophile who regarded the United States as a brash upstart which was a danger to the Canadian economy. The late 1950s saw a surge in American investment in Canadian natural resources. The Kennedy administration wanted Canada to cut ties with post-revolutionary Cuba, which it had refused to do, and to accept nuclear weapons under American control, stationed on Canadian soil.

Kennedy visited Ottawa in 1961, hoping to pressure Ottawa on these and other issues. He pronounced Diefenbaker’s name incorrectly, which offended the thin-skinned prime minister, and accidentally left behind a memo listing ways the Canadians could be “pushed” to accept the American position.

When the memo was found, this only confirmed Diefenbaker’s worst ideas about the Americans. Reportedly, Kennedy had scrawled “SOB” in the margin, no doubt in frustration. Kennedy’s description of Diefenbaker to his confidants was, as they say, not suitable for a family newspaper.

Another irritant for Diefenbaker was Kennedy’s friendly relationship with Diefenbaker’s opponent, the Liberal leader Lester Pearson. The Liberals had changed their position to one of accepting nuclear weapons. They got along so well that the Kennedy administration assisted the Liberals to defeat Diefenbaker in 1963 by sending Kennedy’s personal pollster, an early expert in the field, to assess what the public wanted.

Did LJB grab Pearson by the lapels?

However, Pearson had a falling out with Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. Though Pearson’s government sold war materials to the United States, its position was that the United States should withdraw from Vietnam.

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and President Lyndon B. Johnson talk with the media at Camp David in 1965. The day before this picture was taken, Pearson had delivered a speech that questioned the U.S. role in Vietnam. Photo credit the Associated Press.

The Canadian government did not heavily emphasize this position, because it didn’t want to create a rift with its ally, but in 1965 Pearson gave a speech at Temple University in Pennsylvania in which he suggested it would be best if the United States withdrew. Johnson requested that Pearson come to see him and then tore into Pearson.

Accounts of the meeting vary, in terms of whether Johnson grabbed Pearson by the lapels or not, but he definitely said something like, “don’t come into my room and piss on my rug.”

Pierre Trudeau angered Nixon, Reagan

Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister who incurred the anger of two presidents.

In his youth, Trudeau had visited China in the 1950s, when it was unusual for foreigners to go to the newly communist country, and as prime minister he had a friendly relationship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, arch-nemesis of American conservatives. Trudeau was regarded by these conservatives — and even some who were not conservative — as a leader who was, at best, soft on communism and, at worst, a fellow traveller.

Richard Nixon, who had been a supporter of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy during the latter’s anti-communist crusade of the 1940s and ‘50s, looked on the flashy and long-haired Trudeau with suspicion. It didn’t help that Trudeau gave a speech in the early months of the Nixon administration, claiming the anti-ballistic missile system the United States was developing would threaten world peace.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduces President Richard Nixon to members of the welcoming line at Ottawa airport on the U.S. president’s 1972 trip to the Canadian capital. Photo credit CP PHOTO/Peter Bregg.

While generally not paying a lot of attention to Canadian-American relations, Nixon was angered when the Trudeau government introduced a motion in Parliament condemning the 1972 renewed bombing of North Vietnam. Nixon continued to have a personal dislike for Trudeau (whom he privately referred to as “that asshole”), but subsequent economic threats by the United States were worked out amicably.

After good relations during the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter years, another strong anti-communist, Ronald Reagan, took office. Ever the gentleman, Reagan did not engage in public criticism of Trudeau.

Reagan opposed Canada’s NEP

This situation was helped by the fact that Reagan generally did not engage in the development of policy, which could lead to conflicts. However, he listened to those who did and this led to a confrontation over Canada’s National Energy Policy (NEP), introduced shortly before Reagan took office.

Designed to decrease the revenue of (largely American) oil firms and to subsidize exploration by Canadian firms, leading to the Canadianization of the oil industry, the NEP caused an immediate backlash from American firms, which began to withdraw exploration equipment from Canada.

Reagan showed little frustration in public, but confided his feelings to his diary. Combined with the Foreign Investment Review Agency, which screened major purchases of Canadian firms by foreign buyers, the NEP represented to the Reagan administration an anti-American shift in Canadian policy. Relations remained strained until Trudeau left office in 1984.

What distinguishes all of these hostile disagreements from the current one is the very public nature of the disagreement, and the public threat to punish Canada for its prime minister’s rebuke of the American president.

The question is, will this rift prove as transitory as previous ones or will it lead to a prolonged period of political or economic instability in Canadian-American relations?