Hurdles remain in Canada-U.S. relationship despite renewed commitments

Challenges still lie ahead for the Canada-U.S. relationship despite several days of bilateral meetings between the two countries on their shared priorities and close ties as longtime allies.

During what Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland dubbed “Canada-U.S. week,” leaders and officials touted joint commitments to tackling climate change, recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and securing the release of detained Canadians in China Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

But among the questions Canada needs answered is whether the country will be spared from its neighbour’s “Buy American” provisions — and whether Canada might be able to tap into the U.S. supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

When asked by CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton whether the Biden administration would consider exempting Canada from the provisions, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken focused instead on the existing trading relationship between the two countries.

“We are each other’s largest trading partners. We have a remarkably vibrant commercial and trade relationship. I think the potential going forward, particularly as we’re trying to build more resilient supply chains … there is huge opportunity there,” Blinken said in his first Canadian interview, which aired Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live

“We both have a strong incentive to work together on a whole series of projects, as well as to make sure that that trading relationship — already arguably the strongest in the world — grows even stronger,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a virtual visit to Canada last week to discuss a number of issues with the prime minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. (Jason Burles/CBC)

‘Buy American’ weakens relationship, expert says

But hours before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden met virtually last Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Washington was still “evaluating” how the order might be applied.

Christopher Sands, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, says that if Blinken wants to discuss the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship, he should acknowledge that protectionist policies will weaken those ties.

What has made us resilient has been that rather than trying to do everything ourselves, we built these supply chains across borders. And it means that when you have a crunch, you can go to Canada for help,” Sands said.

“You don’t make supply chains more resilient by putting a ‘Buy American’ provision in, because what that means is we’re restricted to the amount of supply that’s available at home.”

Biden signed an executive order promoting the purchase, production and development of made-in-America goods several days after he took office — a priority he emphasized during his presidential campaign.

Sands told CBC News he thought the Biden administration might have distanced itself from “America First” rhetoric in the wake of the Trump presidency.

“To me, it advertises their feeling of relative weakness, that they feel that they need to address sort of populist and nationalist feelings as well,” he said. 

WATCH | Top U.S. diplomat ‘confident’ Canada-U.S. relations will grow:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he is ‘very confident we’re going to see real growth and expansion’ in the relationship between the U.S. and Canada during an exclusive interview with CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton. 6:47

U.S. prioritizing own vaccination effort

The U.S. president also has not reversed an executive order introduced by former president Donald Trump ensuring vaccine manufacturers prioritize U.S. contracts before exporting doses elsewhere.

When asked by Barton, Blinken did not say whether there was a future scenario that would allow Canada to access domestically produced shots.

“We’re focused on getting every American vaccinated, and that’s job one,” he said. “But we’re also looking, at the same time, at how we can help get vaccines around the world.”

Blinken said that as vaccine production ramps up in the weeks ahead, access to doses will also increase around the world, including in Canada.

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Mich. Earlier this year, the company backtracked on a statement that Canada could receive doses from the U.S. facility. (Morry Gash/The Associated Press)

Sands said that while executive orders aren’t as binding as legislation, he was disappointed that officials haven’t done more to assure Canadians that the U.S. could share its supply.

“The easy thing to say would be, ‘Canada, you put in orders to get vaccine from Pfizer … and the U.S. is committed to expanding production of vaccine,'” he said.

“That’s the kind of thing that you would have expected the U.S. to say after World War II, kind of that leadership.”

Back in November, Pfizer told the Globe and Mail that Canada would be sent doses from the company’s plant in Kalamazoo, Mich. — but Pfizer backtracked on that statement earlier this year.

Pfizer Canada president Cole Pinnow told Barton earlier this month that the company “re-evaluated what our supply chain plan was going to be” after “some uncertainty” with the previous U.S. administration, deciding instead that Canada’s shipments would come from Puurs, Belgium.

Pinnow said doses will continue to come from the company’s European facilities at least until the end of June.

On Friday, Health Canada approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, 20 million doses of which are expected to come from the United States.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand says she has received “positive indications” that the U.S. shipment is on track to arrive in the second and third quarter of this year. 

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service. 

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