The last time a U.S. presidential election ended in uncertainty, the Canadian government adopted a policy of saying nothing until all the votes were counted and the legal challenges resolved.
And advisers to the government of the day say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is wise to adopt the same approach now — even though the circumstances surrounding the current cliffhanger are vastly different than those that prevailed in 2000.
Back then, the uncertainty hinged on the disputed outcome in a single state: Florida.
It took a month of recounts and legal challenges before Democrat Al Gore finally conceded defeat to George W. Bush.
During that time, the Canadian government led by Jean Chrétien — involved in its own election campaign at the time — took a wait-and-see approach, allowing the American election process to play itself out without comment.
Silence is golden
Michael Kergin, Canada’s ambassador to Washington at the time, said silence is even more golden now — when any hint of favouring a particular outcome could only inflame an already volatile situation in a deeply polarized United States, where President Donald Trump is alleging election fraud.
“In a situation like that, I think discretion is even more important by the prime minister, to let the process run its course,” Kergin said in an interview Wednesday.
By mid-evening Wednesday, Trump had secured 214 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win, while former vice-president Joe Biden had 253, according to The Associated Press.
Results in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada and Alaska remained uncertain, with ballots still being counted.
Nevertheless, Trump declared himself the winner early Wednesday morning, denounced the continued counting of ballots as “fraud” and promised to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.
Trudeau declined to weigh in Wednesday, saying only that the Canadian government is “watching very carefully events unfold in the United States” and will continue defending Canadian interests as Americans decide their “next steps forward.”
The ‘smart’ approach
Eddie Goldenberg, a top adviser to Chretien during the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, said that approach is “pretty smart.”
“My own view is that you allow the Americans to decide who’s winning before you decide who the winner is,” he said in an interview.
“Is it really for us to comment on? I think we’d do better to let the Americans decide what the process is … We’re not going to send the army in. We’re not going to send the RCMP in. We have to sit and wait and watch.”
Goldenberg and Kergin agreed that the standoff between Trump and Biden leaves the U.S. in a much more precarious situation than the one the country faced 20 years ago.
Neither Gore nor Bush “was suggesting that the election had been stolen or rigged or whatever” and the Canadian government knew that, eventually, after the recounts and legal challenges, both sides would “respect the decision,” Goldenberg said.
The situation is different now, he said, “We weren’t worried about violence in the streets, we weren’t worried about that type of polarization.”
Goldenberg said everyone needs to “calm down, particularly when you’re outside the United States, because you’re not going to change the situation but you could make mistakes” that could hurt relations with the U.S. down the road.
Kergin said Trudeau’s response recognizes that the U.S. “is a democracy” and that to pronounce on the election result before all votes are counted “would be, in a way, not respecting another democratic country, which happens to be our largest trading partner.”
That position, Kergin acknowledged, amounts to an implicit repudiation of Trump, who is arguing that counting of mail-in ballots should be stopped.
“But you are, I think, in line with what you perceive as a democratic process as it’s established in the constitution.,” he said. “You don’t get into the question of what are legitimate ballots and what are illegitimate ballots.”