Trump’s tariffs loom over Whistler event for already embattled G7

WHISTLER, B.C. _ The U.S. decision to slap Canada with hefty steel and aluminum tariffs was casting a long shadow over the kickoff of a meeting of G7 finance ministers Thursday as allies within the club of some of the world’s richest countries began bracing for a direct economic hit.

The move by U.S. President Donald Trump is sure to be a major distraction from the Trudeau government’s G7 agenda for the meetings in Whistler, B.C., and sets the stage for a difficult leaders’ summit next week in Quebec’s Charlevoix region _ Trump’s first visit to Canada as president.

The American measure, which takes effect Friday, threatens to drive a powerful wedge between the G7 _ and could fracture the long-standing multilateral relationship into something observers describe as a “G6 plus one,” with the U.S. as the outlier.

The bombshell news was hard to miss Thursday, even if a panel of prominent economic and political leaders did their level best to avoid it. During one particular Q and A, the panellists largely steered clear of direct questions about the U.S. tactic and its likely consequences.

Instead, they strenuously defended he G7, stressing its role as an important leader that, for example, helped the world economy avoid a second Great Depression about a decade ago.

“Thank you, Amanda, for lobbing that grenade my way _ I’ll try and jump on it,” joked Bank of England governor Mark Carney, a former Bank of Canada governor, as moderator Amanda Lang tried to broach the subject.

The panel also featured International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, former prime minister Paul Martin and Tiff Macklem, a former senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada.

“At the end of the day, if trade is massively disrupted, if the level of trust of the economic actors amongst themselves is severely damaged _ first of all, those who will suffer most are the poorest, the less privileged people,” Lagarde said.

The G7 meeting in Whistler is being chaired by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and will help set the stage for next week’s leaders’ summit in Charlevoix.

During his remarks early Thursday, Morneau did not address the tariff issue directly, but he did emphasize the importance of having unity around the G7 table.

“We think that working together is always going to be much better than working at cross-purposes,” said Morneau, who was scheduled to hold a news conference later in the day to discuss the tariff issue.

“And that’s, if anything, a really important message for today and for the long term.”

The Whistler meetings will also give Morneau and other G7 ministers an opportunity to hold face-to-face discussions with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

In the past, Trump had extended tariff exemptions for Canada and others beyond existing deadlines. That didn’t happen this time, perhaps catching by surprise some G7 officials who had expected Trump to avoid imposing them this time around.

On Thursday, Canada also outlined its response to the U.S. tariffs. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced Canada would levy tariff “countermeasures” of its own on up to $16.6 billion worth of imports of steel, aluminum and other products from the U.S.

The tariffs pulled focus away from the pre-selected, overarching themes for the Whistler meeting _ topics that closely line up with key domestic policy areas promoted by the federal Liberal government.

They include finding ways to ensure economic growth benefits more people, as well as a push towards gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Whistler, which continues through Saturday, will also feature joint sessions between G7 development and finance ministers with a goal of finding ways to increase support for poor nations _ with help from the private sector _ under a focus of girls’ education.

The tariff file also lands on Morneau’s desk at a time when he’s already been consumed in recent weeks _ and particularly in recent days _ by a major domestic issue: the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Earlier this week, Morneau announced the federal government made a $4.5-billion offer to buy Trans Mountain from Kinder Morgan and would build the expansion itself in order to overcome political opposition in B.C.