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Canada: At “WAR” With the US? (=Water, Arctic and Refugees)

Reflections on three key Canadian challenges coming up in bilateral relations with the U.S.

November 5, 2019

Every Canadian government faces two existential challenges that, to make matters more complicated yet, are often intertwined.

The first is to keep a loose and fractious federation together. The second is to keep Canada and the United States close but separate.

These challenges have been made more complex with climate change and changes in U.S. politics. The regionally divisive nature of Justin Trudeau’s minority government, with no representation from Alberta and the rebirth of the “nationalist” Bloc Québécois, makes the management of Canada’s domestic relations between the provinces exceptionally tough.

Viewed in that context, the United States’ new, abrasive and demanding approach to all bilateral relationships, even the most privileged like that with Canada ,doesn’t help.

In the past, it has been Canadian initiatives that had driven the gradual evolution of our relations. Now, three new and pressing U.S. realities will do so, with Canada playing defense.

As with the Trump administration’s demand for a revised North American trading system, Canada will have to find a response to each that is positive enough to appease, but also robust enough to maintain the core of national sovereignty.

The fact that all three challenges have divisive implications for Canadian unity will make those answers hard to find.


The first issue on the new U.S.-Canada agenda is America’s need for water. The United States has long been interested in access to Canada’s enormous fresh water resources. Gaining access to it was a key demand in the course of the original free trade negotiations in 1984.

At the time, the issue was massaged out of the agreement as it was not then yet an existential U.S. interest. Climate change and a foreign policy that puts U.S. self-interest paramount may well change that in the course of the next decade.

Water shortages in the American Southwest are reaching a critical level, which U.S domestic water resources cannot abate. New and more strident demands for U.S. access to Canada’s “surplus” of this vital resource is certain to be presented.

There is already a sort of precedent to which the Americans will undoubtedly point. Under both the IEA oil-sharing regime and the original Free Trade Agreement, Canada had agreed to treat the United States virtually as a domestic consumer of Canadian oil (as well as coal and gas in the case of international shortages).

Sharing when necessary

In other words, there is a regime in place for sharing a resource when the need arises. The precedent is not a perfect fit, of course, but the eventual argument would likely be similar. After all, Canada has a surplus commodity that the United States badly needs.

On what terms can Canada agree to meet that U.S. need? The Canadian position remains that water is not a tradable commodity. So far, the U.S. government has neither agreed nor contested that view.

The next Prime Minister must consider what to do if that U.S. position should change. It will call for extremely difficult political management within Canada as well as with different regional interests in the United States itself.

The Arctic

The second big issue in the relationship is likely to be about control of the North. The Arctic climate is changing faster than anywhere else. Waters previously unnavigable are now becoming sea lanes (though in the case of the Canadian Arctic, likely only for military vessels).

This change creates a new security challenge to North America as well as for the United States’ global military strategic posture. Chinese and other nations’ claims to free passage will demand a response.

President Trump has already shown an interest in owning more of the Arctic. Having been rejected in his bid for Greenland, he would almost certainly look due North for reassurance.

The Canadian position is to claim Northern waters as part of the Canadian Arctic and therefore under sovereign Canadian control. It may, however, be impossible to sustain that position against a powerful U.S. challenge, given the micro-minimal level of investment Canada has made in occupying its share of the Arctic with either economic or military infrastructure.

The United States, for its part, has long contested the Canadian claim of sovereignty in Arctic waters for both strategic and economic reasons.

One reason is concern over the implications of a North West Passage for global security. Another is that the United States has long debated exploiting the mineral and other resources in its own share of the region.

The potential exploitation of America’s Arctic resources has now been encouraged by the Trump Administration.

The question for the next Canadian prime minister is this: How will Canada respond to the argument that the collective security of North America is at stake in who controls the Arctic region and how, especially as the environmental implications for any decision will be deeply consequential and the cause of controversy?


The third and perhaps the toughest issue posed by the United States is going to be migration. It is unlikely that U.S. refugee policy is going to become substantially more liberal even if the 2020 elections produce a new post-Trump political reality there.

In the short term, which, in any event, is what the next Canadian government will have to deal with, U.S. policy is slated to become far more restrictive. Two shifts in particular will have dramatic implications for Canadian refugee policy.

The first is the Trump Administration’s decision radically to limit the number of refugees that the United States is prepared to accept every year. This is bound to have a knock-on effect on Canada’s gently hypocritical refugee policy (it can be described as generous, but in the full knowledge that two oceans, the Arctic and the United States stand between it and unrestricted refugee flows).

Those legitimate refugee applicants who do not come in under that quota (of 18,000) will have an arguable case for admission to Canada as it will then be difficult for the Canadian government to maintain that the United States continues to be a “safe third” country to which refugee applicants can be returned,

(The heart of “Safe Third Country” agreements such as the one between Canada and the United States is the concept that a refugee can only claim asylum in the first “safe” country where they land, rather than shop for better terms from there).

Guatemala and El Salvador safe?

An even tougher challenge is posed by agreements that the U.S. government has now negotiated to make Guatemala and El Salvador “safe third” countries. Canada does not recognize any Central American country as a “safe third,” meaning that it will not automatically deport any asylum seekers back to those countries.

If the United States now does so, any refugee claimant from Central America will be able to argue that the United States is no longer a safe refuge, as they will automatically be sent back to Central America from there.

In effect this means that any Central American refugee in the United States will feel entitled to claim asylum in Canada.

The legal case this raises will be complex, but it is the politics that are potentially deeply divisive. A refugee determination system that is already overwhelmed is not in a position to cope.

The resurgent Bloc Québécois, which appeals to a nativist sentiment in Quebec and the right wing of the defeated Conservative party may be the prime beneficiaries of popular unease if U.S. policies force Canada to loosen its own — already controversial — refugee determination process.

The latest polls show Canadian public opinion as mostly positive on immigration and refugee reception, (though Conservative voters are by and large less so).

A powerful refugee lobby is already challenging the notion of the United States as a safe third country in the courts, arguing that all those in the United States who seek refuge in Canada should be admitted.

All this combines to place the government between a bigger rock and a tougher place than before on a potentially volatile political issue.


The U.S.-related agenda is likely to have an exceptionally challenging place in both Canada’s foreign and domestic policymaking over the next years.

The fact of the matter is that, as much as Canadians would prefer it were otherwise, the United States simply cannot ever be expected to remain at arms’ length in our national life.

Canadian governments have had to make it a core responsibility of trying to keep it so. The challenge is not new, just more intense and complicated for a minority government facing off against a more demanding United States.

This is the reality in the age of “intermesticity” – where domestic and international concerns are ever more closely interwoven, often to the point of being inseparable.


Canada faces two existential challenges that are often intertwined -- to keep a loose and fractious federation together and to keep Canada and the US close but separate.

As much as Canadians would prefer it were otherwise, the US simply cannot ever be expected to remain at arms’ length in our national life.

Due to climate change waters previously unnavigable are now becoming sea lanes. This creates a new security challenge for the US’ global military strategic posture.

It is unlikely that US refugee policy is going to become substantially more liberal even if the 2020 elections produce a new post-Trump political reality there.

The US has long been interested in access to Canada’s enormous fresh water resources.