Trade discussions with the Americans always seem to start with their implication that Canada needs to evolve its agriculture and food industries to be more like the United States.
But maybe they need to be more like us.
The U.S. secretary of agriculture, while new to the job this time, knows the score when it comes to trade relations with his northern neighbour. Tom Vilsack just finished a nearly four-year stint with the American dairy industry during which he claimed Canadian dairy was an unfair competitor to U.S. farmers and required modernization.
Meanwhile, large numbers of American dairy producers have called for their own supply management regime.
Which is more modern? Farm production systems that meet domestic needs in a cost-effective manner that also provide stable profitability and virtually no government subsidization? Or market-driven supply and demand systems that need as much as 40 percent of farm income to come directly from the taxpayers to remain viable?
Which system is in need of evolution? Or can the two countries accept that they are different and neither needs to change much to get along?
Canada and the U.S. have one of the largest trading relationships on the planet and that should be celebrated.
We are America’s largest customer — bigger than Japan, China and the United Kingdom combined. We have a combined trade of $730 billion, with the Americans importing about $380 billion in goods from Canada annually. We have a $32 billion surplus with our southern cousins. Most U.S. states have Canadians as their largest customers for goods and, in some cases, services.
Despite all that can be at risk, U.S. sabre rattling is usually just that.
Country-of-origin labelling remains a painful memory for Canadian beef and pork producers. Yes, there have been demands from some factions to revive it, but the Biden government so far seems unlikely to trundle down that path again.
Americans have also noticed the building boom now underway has drawn heavily on Canadian softwood lumber so, in response to pressure from southern U.S. politicians and lobbyists, it was time to once again threaten double duties on Canadian wood.
Canada wants a new softwood deal and repayment of billions in Trump-imposed tariffs, which American home builders are lobbying for as well.
America’s COVID-19 recovery program is the latest excuse to roll out “Buy American” rules that favour domestic businesses.
All of these are tools the U.S. brings out of the box whenever it thinks it can get away with it. A recent example was the supposed national security threat posed by imported Canadian steel and aluminum.
Now Canadian solar panels are an issue for the Americans, with a 20 percent tariff imposed because they are thought to undermine American domestic production and the security of a national energy supply.
Agriculture hasn’t been spared from American posturing. Vilsack appears not to have forgotten his most recent role as the voice of American dairy and has requested a trade dispute panel on Canadian dairy while the ink has barely dried on the Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office remains a place of confrontation for Canadian exporters, but that is because it is responsive to American needs, not Canadian ones.
Canadian farmers are among the least subsidized in the western world, but that doesn’t exempt them from being targets for trade actions. Canadian Liberals and American Democrats do tend to get along when in power, but it was the Democrats, in 2015, who were loath to see the end of COOL, and the billions dollars it picked from Canadian farmers’ pockets..
We do well to remember that Canada and the U.S. have similarities but also major differences.
Both are worth celebrating. Happy Canada Day.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.