OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives called Thursday for a special House of Commons committee to study Canada-U.S. relations, a move that appeared to win tacit support from the Liberal foreign affairs minister.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole argued that Canada's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is so inextricably linked to the United States that more needs to be done to protect Canadian workers and families from policies of the new Biden administration.
The House of Commons debated the Conservative motion that calls for the new committee to focus on the economic relationship between the two countries, saying that the ongoing pandemic calls for "a serious plan for the economic recovery that recognizes the integration of the North American economy."
While the proposed committee would have a broad mandate, the Conservatives emphasized the Buy American provisions being advanced by U.S. President Joe Biden, and the case of an Enbridge pipeline known as Line 5, which some U.S. officials want to close.
"We're standing up for hundreds of thousands of jobs in Canada, families that depend on trade access with the United States, our closest ally, our closest trading partner," O'Toole said.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party's critic for foreign affairs, said as much as Canadians might be breathing a sigh of relief at Biden's replacement of Donald Trump, the new president's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline was a serious blow to Canada's economic recovery.
"Even with a new U.S. president, who is a decent man with good intentions, the facts are right in front of us," said Chong. "They made a decision that damaged our economic recovery and threatens the very unity of this country."
If the Conservative motion is passed in the Commons, the new committee would be tasked with producing reports on those issues by certain deadlines, and also have the power to call the deputy prime minister, foreign affairs minister and the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. as witnesses.
During Thursday's debate, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said he's open to the idea of the new committee but he noted several other parliamentary committees on trade and foreign relations already exist.
"However, there's a very special relationship here between Canada and the United States," Garneau said when asked by a Conservative MP whether he would support the creation of the new committee.
"The creation of the committee, as being proposed today, will add another forum for discussion on the matters that concern us as Canadians in our dealings with the United States, and we are certainly open to that."
The committee would also explore what the government is doing with the U.S. to procure a steady stream of COVID-19 vaccines.
Most Opposition day motions are not binding on the government, though they can be used to create political pressure for action. But MPs can choose to create committees within the Commons with a simple vote.
The call for a Canada-U.S. special committee has echoes of a previous successful attempt by the Conservatives to get a committee struck to focus on Canada-China relations, over objections from the Liberals.
The Buy American provisions and the future of Enbridge Line 5 are hot-button political issues.
Each day, the pipeline carries millions of litres of the liquids used in propane, crossing northern Michigan and Wisconsin before ending in Sarnia, Ont.
The governor of Michigan wants the pipeline shut down and environmental activists are pressing Biden to support that in the spirit of his recent decision to cancel construction of Keystone.
The Conservatives accused the Liberals of not doing enough to convince Biden to change his mind on Keystone, and now say more needs to be done to ensure Line 5 stays open to protect the associated jobs.
Biden is also advocating for protectionist Buy American policies, an issue Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did address on a call with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris earlier this week.
Canadian businesses have raised concerns they'll be stopped from bidding on U.S. government contracts, and Trudeau's office said part of his call with Harris was about "avoiding the unintended consequences" of a Buy American approach.
Garneau said the government is continuing the campaign it began during the Trump administration to persuade American politicians at all levels that "open, transparent trade between the two countries is in both of our interests."
"We will continue to carry that message not only to the federal administration, but to governors and other American politicians to ensure that protectionism does not creep into the relationship that exists between the two countries," Garneau added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021.
Stephanie Levitz and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press