It was edging close to midnight on the final night of September and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, emerged onto the steps outside his offices in Ottawa. His face, illuminated by the bright flashes of camera bulbs, was beaming. “It’s a good day for Canada,” he said confidently, as he was whisked away to his motorcade through the hoard of jostling reporters camped outside, hurling questions his way.
The source of Trudeau’s sense of triumph was an announcement many had assumed wouldn’t come: a tentative agreement with the US, made at the 11th hour, to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – and rename it the usmca (The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) – after a year of rancorous negotiations.
The renegotiation has been a pivotal process for Canada and a headache for Trump. The US-Canada trading relationship was worth about $544bn in 2016, and Nafta talks have shaken the two countries’ longstanding diplomatic relationship. It’s fuelled by US frustration that Canada’s negotiators have dug in their heels so firmly on areas including dairy, car-manufacturing and dispute-resolution.
There is much to fight for in Canada’s corner. The second-fastest growing economy in the G7 (after the US), it is experiencing a pace of growth unseen for two decades, spurred by several factors. Nuanced government policy has ensured new sectors – particularly technology – are flourishing in cities across the country. Novel approaches to urbanism have followed, as once-forgotten corners are rejuvenated. Proposals to bring nearly one million new migrants to Canada by 2020, anchored by fêted refugee policies and a revamped visa process for high-skilled foreign workers, should also offer lessons to migration-wary governments elsewhere.
So, with a year to go before Canada’s next general election, there is much to be positive about.
The Trudeau years have been marked by an outward-looking foreign policy, aimed at capitalising on Canada’s potent soft-power credentials. As G7 hosts, Canada spearheaded several noble initiatives, covering the environment and girls’ education. Canada’s diplomats continue to lobby for a seat on the UN Security Council, while military strategy is now focused on training and peacekeeping rather than combat. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing: Trudeau’s criticism of Vladimir Putin has led to fears that Russian-backed hackers may target Canada’s general election next year, while a spat with Saudi Arabia in August demonstrated the perils of doing business with governments whose human-rights record jars with one’s own.
While the push has been to forge new trade deals – the Ceta deal with the EU is being touted as a possible model for the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit – homegrown economies are burgeoning too, particularly in nascent technology hubs. Less promisingly, Canada’s largest exports are still gas and oil – sectors that have been hit hard by a tumultuous international market.
On 17 October, Canada became the largest nation to legalise the use of recreational marijuana, marking the fulfilment of a key election pledge by Trudeau. Business in Canada’s marijuana sector was quick to prepare for legalisation; the largest marijuana producer in the world was formed earlier this year in anticipation of the new law. Many nations, debating their own marijuana policies, will watch the impact of the Canadian legislation closely.
Globally, postal services have struggled in recent years to stave off the challenge of dwindling demand. Canada Post was, until three years ago, no exception – but its fortunes are turning. Door-to-door postal services have returned (in lieu of the maligned “community post box” model that was instituted by former PM Stephen Harper) and there are signs that new bricks-and-mortar post offices are playing a role in its revival. A new concept-store initiative, piloted in 2016, included dressing rooms to try on online purchases and 24-hour shipping stations. However, the rise in profits has spurred a fraught wage-increase debate among postal workers.
Things that needs fixing
Media: Scores of local papers closed down this year and one of Canada’s largest dailies, the Toronto Star, claimed that it was near collapse. Ottawa has allocated funds to support struggling outlets. It’s a noble aim but it has proved of little help to newsrooms whose revenue streams are drying up.
Housing: Vancouver and Toronto in particular have been hit by turbulent house prices, meaning that stocks have shrunk and new developments have become somewhat monotone. A thoughtful assessment of the long-term should help counter the effects. Transport infrastructure: Some of the highest landing taxes in the world mean that domestic air travel is often prohibitively expensive. Three new budget airlines, launched this year, will test whether the sector can flourish.
Despite an extraordinary political honeymoon, Justin Trudeau’s sheen has dulled since 2015. That said, disarray within Canada’s other major parties means that he should get a second term in next year’s election.
Film: Toronto had good reason to enjoy the success of The Shape of Water: it’s where Guillermo del Toro’s epic was filmed. Montréal, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg are also becoming major film-making centres.
Music: Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara, teen titans of the moment, are joining the likes of Drake, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd in an impressive hall of fame.
Sport: The Winter Olympics this year cemented Canada’s prowess and its medal achievements re-energised Calgary’s bid to host the 2026 Games. The co-hosting of the 2026 Fifa World Cup (with the US and Mexico) will mark the highest-profile sporting event to be hosted in the country since the 1976 Montréal Olympics.
“Our federal government has, for the first time in a long time, began to find ways to engage with cities, in part through an infrastructure fund that is going to support initiatives such as new transport networks.”
Urbanist, University of Toronto
“Because we’ve never been much of a nation-state, it gives us the unintended advantage of succeeding in bringing in people from all over the world who live together harmoniously.”
Writer at large, ‘The Globe and Mail’
“We’re aware of things that are going on, particularly in the US. But Canada comes from a different tradition: we have little domestic and civil strife here. We are happy – we just have to watch we don’t become smug.”
Co-founder, The Institute of Canadian Citizenship
Canada is undergoing a period of prolonged change, both in terms of the diversity and size of its population and the upswing in its economy. It needs to ensure that it isn’t lured into a reactionary relationship with the unpredictable US; there are other positives to focus on.