TORONTO, Canada – On the surface, they could not be any more different.
Justin Trudeau, 45, has spent his first year as Canada’s prime minister pledging to bring unity and change to Ottawa. His government promised to pursue a nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples, signed onto the Paris Agreement on climate change, set up a gender-equal cabinet, and welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been a divisive and incendiary figure in less than a month in the White House.
President Trump has promised to ban Muslims from entering the US – trying to pass a ban (currently blocked) on travel from seven, Muslim-majority countries within two weeks of taking office. He has also promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, for which he says Mexico will pay. Before his election, he was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. And he continues to use his private Twitter account to publicly lambast his opponents, both real or perceived.
But as the two leaders prepare for their first in-person meeting on Monday in Washington DC, analysts expect Trudeau to walk a fine line, to stay diplomatic, and to raise pressing trade and security issues with the US president.
“[Trudeau] has to figure out how best to advance [Canada’s] interests at a time of incredible divisiveness in the United States, incredible toxicity, and a leader who has gone out of his way to alienate not only his adversaries, but his allies,” said Donald Abelson, director of the Canada-US Institute at the University of Western Ontario.
Abelson said that Trudeau has been “walking a tightrope” in his early dealings with the Trump administration.
“Strong Canada-US ties help the middle class in both our countries. Monday, I'll meet @realDonaldTrump in DC to keep working for that goal,” Trudeau tweeted shortly after news of his visit to the White House broke last Thursday.
Throughout the US presidential campaign, Trudeau avoided criticising Trump and his rhetoric outright. And the prime minister has remained diplomatic in response to Trump’s election victory and his early policies.
“Canada has no closer friend, partner, and ally than the United States,” Trudeau said in a statement after Trump was elected, vowing to work with the Trump executive and the US Congress on trade, investment and international peace and security.
“The relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world,” he said.
The prime minister even remained quiet as rumours swirled last week that former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin would be pegged as the next US Ambassador to Canada. The possibility was met with disbelief by Canadians on social media, and slammed by the press.
If the Captain of Chaos wants to disrupt everything – including resetting relations with little ol’ Canada – Palin would be the one to break the china.
- Columnist Andrew Cohen wrote in the Ottawa Citizen
Trade will be on the top of the agenda on Monday, and discussions over the future of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will be Canada’s top priority, Abelson explained.
Trump has signalled that he may want to renegotiate the deal with Canada and Mexico, while “[Canada’s] preference would be to continue with the agreement, possibly to tweak it, but not to throw it out,” Abelson said.
“Trump might decide just to scrap the NAFTA and have a bilateral agreement with Canada, a bilateral agreement with Mexico. At this point, it’s up in the air,” he said.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International called on Trudeau to “ensure human rights protections and corporate accountability mechanisms are central to any discussions about the future of NAFTA” or any other bilateral trade agreements.
The group also urged the prime minister “to be clear and uncompromising about the essential value of upholding all human rights” in his meeting with Trump, including protecting the rights of refugees, women, and indigenous peoples, among others.
Renegotiating the US-Canada softwood lumber agreement will likely also be discussed, as will the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Canada signed onto but Trump has said the US will pull out of.
An area where the two leaders will likely see eye-to-eye is on the Keystone XL oil pipeline: both are in favour of resurrecting the pipeline project, which would pump Alberta tar sands oil to Nebraska. It was vetoed by former President Barack Obama in 2015.
Trudeau is expected to meet with Trump at 11 am local time at the White House, followed by a luncheon on ‘women in the workforce’ which will be attended by the president's daughter, Ivanka. Canada and the US are expected to launch a task force, the United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs, according to early media reports.
The two leaders will then hold a live press conference at 2 pm.
But in the lead-up to their much-anticipated first meeting, Canadians have been worried about what Trump’s promise to put “America first” will mean for them, and what impact a more protectionist US will have on the countries’ significant trade relationship.
“We’re just so dependent on our trade relationship with the US, which is why people are understandably panicking, because the rhetoric out of the White House is quite a change,” said Debora Van Nijnatten, associate professor of political science and chair of the North American studies program at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario.
“[Canada does] not operate for many intents and purposes on an East-West basis. We operate on a North-South basis,” Van Nijnatten said.
Indeed, Canada and the US are the world’s largest trading partners, with $700 billion worth of goods and services traded between the two countries in 2015.
That same year, Canada spent almost $338 billion on US goods and services, a total that widely exceeded its trade with all the European Union countries combined.
Conversely, Canada is the largest supplier of oil to the United States, and about nine million jobs in the US depend on Canadian trade and investment, according to the Canadian government. Canada was also the top export market for 32 US states in 2016.
But Van Nijnatten stressed that the Canada-US relationship is about more than just how well the president and prime minister get along. Canada works closely with US agencies and departments, state governors, and members of Congress on issues of national interest.
Last week, for example, Canada’s ministers of foreign affairs, finance, and defence – Chrystia Freeland, Bill Morneau and Harjit Sajjan, respectively – were in Washington to meet their counterparts and stress the importance of strong Canada-US ties.
“It’s a complex relationship that is broad, as well as deep,” Van Nijnatten said.
According to Veronica Kitchen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, security issues will also figure prominently during Trump and Trudeau’s meeting.
“Canada does a lot of information sharing with the United States, so all of these things leave Canada vulnerable to American policy,” Kitchen said.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
Already, Trump's executive order banning entry into the US for refugees and immigrants from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa – Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia – has raised concerns north of the border.
The Canadian government secured an exemption to reassure concerned Canadian dual nationals that they would not be affected by the ban.
A handful of Canadian citizens have reported, however, that they were denied entry into the US this week after being asked questioned about their religious beliefs and national origin at US-Canada border crossings.
“Obviously cooperation is easier to manage in Canada when American policy and Canadian policy are basically going in the same direction,” she said.
But Canada must also be careful about “holding too much moral high ground,” Kitchen added, and about how it criticises its largest trading partner. “You don’t want anything to damage that trade relationship because it’s so encompassing.”
Ultimately, Abelson said, Canada has no choice: it must get along with the US. But that doesn’t mean that Trudeau will be forced to give up what’s in Canada’s best interests.
“He’s going to have to be very strategic and very insightful and he’s going to have to placate Trump in ways that allow us to advance our interests,” Abelson said.
“I hate to say it, but he’s going to have to play him.”