David Cohen has been the United States’ Ambassador to Canada since November 2021, and in the time since, both Canada and the United States have experienced a series of shared challenges.
Cohen, in an interview at his official residence in Ottawa, opens up about the state of the relationship.
He touches on how inflation, central banks, potential gas tax breaks and the “Freedom Convoy” protests have affected cross-border relations. He also delves into what impact U.S. abortion rights rulings and gun control crackdowns may have, and when cross-border travel rules could further ease.
This transcript of Cohen’s interview with Evan Solomon for Sunday’s episode of CTV’s Question Period has been edited for length and clarity.
Evan Solomon: We are in a time, both in the U.S. and in Canada, with inflation at 40 year highs, 7.7 per cent here. It’s affecting Americans at the pump, and the grocery store… Everyone says it’s about supply chains. What is the U.S. and Canada doing together explicitly to help people fight inflation?
Ambassador Cohen: “So, you know, inflation is clearly the dominant economic issue of the day in both the United States and in Canada. It is scary because remember, inflation is a product of macroeconomic forces… The economy, the macro economy is larger than any government any official, and it’s just not something that you can wave a magic wand and make inflation go away. It’s a huge macroeconomic force.
“That said there are a bundle of tactics and strategies that government writ large can and should execute in inflationary times. And the first of all of those is a central banking function. I’m not an elected official, so I’m allowed to say this: It is true that the major responsibility for managing macroeconomic forces in the economy like inflation, is a central bank function. It’s not a presidential or prime minister function.”
Solomon: A lot of people say the central banks both in your country and in Canada blew it, because they didn’t ease back quick enough.
Ambassador Cohen: “I agree with you that it’s become politicized. But I don’t think some of that criticism is political. I think the criticism is by other serious economists who look at this issue and say, the central bank should have done something differently. Then you’ve got elected officials taking that comment and politicizing it. So those are, I think those are two different stages of the same of the same particular issue…
“We’re a victim of something that’s awfully good, which is as the pandemic eases, people are returning to their leisure and their vacation plans with a vengeance, and it’s the summer season. It’s the season where that happens. And so demand for gasoline is spiking to all time highs at a time when supplies are are not as robust as they have been at some times in history. And that is causing an increase in gas prices, which is a significant contributor to the overall increase in cost of living and to overall inflationary trends.”
Solomon: Was it a mistake for Joe Biden to cancel Keystone given where the world is now, which would have helped in this situation?
Ambassador Cohen: “I hope this isn’t headline news. After all, I’m Joe Biden’s friend and his representative in Canada. But Joe Biden absolutely did not make a mistake in canceling the Keystone pipeline. We don’t have enough time to run through every argument there. But we’re talking about inflation, which is fair, as Joe Biden has said it is the number one issue the United States faces. But it’s not the only issue. And energy is not the only issue that Canada or the United States faces. You could argue that climate change is the existential issue of our generation. And then unless we get a hold of climate change and get a hold of the impacts of climate change quickly, we’re going to cause irreversible damage to our environment.
“And by the way, that is something that has a tremendous Canadian implication, because of the adverse impact on the Arctic, from runaway climate change. And if you are Joe Biden and you’re the president of the United States, and frankly, if you’re the prime minister of Canada, you have to juggle not just inflation—no matter how important the issue is— not just prices of gasoline at the gas pump. But, you have to focus on the whole range of issues that confront your country.”
Solomon: Canada has just announced it’s going to invest in the next six years $4.9 billion to upgrade the NORAD system, the radar defense system that is out of date… Has your country asked Canada when that system will be updated? And what is your view about how vulnerable we are now?
Ambassador Cohen: “I’m not bashful about expressing opinions, but I hope I don’t get out of my lane and express opinions about things that I really don’t fully understand or know. So the question you ask, which is how vulnerable are we today, is a fundamental defense professional question… I just don’t know enough to answer that question intelligently. I do think and the line that I have used is that whether its post-February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, or even before that time… Those issues are particularly relevant and important in the Arctic, and we need a 21st century defense response with 21st century funding to be able to put us in a position to defend ourselves adequately…
“I have been asked a lot of times about Canada’s commitment to NORAD and what the United States was looking for. And my answer was, we’re, you know, Canada and the United States are partners in this binational command, the only binational defence command in the world, and our expectation our hope if you will, for NORAD and for Canada, is that they be a good partner.”
Solomon: On Friday… The [U.S.] Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. This is not a surprise… What is the significance for women and globally that that Roe v. Wade and access to abortion rights are no longer constitutionally protected in your country?
Ambassador Cohen: “So as you say, this is not a surprise, but that doesn’t mean that it is not a major disappointment. You know, the significance of Roe vs. Wade is that for 50 years, these rights were deemed to be constitutionally protected. I think it is a tremendous blow for what is a very important constitutional right for women in the United States. I think it is a tremendous blow for gender equity in the overall equality democratic sense. It is a major disappointment. President Biden has said that in the event this decision came down, it would be a real blow to women’s rights and to and to the treatment of women in the United States of America.
“This now becomes a matter of individual states to determine the rules that will apply to abortion. So in a sense, the battlefield has shifted to a different governmental level in the United States. The reason I want to be careful is because you’ve got such a large number of states under conservative— usually Republican—control where I think abortion rights will be will likely be restricted…
“So this is not a good day for women, for the treatment of women. It is not a good day for our respect for women, and for their right to choose what happens with their own bodies. And so I can’t sugar coat that except just to say that we do need to shift the battlefield now and we need to try and preserve as much of a women’s right to choose in as many states as possible.”
Solomon: We are in a debate here, intensely, about the necessity of the Emergencies Act. Was the U.S. government pressuring Canada to resolve this because of the economic consequences on cross-border trade?
Ambassador Cohen: “I don’t want to get into the internal Canadian debate on the propriety of the invocation of the Emergencies Act, but I have no problem saying that the threat to trade and commerce between the United States and Canada as a result of the blockades at points of entry—particularly in Windsor at the Ambassador Bridge, which is where the largest single implication was—we’re talking about a few hundred million dollars a day of blocked trade.
“And remember, this was having implications on real people. There were automobile plants in Canada and the United States where shifts were being cut back, people were losing income as a result of this, there was a real threat to the integrated automobile supply chain. There was a legitimate threat to the trade and commerce of both Canada and the United States.
“So the way you ask the question gives me a chance to make a very important point, because it’s not the United States’ place to pressure Canada into doing anything. Canada is its own sovereign country. We are friends, we are allies…That does not give us the right to tell Canada you need to do this. It does give us the right to have a serious discussion with our friend about the implications of this embargo on our mutual trade, on both sides of the border. And so there was a high level of concern. There were repetitive, high-level conversations with Chrystia Freeland, with multiple ministers in the Canadian government, with members of the cabinet. I was personally involved in many of those discussions, the White House got involved. So it was a matter of serious concern, but nobody in the United States to the best of my knowledge ever said to Canada, ‘you must resolve this problem,’ … It was very serious. It should have been taken seriously, and it was taken seriously.”
Solomon: I spoke with Congressman Higgins from New York, I’ve spoken to Canadian mayors, they want the ArriveCAN app dropped because it’s hurting trade. Should Canada drop the ArriveCAN app? Is it hurting trade now, and tourism?
Ambassador Cohen: “I don’t know enough about that. I say as a person now who has traveled multiple times between the United States and Canada, I have not experienced the problems with the ArriveCAN app that I read about in the newspapers. But, this is in the category of Canada being a sovereign nation. They need to make their own basic decisions about this. I do think when you look at a trend line of decisions that the U.S. and Canada have been making, we’re certainly moving toward fewer restrictions on border travel, and lowering barriers to the ability of people to move between our countries. And I think ArriveCAN will get caught up in that trend, and is a part of that ongoing conversation.”
Solomon: The tragedy in Uvalde, Texas was just one of the latest. Horrific… The debate in Canada is that the gun problem is coming from the United States. It’s illegal guns coming over the border from the U. S. What is the U.S. doing to help Canada stop the flow of illegal guns from your country into this country?
Ambassador Cohen: “I don’t want to be provocative, but I don’t know that there’s enough evidence that the gun violence problem that is experienced in Canada, is due either solely or maybe even primarily to illegal guns in the United States coming over to Canada. Because, the fact of the matter is that there’s not very good data on that question. It’s become sort of accepted conventional wisdom, but not based on data.
“But, the answer to the question is that the US and Canada have to cooperate on cutting down on illegal guns coming into Canada, if they are… We’ve had multiple collaborations and discussions about gun tracing, and how we trace and how we can help Canada do its gun tracing because Canada just doesn’t have the capacity… The United States has offered to help with that. And so it’s part of a high-level collaboration around gun violence, all designed to crack down on the importation of illegal handguns, whether it’s from the United States or elsewhere, coming into Canada.”
Solomon: The January 6 hearings. We’ve been watching those… Here in Canada, there’s more concerns of another convoy coming around Canada Day. Is there a threat to democracies from a rising populism? Or is this kind of an event that will pass, or is it a deeper concern?
Ambassador Cohen: “So I think that I think that question is an incredibly important question… I do think in the United States and Canada, in all of the world’s democracies, there is a disturbing growth of extremism, populist movements, usually coming from the hard right…
“It is a real threat and a real trend. I think a lot of it is based on misinformation, and is fueled by disinformation on social media. I think as a result, it is an extremely complicated question… I firmly believe that democracy will prevail, it will survive and that ultimately democracy will beat back autocracy. And one of the reasons I feel that way, is because one of the strengths of democracy is the discussion we’re having.”
Solomon: Last question. You’re a democracy optimist. Russia is attacking a democracy. There’s going be a NATO meeting, Canada has not hit its two per cent [of GDP spending on defence]. In the U.S.’ view, how long does this fight go on for? Just give me your sense, are we in a long-term potential war with Russia?
Ambassador Cohen: “I don’t think we’re in a war with Russia, now. Frankly, I don’t know that there’s going to be a quick resolution to the war in Ukraine. So we have to be in this for the long haul is the bottom line, and we have to recognize that autocracies like Russia, and like China by the way, are deserving of our attention. We have to be prepared to take those countries on and to continue to fight for our democratic ideals. And, and not to sound hokey, but to fight for liberty and justice for all.”
Solomon: Thanks, Ambassador.
Ambassador Cohen: Thank you again. Thanks for coming.