Biden, Trudeau mount show of unity as allies paper over tensions
March 25, 2023 Updated Sat., March 25, 2023 at 6:35 p.m.
President Joe Biden, who longs for the appearance of political harmony, found it in Canada – where he was feted with displays of cross-border unity that glossed over lingering disputes.
Biden’s whirlwind trip to Ottawa, the first one-on-one visit by a U.S. president since 2009, was a show of solidarity. Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced deals to tighten border rules and for investments in semiconductor manufacturing.
“Americans and Canadians are two people, two countries, in my view, sharing one heart,” Biden said in an address to Parliament. “No two nations on Earth are bound by such close ties.”
Yet many tensions between the nations were downplayed or not discussed, including a sunset clause in a continental trade pact and Biden’s contentious Buy American policies.
The trip had been long sought. Canada was once a customary first stop for presidents, but Biden’s visit comes in his third year in office.
The White House opted for only an overnight trip to Ottawa. Officials cited time constraints to the Canadians as they declined options for other stops, like Quebec, where concerns over migrants would have made Biden a lightning rod.
Canada took pains to make the visit a success – even, temporarily moving a Nazi warplane from the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum’s collection to avoid any embarrassing photos from the gala dinner held there Friday.
American and Canadian flags lined the street in front of Biden’s hotel and Parliament.
The Bidens arrived Thursday night and were hosted by Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and their children. Biden gave Trudeau’s wife a hug and peck on the cheek, and Trudeau gave first lady Jill Biden a kiss on both cheeks. They shared “friend-chip” ice cream.
But at the same time, at a restaurant a block from Parliament, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a private dinner with Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and Foreign Minister Melanie Joly.
Their talks included an impasse over Haiti, where Canada has resisted U.S. pressure to lead an international mission to stabilize the beleaguered Caribbean nation. Biden’s visit included an announcement of Canadian funding but no mission, and both leaders indicated they were no longer discussing one.
On Friday, Biden met with Canadian lawmakers. Elizabeth May, a Green Party lawmaker, handed him chocolate made by a company founded by Syrian refugees.
Biden was plainly at ease on the trip – in offscript comments to Trudeau overheard by the press, he marveled at the long-running renovation of Canada’s Parliament buildings.
At Friday night’s dinner, of Alberta braised beef short rib and poached British Columbia Chinook salmon, Biden shared a toast from his grandfather. “May those who love us love us and those who don’t, make God turn their ankle, so we know they’re limping when they’re coming.”
In his speech, Trudeau heaped praise on Biden. “Mr. President, you are a true friend to Canada and that matters more than ever in this consequential moment,” he said.
The ties between their administrations run deep. Biden’s delegation included Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley-Dillon, who advised Trudeau’s Liberals during the 2015 election campaign.
Trudeau’s top rival also praised the president. Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre introduced himself by saying Canada’s system sees political opposition as an “act of loyalty.”
“We do too, unfortunately,” deadpanned Biden, who at home is clashing with House Republicans.
Biden later needled Poilievre’s party for being slow to applaud when he touted his and Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinets. “Even if you don’t agree, guys, I’d stand up,” he said.
Some irritants have already been resolved. For instance, Trudeau once explicitly campaigned on abandoning plans to buy F-35 warplanes, thumbing his nose at the U.S.-led effort, but has since ordered 88 of the Lockheed Martin Corp. aircraft.
And their announced deal on the border amounted to a trade: Biden threw Trudeau a bone by closing a loophole where migrants could walk into Canada, and Trudeau in turn agreed to take 15,000 migrants from elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. The accord is a win for Trudeau, who, like Biden, was facing demands to stem the flow of migrants crossing his southern border.
Other challenges remain. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act includes subsidies that threaten to bring major factories to the U.S. instead of Canada; Trudeau said his federal budget due next week would include incentives to keep pace.
Biden is also an avowed fan of Buy American provisions. Trudeau sidestepped the issue and declined to say whether he thought Canada would get an exemption.
A bigger trade risk looms: the renegotiated continental trade pact, USMCA, has a sunset clause in 2026. The pact wasn’t mentioned publicly, and it’s not clear whether the countries will agree to extend it or trigger a rolling series of reviews.
Poilievre also personally asked Biden to end a vaccine requirement on foreign travelers but sounded an upbeat note otherwise. “He’s a friendly, decent, good partner for Canada, and it was clear from our interaction that he wants the best for both countries,” he said.
Biden got a standing ovation when he entered Parliament, opening his speech with “Bonjour.”
“That’s as good as I can get right now,” he joked. And he indulged in a Canadian hobby: mocking the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It didn’t all go entirely to script. Biden at one point misspoke, praising “China” instead of Canada, drawing groans. He later flirted with trouble by repeating tropes that depict Canada as a country that sells itself short by exporting raw materials.
Still, Canadian officials were jubilant over the visit. And Biden himself downplayed any remaining disagreements.
“We have built a partnership that is an incredible advantage to both our nations,” he told Parliament. “When we disagree, we solve our differences in friendship and in good will.”
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