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Three Questions for Team Canada 2024

Chris Sands

One of the notable announcements from the Canadian Cabinet retreat this week in Montreal was the creation of a "Team Canada" to plan for relations with the United States after the US 2024 elections. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Minister of Innovation Science and Economic Development François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of International Trade Mary Ng, and Canada's Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman to lead the effort, which is charged with consultations with Canadians on US-Canadian relations. 

Branding the effort as "Team Canada" harkens to one of the Trudeau government's most successful and strategic initiatives: an all-party, all-provinces communications plan of outreach during the renegotiation of NAFTA that produced the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (UMSCA). Canadian politicians and officials, armed with trade, investment, and employment facts, engaged with every US state and congressional district to convey that Canada is important to the United States and its citizens. The effort worked: Canada maintained market access to the United States (and even slightly improved on the NAFTA status quo ante) despite a grave turn in the talks when it appeared that Mexico and the United States would proceed without Canada.

Will Team Canada 2024’s engagement strategy be matched with a US administration willing to respond favorably in January 2025? It depends on the answers to three key questions.

Question 1: Is Team Canada’s message to the United States “can-do” or “will-do”?  

For the United States, Canada is a promising partner, but not always a delivering partner. During the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations, Washington has looked to Canada for increased defense spending, delivery of critical minerals from mines to market, contributions to a North American semiconductor capacity, increased public investment in energy transitionLNG exports to allies in Asia and Europeborder security cooperation in addressing migration surges, leadership in the international community to address the crisis in Haiti, and for the post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine. From even this short list, there should be no doubt that the United States sees Canada as an important partner: the Biden-Trudeau “Roadmap for a Renewed US-Canada Partnership” has made slow and steady progress over the past few years.

US high hopes will need to be met by Team Canada 2024 with concrete plans to deliver on Canada’s promise as a partner to reverse a growing perception in Washington that Canada will not, or cannot, follow through. I frequently encounter this among administration officials, congressional staffers, NGO leaders, academics with research ideas needing funding, and businesses and business associations. Team Canada 2024 will have to combat this perception of incapacity if it hopes to have the next US administration engage with Canada actively after inauguration day 2025.

Question 2: Is this Team Canada, or Team Trudeau?

During the negotiations that led to the USMCA, Trudeau’s Liberal Party government and cabinet ministers were joined by Conservative and New Democratic Party (NDP) federal Members of Parliament, provincial premiers, and opposition legislators across the country. That all-party unity pre-empted concerns about who spoke for Canada. Canada is divided and to some extent polarized in its politics just as the United States is. Politicians in both countries look at parties in the other country as ideological soulmates or at least like-minded leaders. The unity on Team Canada made as much of a strong positive as the data behind its message.

The Trudeau government holds more seats (157 out of 338) in the Canadian House of Commons than any other party, a plurality and not a majority which in the parliamentary system is a relatively weak position to be in. The Liberal government has been sustained since 2021 by NDP MPs under a supply agreement that has been showing strains as the fixed date of the next election in October 2025 nears (there can be an election sooner, but no later).

Will Canada’s Leader of the Opposition, Conservative Pierre Poilievre, participate in Team Canada 2024? Will Canada’s other political parties be included? Will premiers of Canada’s provinces be team players, reaching out to state and local government counterparts? Without unity, Team Canada 2024 will appear to be more defensive, shoring up support for the Trudeau government by showing that it has a plan for dealing with the United States in case Trump returns to power, a prospect that worries many Canadians. 

Yet a Canada that can deliver will need majority support for the legislation for fund these actions and enact policies to support Canadian commitments. Cross-party unity will boost the credibility of Canadian engagement during the US campaign and suggest that it will be sustained even after the next Canadian federal election.

Question 3: Will Team Canada 2024 show message discipline and avoid the maelstrom of US politics?

There is a risk that the new Team Canada will be perceived by Americans as foreign interference in US politics. Many Canadians will have views on the issues and personalities being debated in the US election, but Canada will have to work with the winners in the presidential, congressional, and state races whether they like them or not.

One way to avoid getting drawn into US debates is to speak to Americans, and not just the insiders Team Canada expects to work with in a second Biden administration or a second Trump administration. In this effort, it could take a lesson from the US Department of State.

During the debates in Canada over Quebec separatism, political tempers on both sides of the issues were high. The State Department crafted a statement that came to be known as “the mantra” that politicians, diplomats, and even mere academics would recite when asked about the outcome that the United States preferred. “The United States has a strong relationship with a united Canada, but the future is for Canadians to decide.” 

Team Canada would make a real contribution if it could adopt a similar approach in its engagement strategy: Canada has a strong relationship with the United States, but the future is for Americans to decide. It might not catch on, but it would reinforce the Canadian brand as our polite and forbearing neighbor.

About the Author

Chris Sands

Christopher Sands

Director, Canada Institute

Christopher Sands is Director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, the largest policy research program on Canada outside Canada and the leading source of scholarship on US-Canadian relations in Washington, DC. Dr. Sands previously directed applied policy research programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Hudson Institute and has published extensively over a career of more than 30 years in Washington think tanks.

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Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more