WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — Just days after the election, the flight to Canada was packed.
But not with famous figures from Hollywood acting upon pledges to flee if Donald Trump won, or those who crashed Canada’s immigration website on election night. Instead, the passenger manifest was mostly Manitoban, at least based on the ubiquitous Winnipeg Jets jerseys.
Of course, Americans were on the flight, too — including me, en route to take part in a postelection panel discussion that included David H. Wilkins, former U.S. ambassador to Canada, and Carlo Dade, director of the Centre of Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation, which sponsored the event.
The routineness of the flight, and the cautious optimism expressed by Canadians and Americans alike, suggests that President-elect Trump’s upset victory might not fundamentally change the bilateral relationship.
There will be challenges, however, especially since imports superseded immigration as an issue in the industrial Midwest states that put Trump over the top. And indeed, the president-elect has pledged to act on the Great Lakes and Great Plains regions’ plaintive protest vote against free-trade agreements by saying he would renegotiate, if not exit, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The U.S.-Canada relationship — this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — is “disproportionately important to us,” said Andrew Enns, president of the Canadian-based NRG research group. “From the government’s perspective, we’re a trading nation.”
Among Canadian citizens, 54 percent believe Trump will have a negative impact on trade, and 59 percent believe he will have a negative impact on overall U.S.-Canada relations, according to an NRG poll released last week. Sixty-nine percent of those polled also believe that immigration applications will increase as a consequence of the election, and 45 percent anticipate application increases from immigrants who seek to move to Canada instead of the U.S.
If so, Canada’s welcome mat will likely remain rolled out. And at the head of the receiving line might be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose self-labeled “sunny ways” policies sharply contrast with the dark political clouds shrouding U.S. and European politics.
Indeed, despite the immediate impact NAFTA negotiations could have, no issue defines the divergence between Canada and the rest of the West more than immigration. Manitoba’s mosaic reflects Canada’s can-do approach at a time when European and American politics are reeling from the global migration crisis. Canada’s exemplary embrace of Syrian refugees is just one example, which beyond being generous is savvy, given that immigrants bring dynamism to economies and societies alike.
Canada’s further emergence as an exemplar of internationalism amid a rising populist tide has gotten global attention, including a recent Economist cover story headlined: “Liberty moves north: Canada’s example to the world.”
This example is examined in-depth at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, located in an architecturally striking building not in Ottawa, but in Winnipeg, as if to reflect the centrality of human rights in Canada’s national narrative.
“Human rights have become something very important to the Canadian psyche,” said Jodi Giesbrecht, the museum’s manager of research. But, Giesbrecht added, “I think that’s part myth and part reality.”
This duality is seen in exhibits lauding leaders such as Nobel laureate Lester Pearson as well as those that peer an unblinking eye on unfair treatment of First Nation Canadians and other sad chapters in Canada’s history.
“Human rights aren’t a done deal or a completed struggle; a lot of the same issues reinvent themselves and appear in different ways over time,” Giesbrecht said.
In admirable fashion, some Canadians responded to their nation’s sudden singularity not with boasts of exceptionalism, but by reminding Americans of theirs. During the campaign, for instance, the “Tell America it’s great” campaign from Toronto ad agency the Garden grew like cultural kudzu online, giving many Americans a respite from election stress usually seen in other nations riven with divisions.
The sentiment was shared in Winnipeg.
“I actually see this as a sign that American democracy works very well,” said Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. Even though he believes Trump’s triumph was the result of “the politics of fear,” he said that the president-elect “was a maverick who came along and challenged the system to its very limits and probably will continue to push it to its very limits, and isn’t that what democracy is all about? It’s also had the impact of motivating the others, the people who oppose him. Isn’t that the level of engagement you really want in a democracy?”
Yet don’t expect Canadian democracy to duplicate America’s dynamics. “Canada is not a country of extremes,” Cox said, adding that “partly because their own party would rein them in, and partly because people wouldn’t want it.”
Still, Canada’s factions aren’t completely estranged from the states. “We have the same rural-urban issues you saw very clearly in this election,” Enns said. “In our country, we’ll look at that and say we have to find a way to make sure we keep connecting and don’t miss some of this.”
And America would be wise to keep connecting with Canada, and not miss its competent and confident response to issues testing Western societies.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and Global Minnesota are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.