Ontario Premier Doug Ford reportedly let Ottawa know late last week that he was headed to Washington on Wednesday to pay a call on the Canada-U.S. trade talks.
Ford also assured reporters on Tuesday that he continues to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government in the negotiations over NAFTA’s fate.
But privately, there is some nervousness within the Trudeau government about what Ford hopes to accomplish with his flying visit into the U.S. capital — especially as Donald Trump and prominent Republicans are ramping up the rhetoric this week against Canada.
Any suggestion that Canada doesn’t speak with one voice, or that it’s anxious for a deal at any cost could work against this country at the negotiating table, one federal source close to the talks said on Tuesday.
“We’re only close to a deal because the Americans think we won’t take a bad one,” the source said. “And they think that we can take that stance because the country is united behind us.”
So far, Liberals and Conservatives generally have been making a great show of patriotic solidarity when they’re talking trade — at least when it’s taking place in the United States. Prominent former cabinet ministers such as James Moore and Rona Ambrose are on the advisory committee and former prime minister Brian Mulroney has been talking regularly to the Trudeau team.
But back here in Canada, federal Conservatives seem increasingly eager to take shots at how the Trudeau government has handled the NAFTA negotiations, lumping the lack of a new deal into what they now call a “summer of failure” by the Trudeau Liberals.
Ford, meanwhile, has not been shy about mixing it up with Trudeau, almost from the moment he took office — willing to take on everything from the carbon tax to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One might be tempted to conclude that the premier is taking that “nation” part of his “fordnation” Twitter handle literally; that he sees his real rivals as the Liberals in Ottawa. Trade seems to be the exception for now — Ford has even managed, like the other premiers, to keep quiet about any updates he’s getting from the federal government.
But people in Trudeau’s office took note last week when the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief, Robert Benzie, reported that Ford was making his controversial move on the Charter of Rights to contrast himself with Trudeau.
Sources told Benzie that Ford’s people were keen for people to contrast the premier’s “bold leadership” against Trudeau’s leadership style — specifically on how they handle negative court rulings. While the prime minister’s pipeline plans have been thwarted (at least temporarily) by a court ruling halting construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline, Ford has pulled out all the stops, legally, to go through with his plans to cut Toronto city council.
Trudeau, meanwhile, clearly sees Ford as the Ghost of Elections Future. While he didn’t mention Ford by name in his town-hall interview with Maclean’s Magazine’s Paul Wells on Monday night, the prime minister took some shots against Ford’s brand of play-to-the-base politics (which is also Trump’s brand.)
“When you’re not too worried about constitutional niceties and courts and what have you, you can take a mandate and make those grand gestures and satisfy your base in a very loud way,” Trudeau said.
These are glimpses into what’s emerging as a gaping, relational abyss between the Ford and Trudeau governments; one that’s only going to get deeper as the 2019 election looms. It’s worth noting that many of the people around Ford’s new government trace roots back to Stephen Harper’s decade in power, and that Trudeau’s Ottawa has many veterans of Kathleen Wynne’s former provincial government. Very recent grudges and defeats are all part of the current mix of Ontario-Ottawa relations.
Throwing that dynamic into the trade-negotiation pressure cooker in Washington on Wednesday could make things unpredictable — or more unpredictable than they already are. The Ford and Trudeau governments will say they are solely focused on the trade talks in the U.S. capital on Wednesday, but they’re also keeping one eye on each other.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt