My sons get a thrill playing fantasy league football. It’s a game that lets them pose as general managers of virtual teams. Picking football players isn’t my fantasy. I’d rather be the covert GM of Canada’s trade negotiation team, the “Eh” Team. (No slight intended to the REAL Canadian negotiators. Remember, this is fantasy.)
It’s the big season for Canada’s trade negotiators.
For 150 years, Canadians have been judged using a made-in-America measuring stick. Sports fans talk about the NFL, not the CFL. It’s the same in business. Canadian-born actors have succeeded only when they are famous in the US.
“But we aren’t Americans,” we holler from the 49th parallel. No one seems to hear us.
America is voluntarily relinquishing global responsibility and reviving trade protectionism. Competition among sovereign states is more, not less, intense. America First disarray means Canada has been thrust into trade negotiations— in North America, Asia-Pacific and the EU.
Our plucky negotiating team is seizing the moment. We’re demanding our trade partners protect progressive values: Labour, indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ, the climate.
It’s a triumphant moment! The rest of the world is seeing us for what we are. Canadians are not Americans!
And, yet, just one year into this brave new world and our negotiating team is starting to lose its swagger. Trade partners aren’t handing us opportunity on a silver plate. A few aren’t even bothering to cover up their contempt for our potpourri of progressive conditions.
The Canadian negotiating team needs a strong infusion of mojo. So, to the fantasy. If you were GM of Canada’s trade team, who would you draft to negotiate with our allies?
While you are thinking about your dream team, let’s dispense with a couple prevailing myths about Americans and Canadians.
First, American history is NOT Canadian history.
I’m not denying it. Pop culture and media pretty much ignore the Canada-US border. Right now, we’re shutting down newspapers in small towns all over the country and the New York Times is embedding journalists in Montreal. Go figure. Try taking away my parents’ satellite dish beaming them American TV, and they may greet you with a pitchfork.
Notwithstanding this cultural sameness, our histories are very different.
Restoring relationships with black lives really matters in the U.S. I’m not pretending we don’t have racism in Canada. But our country wasn’t built on a history of slavery. Canada is a nation built on the contributions of 600 plus ‘first nations’ and endless waves of immigration.
Our mantras are different too. America’s pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is a triumphant rallying cry. Arm thrust high, the colossal Statue of Liberty towers over the NYC skyline. In Canada, red-uniformed RCMP stand guard. Stalwart symbols of our peace, order & good government mindset.
We view success differently too. Americans have never begrudged their risk-takers. Right now, Trump is trying to lure back America’s wealthy from their tax havens. Everywhere, there is alarm about the growing divide between haves and have-nots. The American response is not to kill the golden goose. In Canada, actors and athletes can be rich. Other millionaires (even billionaires) are free to leave.
The second myth that needs busting is the one about how we do business. Truly, there is not some generic North American way of doing business.
For 28 years, I worked on energy projects for Canadian, American and British companies. I can vouch; citizenship influences how you do business.
Decades ago, the USA appointed themselves the world police on bribery and corruption in commerce. Not only did American law-makers have sharp teeth, they had very long arms. They could track down cheating Americans anywhere in the world. And, non-American players too. The end game? The US quite astutely created a more level playing field for American companies.
Canada’s bent has been protecting human rights and the environment. In particular, Canadian-owned oil and gas and mining companies operating outside our borders were put under glaring lights. ‘No dual standards’ became the norm. If you can’t do it at home, you can’t do it abroad. Talisman’s operation in Sudan was the crucible where this business rule was forged.
‘No dual standards’ stretched wider.
Right now, at NAFTA, TPP and other so-called ‘free trade’ negotiating tables, Canada’s negotiators are tabling a shopping list of conditions. Labour, gender, indigenous rights, LGBTQ and climate change.
Are they deal-breakers? Hardly. More likely, aspirational nice-to-haves.
In December, Prime Minister Trudeau was in Beijing to kick off free trade talks. The Maple Leaf waved, earnestly. Trudeau tweeted, politely:
Excellent talks with Premier Li in Beijing today—any possible trade deal with China will need to reflect the values & priorities of Canadians.
In spite of all the good intentions, there’s a real likelihood the Chinese government won’t agree to the progressive elements Canada’s team is pitching. And even if China agrees, what are we going to do when they don’t play by the rules?
I’m not suggesting we capitulate. Yet it feels like we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Expecting increasing convergence on values that really can’t be reconciled or made uniform.
In a globalized world, consumers may have their own sovereignty. They have choices. If you don’t like the way the Chinese government regulates labour (or whatever), you can choose to not purchase products made in China. But this isn’t a token gesture when your family is on a super tight budget and Walmart is stocked with cheaper imports.
Trump won’t turn a blind eye to economic aggression.
Meanwhile, in America, Trump-the-warrior is making it crystal-clear he’ll protect American citizens against trade violators and ‘economic aggression’. This reminds me of the anti-corruption crusades launched by the US in the 1990’s. America is good at staring down coercion and aggression.
This isn’t all a defensive play. There is pragmatism underlying the bluster and the threats. America’s negotiator-in-chief knows it’s in the best interest of American workers and communities to correct trade imbalances. Steel workers claim the ratio of Chinese imports to U.S. exports is about 4:1. Trump is offering the Chinese opportunity to buy Alaska’s natural gas and goodness knows what else. There’s a lot of catching up to do.
Picking the “Eh” Team.
We need negotiators at the table who genuinely believe Canada’s consumers, workers and communities benefit from freer trade.
We need negotiators who can play offense and defense. Who won’t be manipulated or deked. Who can push back without igniting trade wars.
We need negotiators who are realistic. Pragmatic. Different countries have their own ways of doing commerce. The vision of all modern economies converging on a truly single market doesn’t square with history. Where consensus is impossible, how do we achieve co-existence?
No one said it would be easy to fit all of these puzzle pieces together. Canada isn’t an absolute democracy. America isn’t an absolute free market economy. China isn’t an absolute dictatorship. We need negotiators who aren’t either/or thinkers.
We need negotiators who are creative. Really, we’ll need some magic.
So, here goes. This is my roster for the “Eh” team:
Smiling Hank, Henry Burris. Retired quarterback who managed to be loved in both Ottawa and Calgary. That’s hard to do. And, a little trickiness thrown in, the Americans may assume he’s one of theirs.
Brad Wall. Not to get partisan, but this is a politician who has protected Saskatchewan’s farmland, uranium, and other assets. All the while making investors feel welcome. No small feat.
Valerie Plante, the newly elected mayor of Montreal. We could use a ‘happy warrior’ for Canada at trade tables.
Justin Bieber. He’s hip, and on a redemption path. Gets the connection between business and culture. No firewall is going to shut out his voice.
My mother. Remember, this is my fantasy team. You get to pick your mom too. Shop with my mom. She checks out the backstory to every purchase.
Rick Mercer, Canada’s jester-in-chief. At trade tables with the big guys, we’re not exactly sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. Mercer will do something to make the super powers know we’re there.
Fang Zhi, Nexen Inc’s CEO since 2014. Zhi was part of the integration team when CNOOC bought Nexen. He knows what bridges between Canada and China need repaving.
Belinda Stronach, a woman who can safely cross partisan lines. And she’s someone who understands Canada’s role in the automotive sector, inside and out.
Murray Edwards, the Canadian billionaire who now lives in the U.K. Invite him home. We need his brains and influence. His tax dollars would be nice too.
Roberta Jamieson, the first Aboriginal woman to earn a law degree in Canada. This is a woman who knows how to imagine a path forward.
Who are you drafting to your “Eh Team”?
Donna Kennedy-Glans, January 11th 2018