OTTAWA – The week in political rhetoric was a study in contrasts.
Donald Trump lit fires of dissent across his country and around the world with inflammatory comments about Haitians and Africans. Justin Trudeau put out fires in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, taking the public’s questions on all and sundry — and empathizing with almost everyone except the odd protester or two who showed up at his town-hall meetings.
Whether either style of engagement led the leaders to gain or lose political points is a longer-term question.
Beyond the noise, there were concrete developments in how Canadian politicians deal with ethics, with exports and with global nuclear threats. Here are three ways politics mattered this week:
For opposition critics who despaired at the timing of Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s pre-Christmas findings on Trudeau’s Bahamas vacation, hearings at a parliamentary committee restored their hope for more mileage out of her report.
Dawson announced in December that Trudeau violated four provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act when he and his family accepted an invitation to be flown to the Aga Khan’s private island. The trip could have been seen as a gift meant to influence the prime minister, she said. And Trudeau was wrong to participate in meetings focused on government grants to the philanthropist’s endowment fund, Dawson ruled.
The opposition had waited almost a year for Dawson’s report and feared the public would forget all about it over Christmas. With committee hearings this week and the ethics commissioner explaining her thoughts on Wednesday, the prime minister faced fresh criticism and was forced to address his ethical behaviour during his now-annual road show to mingle with regular people.
In her testimony, Dawson said that even if Trudeau considered the Aga Khan a friend — and therefore an acceptable person to give him gifts — he should not have also been involved in funding decisions.
Eventually, she wants to see the friend exemption removed from the law.
The federal government’s Donald Trump charm offensive — intense bilateral diplomacy to persuade Americans to stick with the North American free-trade agreement — took a puzzling turn this week.
It was a year ago this week that Trudeau shuffled his cabinet to focus squarely on dealing with Trump and the fallout of his unpredictable politics.
But now, as whispers in Canada grow more frantic about the possibility that Trump will pull out of the pact and talk picks up that Canada’s friend-making efforts are going unheeded, Ottawa is launching an aggressive attack on U.S. trade practices.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland pointed out that the World Trade Organization challenge of the American punitive duties system was separate from the NAFTA talks. But International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne also said the government wanted to send a signal that Canada deserves respect in the rough-and-tumble of global trade.
Canada, the United States and Mexico are gearing up for an intense round of NAFTA negotiations in Montreal later this month, and each country is positioning itself accordingly. As part of Canada’s preparations, Ottawa is also crafting a compromise position on auto parts rules, which have been a major stumbling block for the Canadian government, auto workers and auto producers alike.
Trade disputes aside, Canada and the United States agreed to work together to find non-military solutions to North Korea’s apparent willingness to use its nuclear arsenal. Allies will meet in Vancouver next week at a meeting co-hosted by Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
But while Canada’s aim to win international respect may be enhanced for finding a way to work productively with the U.S., the meeting’s structure has alienated China. Neither China nor Russia was officially included in the meeting despite both those countries being influential in North Korea.
Dynamics around North Korea have fluctuated dramatically in recent months. Trump has repeatedly issued unflattering tweets about North Korea’s leader and has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on that country. But just this week, North Korea and South Korea held 11 hours of talks about North Korea sending athletes to the Pyeongchang Olympics in February.