Biden Continues America First, Shuts Out Canada

March 3, 2021 Updated: March 3, 2021

Despite warmth and goodwill between the Trudeau government and the Biden administration, experts say improved diplomacy is unlikely to mean more economic opportunity for Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden issued a Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership following their videoconference meeting on Feb. 23. They announced their shared priority to end the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerate the economic recovery of small and medium-sized businesses, and strengthen “supply chain security” between the two countries.

However, so far the Biden administration has been less than accommodating. On his first day in office, Biden revoked the permit for the 1,947-kilometre Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried 830,000 barrels of crude oil daily between Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska. Later in January he announced new Buy American provisions for federal procurement. And on March 1, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States is focused on “ensuring that every American is vaccinated” and would not discuss sharing vaccines with Canada or any other country until that goal is achieved.

Ian Lee, associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, said niceties between the leaders will not change the nature of American politics.

“They can be lovey dovey, and we’re all friends, we like each other, I like you, you like me etc. etc. But it’s not going to change the underlying structure, the underlying reality of American politics, and that is that Buy American is very popular,” Lee said in an interview.

According to Biden’s executive order, some of the federal Buy American requirements have not been substantially updated since 1954, during the Eisenhower administration. Biden’s executive order increases domestic content requirements, which means Canada will be further shut out of U.S. federal spending, where contracting alone accounts for nearly US$600 billion annually.

Lee says many Democrats in Congress have been strongly protectionist for decades, and Biden will remain such as president.

“He is going to be every bit as protectionist as was Trump, and possibly more so because his base in the Democratic Party is pushing very hard for this.”

Full access won’t be possible, Lee says, until Canada gives up its own protectionism—something Canadian provinces don’t even do between each other.

“We talk about those big bad Americans with their buy American. We’re doing the exact same thing, only we’re doing it worse. We’re not saying buy Canadian, we’re saying buy Ontario in Ontario if you want a government contract from Ontario. And if you’re in Quebec, it says buy Quebec.”

Sui Sui, associate professor at Ryerson University’s global management studies department, agrees that the America-first policy will outlast Trump.

“For perspective, look at the vaccination. Basically the U.S. says, do not export any vaccines to Canada or anywhere else unless our population has been vaccinated,” she said.

Sui believes while Trudeau is concerned about jobs in Canada, he did not push back strongly on the Keystone XL pipeline because of his own feelings on climate change, and Biden would never concede anyway.

“It’s consistent with Trudeau and the Trudeau government’s ideology about climate change,” she said. “Biden’s very firm on climate change. That’s his presidential campaign pledge, so there’s just no way to push back.”

Four days after the Biden-Trudeau meeting, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A readout from the meeting said the two “reaffirmed the need to reject protectionism and preserve their countries’ shared prosperity by protecting the integrity of cross-border supply chains.”

A Macdonald-Laurier Institute commentary, however, says Biden’s order could jeopardize the interests of Canadian suppliers of goods and services to the U.S. market.

“Suppliers and governments alike hope that any restrictions on Canadian  suppliers are minimized, but that will depend on how discussions unfold between the two governments,” writes Lawrence Herman.

“While the current atmosphere of political goodwill under a new Democrat  administration could help Canada achieve the result it needs, even with a mature and respectful bilateral relationship there’s bound to be some tough bargaining to get to that point.”