President Donald Trump made the menace much more real this week, warning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House that the deal may be "terminated" if the U.S. doesn't get what it wants.
This is the nightmare scenario long feared by many Canadians after almost three decades of free trade with our southern neighbour.
Obviously, the end of the North American free-trade agreement – the foundation of Canada's relationship with the U.S. and Mexico – is not this country's preferred option. There would be economic pain and dislocation, at least initially. Untold numbers of jobs would be lost and investments delayed or cancelled if the world no longer perceived Canada as a gateway to the vast U.S. market. Complex supply chains, particularly in the auto sector, would be disrupted.
But it wouldn't have to be an economic catastrophe. If Canada plays its cards right, the death of NAFTA could become a catalyst for making the Canadian economy stronger, more outward-looking and less tethered to an increasingly unreliable partner.
"If NAFTA were to cease, I don't think it would be a complete disaster. And in some respects, it actually has a silver lining," argues David Emerson, a former lumber executive and federal minister of both foreign affairs and trade.
The troubled NAFTA talks are a "wake-up call" for Canada, says Mr. Emerson, who insists he's speaking for himself and not the numerous corporate boards and advisory groups he sits on. Among other things, he says, Canada should use this time to forge closer ties with China, Japan and other Asian nations, ease the regulatory burden at home and invest heavily in the kind of infrastructure that will make trade easier – all to hedge against the risk of an increasingly protectionist and inward-looking U.S.
"If it isn't Trump, it will be somebody else," Mr. Emerson warns. "There is a strong protectionist, self-serving sentiment that runs deep through the American legislative and regulatory process. Ultimately, we're going to have to diversify our economic linkages in ways that ensure our whole economy is not dangerously vulnerable to those protectionist, Make America Great Again actions."