U.S. vs Canada: Tariffs and Tiffs

Canada and the U.S. are similar and close, but animosity and tension flair up.

Posted Jul 06, 2018

NOTE: this article contains strong language that has been redacted; URLs are provided to find the raw language. 

Prior to the recent G7 Summit in Quebec (Canada), U.S. President Donald Trump was spoiling for a fight. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked why the U.S. had imposed steel tariffs in the name of “national security”, Trump shot back: “Didn't you guys burn down the White House?” (The answer to this question, of course, is “no”. British troops burned down the White House in 1814, a half-century before Canada was its own country). Trudeau brushed Trump’s comment aside as a “quip” rather than take the bait. 

At the G7 Summit itself Trump arrived late for meetings, left the summit early, and refused to sign the communique to commit to broad G7 values and goals. From the safety of his airplane, Trump then derided Justin Trudeau as “meek and mild”, and “Very dishonest & weak”.  

Trump’s behaviour surprised much of the world, but U.S. presidents have a prominent history of histrionics against their Canadian counterparts. Let’s consider a few examples. 

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon (Republican) and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father) were engaged in a long conversation over trade and the economy. Keep in mind that, at the time, Nixon taped conversations in the White House, a practice that later landed him in serious legal trouble. These recordings revealed that Nixon had afterwards referred to Trudeau Sr. as “an a—hole”, a “pompous egghead”, and a “son of a bitch”. Upon learning of being called an a—hole by Nixon, Trudeau Sr. cleverly quipped: “I’ve been called worse things by better people”

Another incident was markedly more aggressive. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. was embroiled in a war in Vietnam. Canada, in contrast, opposed the war and accepted so-called “draft dodgers” from the U.S. who sought to escape conscription into the U.S. military. In 1965, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, gave a speech at Temple University that has been described as “mildly critical” of American policy. Pearson was advocating a “Pause for Peace” — a decrease in U.S. bombing in Vietnam to ease tensions and allow an opportunity for peace to take hold. 

Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat), then the U.S. President, was not amused by Pearson’s position. He grabbed the Canadian Prime Minister by the lapels and barked: “Don't you come into my living room and p--ss on my rug.” 

What do these historical incidents have in common, beside the crass vulgarity? 

Why are these U.S. presidents, widely considered the most powerful people on the planet, so easily rattled and threatened by their Canadian counterparts, who arguably hold considerably less power and influence?

It might surprise those outside of North America to learn that Canadians and Americans often express relatively negative attitudes toward each other. (In my own research lab, we often find that Canadians express positive attitudes toward Americans, but not as positive as toward other nationalities). Shouldn’t we LIKE those people we are similar to?

Well, the answer is complicated. Yes, we do have an overall preference for those who are similar to us. We particularly like people from our own social groups (or our “ingroups”). But we can also rub up against other groups. From the perspective of Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), groups have a need for “positive distinctiveness”; one way to elevate the standing of one’s own group is to push off against other groups, and the desire to do this can be particularly strong when the groups in question are highly similar to each other. 

In this way, there is nothing unique to the Canadian-U.S. context; one would expect and find similar processes in place between Australians and New Zealanders, between Germans and the Dutch, between the English and the Welsh or Scottish. Similarity can become a source of friction, especially among members the smaller or less prominent group (e.g., Canada, Netherlands, Wales). 

But what about the historical examples discussed earlier, regarding the U.S. presidents, where we see the larger and more powerful group getting rattled? This tension is much less likely due to the need for group distinctiveness. After all, their group (U.S.) already overshadows the smaller group (Canada) in virtually every way (economy, military, cultural influence, etc).  

Psychologists Fiske and Ruscher (1993) propose that interdependence between groups, particularly negative interdependence, can generate prejudice. Being dependent on others necessarily leads to the real or perceived disruption of goals by the other side, that is, for both Canadians and Americans. And when these goals are interrupted, it arouses negative emotions that trigger prejudices. Simply put, other groups can block our goals, or be seen to block our goals, and this triggers not only pro-ingroup bias but anti-outgroup bias as a response. 

Ironically, therefore, the Canadian-U.S. relationship both causes and solves our tensions. These two countries share the world’s largest unprotected border, a border crossed incessantly as very high volumes of trade make each country richer. Moreover, we share operations in the police and military. Our proximity encourages us to get along, for the benefit of both countries. 

But this same interdependence can trigger anxiety and tension, particularly when one side senses that that other side is blocking their goals. Trump clearly considers Canadian steel imports to block his goal of employing Americans; Trudeau clearly considers American tariffs to block the goals of free trade, the promotion of Canadian jobs, and a collegial relationship between nations.  

If you think about it, you’re already aware of this in your day to day life. Your dependence on your friends, family, and neighbours (and their dependence on you) can be a great source of strength and pleasure. Or it can be a tremendous drain on your energy and patience. Dependence is a double-edged sword. Not surprisingly, such tensions are magnified at the nation level where the stakes are big and social identity concerns are paramount (e.g., Make America Great Again; America First).  


Fiske, S.T., & Ruscher, J.B. (1993). Negative interdependence and prejudice: Whence the affect? In D.M. Mackie & D.L. Hamilton (Eds), Affect, cognition, and stereotyping: Interactive proceses in group perception (pp. 239-268).  San Diego, US: Academic Press.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson Hall.