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Justin’s challenge: Handle Trump like papa handled Nixon

Canada isn't "powerful enough to be unfriendly." So said, piquantly enough, influential U.S. senator William Fulbright back in the day when Pierre Trudeau faced off against Richard Nixon.

As is the case with president-elect Donald Trump today, Mr. Nixon was about as popular in Canada as hoof and mouth disease. Many were pressuring Mr. Trudeau to be strong enough to be unfriendly. One was NDP leader Tommy Douglas, who declared that Canada was being treated like "a hunk of geography."

Mr. Trudeau's radical chic had a bit more allure than that. On his first visit to Washington, an admiring female scribe asked, "When are you going to slide down a bannister or stand on your head?"

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Square-guy Mr. Nixon of course had no use for the northern nonconformist. Among the epithets he privately bestowed on him were "pompous idiot," "son of a bitch," and a seven-letter testimonial starting in "a" and ending with an "e."

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But while most assumed a wretched relationship was in the making, it didn't happen. Mr. Trudeau took a two-pronged approach to Mr. Nixon, taking cues from both Mr. Fulbright and Mr. Douglas.

He was at times placatory. He described Mr. Nixon "a warm and understanding friend of Canada," he refrained from gratuitous criticism on Vietnam, he even telephoned him to sympathize on Watergate, saying it was being distorted.

Mr. Trudeau also took Mr. Nixon on. He reduced Canada's commitment to NATO, he welcomed draft dodgers and he brought in measures to deter American economic and cultural infiltration and to reduce reliance on American trade.

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The two leaders had an agreement to disagree. There was consent to dissent. As Henry Kissinger recalled, "they worked together without visible strain."

Today, many think Donald Trump will be barbed wire for Justin Trudeau. But if he handles Mr. Trump like papa did with Mr. Nixon, maybe not. Republican presidents who are deeply unpopular in Canada make it rather easy, politically at least, for prime ministers. The PMs need only stand up to them as Mr. Trudeau sometimes did with Mr. Nixon, as Jean Chrétien sometimes did with George W. Bush, as Justin Trudeau can do with Donald Trump.

It's premature to draw hard conclusions about an administration led by Mr. Trump. We're not sure what lurks in that cranium. We don't know if he will fashion a kakistocracy, as in government by society's unsavoury elements; or whether he will revert to earlier times when he was clearly not in the grip of Visigoths.

While he appears to be pulling back some on some of his more pharaoh-like pledges, there is still a lot that could hit Mr. Trudeau hard. Reports say for example that the president-elect will choose climate change denier Myron Ebell to head up what could well become the Environmental Destruction Agency.

Mr. Trump's xenophobic proclivities run directly counter to the Prime Minister's multiculturalism and refugee outreach. Here, Mr. Trudeau can hold his ground. Tell him to beat it. On defence policy, Ottawa is supporting NATO in sending a military contingent to Latvia. Mr. Trump has called NATO obsolete.

On trade, however, former Quebec premier Jean Charest sees a big opportunity for Ottawa. Mr. Trump's heavy protectionist lean will make Canada the new landing strip for investment in North America, he says. The Trump demands for renegotiating NAFTA need not necessarily redound to this country's detriment.

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While the Keystone XL pipeline might now be saved, cause for much concern are Trumpian economic plans to slash taxes, including corporate levies, and regulations. It will make it more attractive for companies to do business in the United States than here where carbon taxes are coming on stream and minimum wages in provinces are rising.

The new president's differences with the Prime Minister are at least as gaping as were the Nixon-Trudeau fractures. Justin Trudeau would do well therefore to pay some heed to his father's binary approach. It wasn't so bad. Our hunk of geography didn't crumble.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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