OTTAWA — Joe Biden was sworn in as president Wednesday, exactly two weeks after Donald Trump incited insurrectionists at a rally on the National Mall to storm the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn election results.
In his first speech as president, Biden asked Americans to end an “uncivil war” that has sown discord, pitting “red against blue… rural versus urban, and conservative versus liberal.” He pledged to international allies the U.S. will move forward, repair alliances and to re-engage with the world again.
“And we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example,” he said. “We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement following Biden’s inauguration ceremony noting how the relationship between Canada and the U.S. is akin to “close friends,” two countries built on “a shared commitment to democratic values, common interests, and strong economic and security ties.”
Watch: Joe Biden’s first presidential speech. Story continues below video.
The violence that erupted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which resulted in the deaths of five people, reverberated around the world. Pictures and videos of Trump supporters, some armed, went viral showing people marching alongside members of facist militia groups, chanting Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was “stolen.”
For Canadians watching, those scenes of an attempted coup hit too close to home.
“I think it would be disastrous to see American democracy sink further into chaos and dysfunctionality because it would be very hard to uphold these [democratic] standards in Canada without seeing the United States recover,” explained Oliver Schmidtke, European studies professor at the University of Victoria.
Despite the scenes of destruction and flagrant displays of white supremacy, Schmidtke said he isn’t too pessimistic American democracy has irrevocably crumbled to the level of a failed state. On the same day rioters mobbed police officers and trespassed the Capitol building, he pointed out, two Democratic senators were confirmed, giving Biden a broad mandate to govern over the next four years.
Schmidtke described the violent riots inside and outside the U.S. Capitol building as “one of these crucial, defining moments of our times,” but an event that was not entirely unexpected.
“If you look at the last four years under the Trump presidency, his style of governance and his style of conducting politics has been shaped by a profound contempt for democratic processes and traditional democratic institutions,” he told HuffPost Canada.
That style of politics has been imported, with imitators and fans north of the border, too. Trump supporters waving Trump flags organized convoys and small “Stop the Steal” rallies in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver the same day the Capitol was stormed.
Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer worked in comments bashing “mainstream media bias” in his last speech as party leader, urging viewers of the telecast event to, “Think. Challenge the mainstream media. Don’t take their narrative as fact.”
One last buck against convention
Trump, in a final flout of convention Wednesday, broke a long precedent set by previous outgoing presidents by skipping his successor’s Inauguration Day ceremony. Instead, he told Americans to “have a good life” before he and his wife Melania boarded Air Force One for the last time to head to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla. club.
That last act as president was textbook Trump. At the core of his populist appeal is a vocal distrust of everyone, Schmidtke said. Trump tapped into frustrations long simmering in America and established himself as the only authority his supporters can trust, despite being a serial liar.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the volatility of democratic rule.” Canada seems to be an outlier without its own Trumps or Marie Le Pens “at the moment,” Schmidtke warned. He stressed different political systems in a globalized world shouldn’t give Canadians licence to rest on our laurels and hope a noxious strain of political rhetoric won’t gain a foothold here.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said something similar during a panel discussion hosted by GreenPAC Tuesday exploring how Biden’s win will shape environmental priorities in the U.S. and Canada. Before jumping into a conversation about hydrocarbon, Wilkinson addressed the insurrection south of the border
“I do think that while there was shock and revulsion to what was happening with respect to the democratic institutions of our closest friend and ally, we should be careful to think that we are immune here in Canada. We are not.”
Wilkinson said he had “reflected a lot” on what happened on Capitol Hill two weeks earlier, thinking about Trump’s support base: frustrated people “who felt in some measure that they were not being heard, or that they were being left behind” and found themselves won over by his overtures.
“We have similar challenges in this country,” he said. “And I think that what we need to do is to make sure that we are thoughtful about trying to respond to the legitimate concerns and aspirations of people who are feeling that the current system is not hearing them.”
Wilkinson pointed to Canadians whose livelihoods are intertwined with the energy industry, people who, he said, feel threatened and concerned about their future as well as their families’.
“It is incumbent, in my view, on the part of politicians across this country and across political stripes to strive to be inclusive and to strive to ensure that we are hearing and trying as much as we can to respond effectively to those concerns,” Wilkinson said. “I think that’s how we avoid getting into the kinds of situations that we saw happening last week in the United States.”
After clips were shared around the world of insurrectionists taking a seat at the desks of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers, Conservative MP Cathy McLeod shared her own story of having one of her constituency offices in interior British Columbia allegedly trespassed by conspiracy theorists.
For the prime minister, it’s been an awkward time for managing that all-important U.S. relationship long characterized as a close friendship. For most of the past four years, Trudeau has exercised restraint when asked to comment about the tempest in the White House because there was always a risk of economic backlash with harsh words echoing across the border.
Even when early scenes of the insurrection were plastered on cable news channels, Trudeau did not denounce Trump by name in his initial comments about the events on Capitol Hill.
That violent siege forced some politicians into introspection about what the body politic had become in 2021. Liberal MP Anthony Housefather and Conservative MP Scott Aitchison co-wrote their plea to Canadians in an op-ed for the National Post last week, raising shared concerns over how rage has tinged discourse and reinforced a zero-sum model of politics.
It’s in this new environment, after denunciations from all federal party leaders of Trump’s incitement of a political riot that cost the lives of five people, that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole found an opportunity to kick social Conservative MP Derek Sloan from caucus. The social conservative had made controversial headlines in the past year after claiming being gay is a choice, attacking Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam by making unfounded claims her loyalties were with China and sponsoring an anti-vaccine group’s petition questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
A line was apparently crossed Sunday after it was revealed by Press Progress that white supremacist Paul Fromm had donated to the Ontario MP’s leadership campaign — and the party had accepted the money. By Wednesday afternoon, Conservative members exercised a provision of the Reform Act to hold a secret-ballot expulsion vote to boot Sloan from caucus.
After the secret-ballot vote, O’Toole released a statement saying Sloan was removed because of a “pattern of destructive behaviour” that proved to be a “consistent distraction” from the party’s efforts to grow its members.
New president, same protectionism
A new president is in the Oval Office, but that doesn’t necessarily mean U.S.-Canada relations will improve vastly overnight, particularly on matters of trade. Just look at the signposts along the way.
Biden served as vice president in the Obama administration, which was adamantly against the Keystone XL pipeline. And sure enough, a “Day One Executive Actions” press release included a revocation of the Presidential permit granted to the 1,947-kilometre expansion project linking Alberta crude to refineries in Texas.
Biden’s politics were shaped by the ideals of the Democratic Party in the 1970s when there was strong public support for protectionism measures and unions to keep jobs from being moved abroad. Under the Obama administration, he shepherded a stimulus package in response to the 2007-2008 financial crash that included a “Buy American” provision, which didn’t include a Canadian exemption despite Ottawa’s lobbying attempts.
The protectionism introduced under the Trump administration won’t evaporate overnight. According to Toronto lawyer Jesse Goldman, partner and co-chair of Borden Ladner Gervais international trade focus group, the protectionist policies directed at non-market economies such as China and Vietnam will likely continue.
With years of protectionist measures promised south of the border to rebuild the U.S. economy after the pandemic and relations with China turned fraught due to the continued detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in Chinese prisons, Canada has had to find alternate avenues to diversify trade.
With the advent of the Biden administration, he said Canada is going to have to make a choice about its trade relations with China “because the U.S. sees trade as being inextricably linked to its geopolitical interests around the world.”
Being a middle-power country, Biden’s tenure as president will bring new challenges for Canada.
“I don’t think that Canada is going to be able to go its own way on China because it’s going to be asked to participate in a number of multilateral initiatives led by the U.S. that are going to primarily target China,” Goldman said.
But some Canadian export-driven industries, such as aluminum, are likely breathing a sigh of relief, he said, after years of being used as a football by Trump in trade negotiations.
Breaches of trust during trade negotiations tainted bilateral relations between Canada and the U.S. during the Trump administration. “That has been lost in particular at the top level,” Schmidtke said. “And I think that hopefully [we can get] some sense of restoring this with a Biden administration.”
Trudeau also said as much on Tuesday, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, when he remarked how much he looks forward to the “new chapter” of relations between the two countries.
“I’m really looking forward to working closely with the new president and his team to create jobs and build back better for us all.”
With files from Althia Raj