By Richard Forbes.

Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.
– Pierre Trudeau.

Under the ominous hashtag, #muslimban, Americans and people all around the world tweeted their thoughts, their outrage; posting pictures of unprompted protests gathering at American airports and instructing followers on how best to protect themselves against – and neutralize the effects – of tear gas. Shocking images from JFK International Airport (among others) showed elderly visitors being detained in wheelchairs, riot police closing off an entire terminal and immigration lawyers volunteering their services to detained arrivals: buying flight tickets of their own to set up shop with laptops and communicate with officials – their activism paying off, if only temporarily, with the emergency stay on the deportations ordered by Brooklyn federal judge Ann Donnelly.

It was Day 8 of a Trump administration.

Along with that activism came a flurry of bipartisan messages across social media platforms from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and western premiers Brad Wall, Christy Clark and Rachel Notley who reiterated their own provinces’ support for refugees and pledged to cooperate with Ottawa in responding to the ongoing crisis. Trudeau’s message, rather than speaking directly to the crisis, echoed his government’s support for refugees in general – a message that obviously resonated with followers, six hundred thousand of whom would favourite or re-tweet the message over the coming twenty four hours.

On the whole, Saturday evening marked an immediate moral consensus among Canadians that protecting those fleeing violence and war is a national and global responsibility and that fear, hate and racial prejudice are antithetical to the promise of an open and free democratic state. It was a positive departure from the Canada we saw at the beginning of the migrant crisis, when Canadians were shown to be anxious and worried about our own accelerated resettlement efforts. It seems nothing unites Canadians more than the mistakes of our neighbors to the south.

Demonstrations formed in airports across America, including JFK International.

The source of this turmoil, an executive order signed by President Trump, remains an object of elusive meaning and legal confusion. Indeed, Canadian officials spent the initial few hours after the executive order’s introduction reaching out to the US Department of Homeland Security – desperately trying to determine the extent to the executive order and its effect on Canadians traveling abroad.

The confusion surrounding the surprise executive order demonstrates the internal disagreement within the White House and the rashness of the executive order’s authors, who pursued the order without the usual interagency vetting from the Justice and Homeland Security departments. More radical elements of Trump’s inner circle, Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, even overruled the Department of Homeland Security’s interpretation of the executive order, finding it to be a more broad and extensive ban against green card holders, only to then have their own interpretation overruled by the White House once more.

Although obscured by its imprecise jargon, the now widely discredited executive order, titled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,’ appears to authorize an immediate, temporary moratorium on the US’s refugee resettlement efforts, in addition to banning travel to the US by “foreign nationals” from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria either temporarily or indefinitely. But in banning American allies and war-torn families fleeing terror and violence, both the sweeping and yet curiously selective nature of the order – which affects only those Muslim countries without business connections to the Trump Organization, regardless of their history of terrorism or lack thereof – calls into question the rational connection of the executive order to its purported goal of protecting Americans from Islamic terrorism.

Canada’s immigration minister Ahmed Hussen, a Somali-Canadian himself, held an emergency press conference on Sunday to assure Canadians that, although Canadian officials had been blindsided by the executive order, they had since been in contact with Homeland Security and assured permanent Canadian residents would not be affected by the proposed ban. Hussen also stated that anyone stranded in Canada, displaced by the ban, would be provided temporary shelter.

This response, for which underwhelmed readers are forgiven, reflects the federal government’s general approach to the Trump administration so far: cagily avoiding any direct confrontation with the White House and accepting any retroactive exceptions to executive policy for Canadians as justification for remaining silent. It’s in this respect that Canada has also accepted assurances from a Trump adviser that any plans to renegotiate NAFTA will target Mexico rather than Canada. In the eyes of the lawmakers now governing America, we are the Anglo-Saxon afterthought (however inaccurate that may be) to their nationalist ambitions. While pursuing its harsh parochialisms against open immigration, multiculturalism, free trade and the global supply chain, Washington hopes to conquer through division by keeping key diplomatic allies, like Canada, quiet and complacent.

“Every country has the right to determine their policies. I can only tell you that we will continue our long-standing tradition of being open to those who seek sanctuary,” says immigration minister Ahmed Hussen.

It is with deep and genuine irony that the man a half a century ago who so aptly summarized Canada’s relationship with the US as ‘sleeping with an elephant’ is the late father of our current prime minister; before him, Trudeau faces one of the greatest challenges ever to intercontinental relations in the form of Donald Trump, a new and terrifying Richard Nixon for the children of 9/11. If Trump and his republicans are the elephant, this ill-conceived moratorium is a clear example of their “twitches and grunts” that Pierre Trudeau decried as prime minister. And yet in hoping for the best, today’s Ottawa appears to have closed its eyes and held its breath, content with its share of the bed and not daring to move an inch, lest the great and stubborn elephant squash us in its unconscious tossing and turning.

It would be a terrible mistake for the federal government to continue this uninterrupted abstention from criticizing the White House and America’s new president without limitation. Not when the tactical nature of Donald Trump’s ‘divide and rule’ of his neighbors neither knows nor recognizes political borders, but rather ethnicity. Given it’s only the first week of his presidency, it’s safe to say it is only a matter of time before Trump’s policies evolve from not affecting any Canadians to affecting some Canadians. What happens when his plans to limit free trade support some Canadian industries at the expense of others? And what happens when his border controls affect some Canadians but not others?

Trudeau has never stated what limit there is to his diplomatic courtesy towards the new president and in that respect, he has failed to clarify what allowances will be made for this charade. Will the pleasantries end when Canadians are pitted against Canadians? If the Homeland Security had confirmed some Canadian residents would be affected, instead of the reverse – what then? Would our immigration minister have held a press conference to tell us Canada accepted these new measures? Through the fog of its own diplomacy, the federal government has left little in the way of a clear answer to what is an important and pressing question.

In the wake of America’s disavowing of its own responsibilities, a fuller response to the crisis could be to expand our own refugee resettlement efforts, like Trudeau had once promised during the heat of the election when the image of young Alan Kurdi’s body was captured on shore. Especially so if Trump’s security review concludes with a negative conclusion. In acting,  Canada would help to fill the apparent vacuum of moral leadership in the absence of a responsible, clear-minded head of state in the White House. Indeed, this could be done without direct criticism of the current administration in Washington. But until announced, no such reparations have been made. Ottawa seems content with doing and saying little to nothing of direct meaning provided exceptions are promised to Canada despite the global impact of an acephalous superpower; a world leaderless in its fight against climate change, war and forced migration and a modern global economy and its political institutions seemingly defenseless against its own self-ruination.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

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