Iran crash: Canadians feel like collateral damage of Trump's scattershot foreign policy

A plane crash that killed 57 Canadians amid Trump-stoked tension with Iran is the latest sign that Canada cannot rely on its US ally

When a Canadian business magnate sent off a flurry of tweets blaming Donald Trump for provoking the crisis which eventually led to the accidental shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger jet, the posts quickly went viral.

Michael McCain, the billionaire CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, used the company’s branded Twitter account to describe the US president as a “narcissist” and described the 176 passengers and crew as “collateral damage” from Trump’s “irresponsible, dangerous, ill-conceived behaviour”.

It was a potentially risky move for a company employing 24,000 people and with operations in the United States, but the thread was liked more than 70,000 times on Twitter – suggesting that his comments had struck a nerve in Canada.

Iran has admitted accidentally shooting down the plane, which was carrying 57 Canadian citizens.

However, McCain’s tweets highlight one strand of Canada’s response to the disaster – the latest in a string of events in which the country has found itself caught up in feuds between the Trump administration and other countries.

Justin Trudeau seemed to acknowledge such frustrations on Monday, when he said that the victims of the disaster would still be alive were it not for a recent crisis partly triggered by Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani.

“I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” he said.

As a close ally of the US – and its largest trading partner – Canada has always been especially vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of policy decisions made in Washington DC.

Such sensitivity has only heightened under the current administration.

“Canadians might not be holding Donald Trump directly responsible for this attack, but I believe there is increasing concern among Canadians that we are the collateral damage in erratic decisions made by the Trump administration,” said Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton University. “There’s no real forethought from this administration in how policy might affect allies. And really there’s no afterthought to how they might ameliorate the damage that comes from these situations.”

Canada was one of the first victims of Trump’s aggressive trade policy, when the US slapped tariffs on aluminum and steel imports on the grounds of national security.

And since then, the pain has only escalated.

In August 2018, Canada prompted a furious response from Saudi Arabia after it criticized the kingdom’s stance on human rights. Saudi Arabia expelled Canadian diplomats, recalled medical students and cut off trade – but the US refrained from comment.

“The fact that the Trump administration didn’t defend us, was probably the first indication that this might be a serious challenge for Canada,” said Carvin.

In December 2018, Canada responded to a US arrest warrant and detained Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on suspicion of fraud. Bound by an extradition treaty between the two nations, Canada had no choice, but the consequences have been disastrous for the country.

A protester holds photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are being detained by China, outside British Columbia supreme court, in Vancouver.
A protester holds photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are being detained by China, in Vancouver. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

Shortly afterwards, two Canadian citizens – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – were arrested in China, a move widely viewed as retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Both men remain in custody.

Relations between China and Canada remain in the deep freeze, and a free trade deal – worth billions of dollars – was shelved.

While Trudeau has spoken with Trump about the pain Canada has suffered – especially around the two detained citizens – little progress has been made in freeing Spavor and Kovrig.

“It’s not helpful if the president of the United States says he’ll say something to China and then doesn’t follow through because he’s more interested in getting a trade deal than he is in freeing the two Canadians,” said Carvin. “China knows this and can use this as leverage against us.”

With his seemingly freewheel approach to policy, Trump has often left Canada officials scrambling to assess the impacts of his decisions.

“We can predict the coming consequences of many of his actions, massive and momentous and obvious,” wrote former diplomat Scott Gilmore in a Maclean’s magazine article linking the crash to US policy in the Middle East.

“But, in our inherently chaotic and unstable world, the impact of others, like withdrawing from the Paris agreement, are less immediate and recognizable and it may take us decades to fully appreciate the tornadoes to come.”

With much of the focus within Canada dedicated to navigating US foreign policy and not on its own, Canada has sidelined its own priorities, including pursuing a security council seat at the UN.

“We have benefited so much from the protection of the United States,” said Carvin. “But we’re starting to see what the world looks like when that protection isn’t there.”


Leyland Cecco in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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