What does Joe Biden’s ‘Buy American’ plan mean for Canadians?

WASHINGTON—Monday, Joe Biden stood in front of a backdrop reading “Made in America” to sign an order called “Ensuring the future is made in all of America by all of America’s workers,” and spoke of keeping “American taxpayer dollars” from being directed to “foreign companies and foreign workers.”

Canadians might well wonder what that means for Canadians.

After all, U.S. federal procurement — the specific subject of Biden’s announcement — is a $600 billion-per-year market, of which something over $600 million has recently gone to Canadian-based companies. Especially after the Keystone XL announcement last week on the first day of Biden’s presidency, many might see the made-in-America order as a rocky kickoff to Canada’s relationship with the new president.

For example: “Today’s announcement represents another unhelpful step to make it more difficult for Canadian businesses to secure contracts in the U.S.,” the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said in a statement after Biden’s announcement.

But veteran trade lawyer Daniel Ujczo, senior counsel at Thompson Hine in Ohio, had a message for those seeing it as a catastrophe for Canada. “It’s really not about you, Canada, at this moment. This is about us in the United States.”

By which he means this measure isn’t aimed at Canada, to be read as an indicator of the relationship between the two countries. “There’s no question that the target is outside of North America here.”

There are specific ways in which key measures in this announcement really aren’t about Canada: Canadian companies are specifically exempt from many existing “Buy American” procurement rules under trade agreements, so measures Biden is taking to make those rules stricter likely won’t apply to Canada.

Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do for the Canadian government and Canadian companies in the weeks and months ahead. Biden’s order is in many ways a starting point, not an ending. It establishes an office in the White House to police waivers that allow exceptions to such rules. And it sets in motion a process of establishing made-in-America provisions that apply to infrastructure spending Biden will unveil in the coming months. Those are areas where Canadians will need to make their case to ensure trade lines remain open to them.