Trudeau stops in Canada's aluminum country before facing Trump on tariffs at G7
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens at a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 7, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, June 7, 2018 12:30PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 7, 2018 8:03PM EDT
SAGUENAY, Que. -- Just before he headed to the G7 summit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a stop in the heart of Canada's aluminum country -- where he repeated his pledge to try to convince Donald Trump that his heavy-handed tariff strategy is a big mistake.
Trudeau shook hands and posed for photos with locals inside a busy shopping mall Thursday as he campaigned in Quebec's Saguenay region in support of a Liberal candidate running in an upcoming federal byelection.
But there were global politics at play, too.
Saguenay has a significant connection to what will be a major point of debate for G7 leaders this week because the region is home to a big part of the country's aluminum industry.
The U.S. president angered his G7 allies last week by imposing punishing tariffs on aluminum and steel imports. Canada and the European Union responded with tariff threats of their own, leaving Saguenay caught in the crossfire of an escalating trade dispute between G7 partners.
"We're interested in defending Canadian interests -- and on top of that, it turns out I'm also defending American interests, because these tariffs they're putting forward are going to hurt American workers as well," Trudeau told a news conference.
"If I can get the president to actually realize that what he's doing is counterproductive for his own goals as well, perhaps we can move forward in a smarter way."
Trudeau called Trump's tariffs "irresponsible" and "insulting." He, along with other G7 leaders, say they will demand Trump reverse the duties when they meet him during the summit, which begins Friday in nearby La Malbaie.
"The G7 is an opportunity for us to gather and have frank and direct conversations, and I'm very much looking forward to that," he said.
Business leaders in Saguenay fear the aluminum tariffs could hurt local companies, particularly smaller firms that transform the metal into finished products.
Many locals say people in the region, where several generations of families have worked in aluminum production, are worried the uncertainty caused by the tariffs could eventually lead to job losses -- on both sides of the border.
"They want to punish us, but ... the Americans will pay a big price for the product they want from us," said Regis Gauthier, shortly after he chatted with Trudeau while the prime minister greeted people at the food court.
"It's worrying.... It's the work for young people today."
Gauthier, who worked in the aluminum industry for 31 years before his retirement, said people in the region want to be like "cousins" with the Americans and take part in free trade for the benefit of both countries.
Benoit Belanger, who took a break from his poutine lunch to speak with the prime minister, said the tariffs are "a big issue for us."
"These are good, well-paying jobs -- so, for sure, it keeps the whole economy rolling," Belanger said of the local aluminum industry.
He doesn't see the U.S. tariffs as a specific attack against Canada or even Saguenay, but likely more of a strategic move by someone he considers a canny and experienced negotiator.
"Mr. Trump is a businessman who knows where he's going and knows what he's doing," Belanger said. "This is the game."
Saguenay produces about a third of all Canadian aluminum, has four smelters and has been dubbed the "Aluminum Valley." The city estimates the industry supports 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Aluminum products can cross back and forth over the Canada-U.S. border several times, which means the tariffs could have varying effects depending where companies sit in the supply chain.
Malika Cherry is director of a business organization that represents regional aluminum firms, except for the big, primary producers.
She said the tariffs could have an impact on everyone because they create a "climate of uncertainty and chaos" that threatens to put a chill on things like investments.
Cherry, who runs the Aluminium Valley Society, also said that because 80 per cent of Canadian aluminum is shipped to the U.S. the tariffs don't make any sense for anyone. It's a "lose-lose" for Canada and the U.S., she said.
She wonders whether it's a Trump negotiating tactic linked to NAFTA and the G7.
Trump's tariffs targeted G7 allies under a section of U.S. trade law that justifies the action on the basis of national security -- a characterization that Trudeau and others have vigorously rejected.
Coincidentally, G7 leaders -- Trump included -- are scheduled to land at the Saguenay's Bagotville military airstrip before driving two hours to the summit site in La Malbaie.
The Bagotville base was constructed decades ago to protect Canada's crucial aluminum assets, which were used to build U.S. military equipment and vehicles.
Trudeau said Thursday he pointed out this piece of history to Trump in a recent discussion.
"As I highlighted to the president, Air Force One is going to be arriving at Bagotville, at an air base that was created to protect the aluminum industry that the North American and American war effort was so dependent on in the Second World War," Trudeau said.
"If that's not an example of national security collaboration, I don't know what is."
Trudeau was also asked Thursday whether Canadians had indeed burned down the White House during the War of 1812, as Trump reportedly remarked in a post-tariffs phone call late last month with the prime minister.
In fact, it was the British who attacked the White House in retaliation for a U.S. attack on Fort York in 1813; Canada, of course, didn't even come into existence until 1867.
Trudeau chuckled at the question, characterizing the president's "little comment" as a joke.
"I didn't pay much attention to the quip; I focused on the message I was putting out, which was that it is inconceivable -- and quite frankly insulting -- that the United States considers Canada to be a threat to national security."