Trudeau finds his business voice on foreign trip that leaves opposition with little to criticize

The Official Opposition barely mentioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's foreign travel this week. Instead, Conservatives mostly used their question period time to rehash the PM's excursion to India two months ago, and the unforced errors that plagued it.

Heckled in Paris and sidelined on plastics in London, he still avoided a repeat of the India debacle

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II greets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a receiving line for the Queen's Dinner for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Buckingham Palace in London, Thursday, April 19, 2018. (Matt Dunham, Pool/The Associated Press)

The Official Opposition barely mentioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's foreign travel this week. Instead, Conservatives mostly used question period to rehash the PM's excursion to India two months ago, and the unforced errors that plagued it.

So the Trudeau government succeeded at least in not giving its enemies any fresh ammunition — which surely came as a relief to a PMO blindsided by the scandal over a convicted attempted murderer's invitation to an official event during the India visit.

Trudeau's three-stage itinerary — Peru, then Paris and on to London — was all business, all the time, conducted this time in sober suits instead of gold-threaded kurtas. He left his family at home and there were no cultural events of any kind.

Trudeau kept up a punishing schedule, made tighter by the last-minute decision to return from Lima, Peru on Sunday for a two-hour meeting with the premiers of B.C. and Alberta to discuss the Trans Mountain pipeline standoff.

Two consecutive nights were spent sleeping on the plane in order to fit it all in. Staffers slept in their seats or on the floor (the smart ones brought inflatable mats). Trudeau got a closet-sized room to himself.

The result was a gaffe-free trip, although Trudeau's fatigue was visible on his face by the end (and in his speech — a slip of the tongue about "one swell foop"). But the desire to avoid controversy led to one missed opportunity.

Duty calls

Two of three stops were duty calls it would have been hard to skip: the Summit of the Americas in Peru and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London.

Trudeau's government is actively pursuing three trade arrangements with countries that together represent more than 90 per cent of the population of the Americas: a free-trade deal with Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), associate status in the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile) and the renegotiation of NAFTA with the U.S. and Mexico.

Trudeau met on the sidelines at least once with the leaders of all those countries, except Uruguay and Paraguay, and received an encouraging message from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence that the U.S. side expects NAFTA talks to conclude within "several weeks."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they arrive for the group photo at Americas Summit in Lima, Peru, Saturday, April 14, 2018. (Martin Mejia/Associated Press)

In London, Trudeau met with several leaders, but the one he most wanted to see was British Prime Minister Theresa May. The need for new trade arrangements in the wake of Brexit was one motivating factor, although Trudeau is also seeking support for his Group of Seven agenda (Canada has the G7 presidency this year).

EU rules bar member states from negotiating their own trade deals leaving Britain's hands tied until March 2019. 

It's also inconvenient for Canada, which is eager to get started on a new accord with its largest European trading partner without upsetting the other 27 EU countries while ratification of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), is still pending.

Trudeau has said he wants a "seamless transition" to a new Canada-U.K. trading relationship and was able to secure a British commitment that CETA would apply between Britain and Canada the day after Brexit, with the deal being customized later on.

Previously, the U.K. had been unable to give that commitment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the French National Assembly in Paris, France, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

Clappers and hecklers

The trip to France, squeezed in between Lima and London, also had a heavy focus on trade. At the Bourbon Palace, where he became the first Canadian prime minister to address the National Assembly, Trudeau told deputies that France needs to ratify the free trade accord between Canada and the EU.

As right-wing populists like Marine Le Pen rolled their eyes and the anti-trade left wing party France Insoumise (France Unbowed) groaned and mumbled, Trudeau pressed ahead with his free trade message.

"Let's ask ourselves the question," he said, after citing the historic and cultural links between the two countries. "If France can't manage to ratify a free trade deal with Canada, which country do you imagine you could do it with?"

Daniele Obono, national spokeswoman for France Insoumise and one of the deputies who heckled, criticized Trudeau for pushing trade so forcefully.

"I wouldn't tell Mr Trudeau what he should say or not. What I can say is how I felt about him insisting, and he actually ended his speech with that, which was quite unbecoming. It was a disappointment because he actually said quite powerful, intelligent and nice words and ending on that note is contradictory."

But those same remarks brought fervent applause from the majority benches of Macron's Republique en Marche. And even Obono stood and applauded for Trudeau at the end, as did Le Pen.

It was a bold moment in a mostly cautious trip.

Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, chats with Cuba's Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel during the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, on July 8, 2016. Diaz-Canel has succeeded Castro in the presidency. (Ismael Francisco/Courtesy of Cubadebate via Reuters)

Double standards on dictators

On Trudeau's last full day in London, Raul Castro stepped aside from the Cuban presidency in favour of his vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel, who promptly announced that there is "no place for capitalism" in Cuba.

Not a peep from Canada — not even a mild statement — marked that undemocratic transfer of power from a family close to the Trudeaus to its hand-picked successor.

It was a departure from Trudeau's thundering rhetoric against Cuba's sister dictatorship in Venezuela, which he denounced in Lima as a "murderous, authoritarian regime."

Prime minister is asked why Canada has condemned Venezuela while supporting Cuba. 1:28

Asked to explain his contrasting approaches to two regimes that work together so closely, Trudeau said Venezuela is suffering a humanitarian crisis marked by serious human rights abuses.

But both countries abuse human rights — starting with the right to vote in free elections. Both have impoverished their people — with majorities now surviving on government handouts.Trudeau's defence — that Canada has had a long relationship with Cuba — seemed to suggest dictatorships become more acceptable the longer they survive.

An observer trying to reconcile the two positions might wonder: If the Chavez or Maduro families had been friends of the Trudeau family, as the Castros have been, would Canada push so hard for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy?

Marine debris and plastic pollution are shown along the coastline of Haiti in a handout photo. A new study says millions of tons of plastic garbage are flowing into the world's oceans, with much of it coming from mismanaged landfills and litter. (Timothy Townsend/The Canadian Press)

Leading from the rear on plastics

The missed opportunity on this trip came in London, when May outshone Trudeau on the environment.

Canada said it wants to be a leader on that issue during its G7 presidency. Yet Trudeau watched passively as May announced her country would ban single-use disposables like straws and cotton swabs by year's end. (The British alone throw away 42 billion plastic straws a year.)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is not ready to join Britain's ban on single-use plastics but says he will champion the issue during his G7 presidency. 0:34

Trudeau was asked three times if he would do the same, but gave vague answers. It all left the impression he was reluctant to reach for the lowest-hanging fruit on the plastics tree, preferring instead to either lecture other countries — or wait for the G7 to make his own announcement.

It also seemed timid when Canadian municipalities and businesses are moving to eliminate single-use plastics without help from Ottawa. Waiting until the G7 in August means letting more than half of Canada's G7 presidency pass without taking any actions on plastics — making it hard for Canada to claim the mantle of leadership.

No headlines for you

Asked whether this trip would undo the political damage done in India, Trudeau suggested the test shouldn't be a PM's ability to pull a rabbit out of his hat at every stop.

"I think that people understand the government isn't an action on a single given day," he said at his closing news conference.

"It's the result of days and weeks and months of hard work and in the service of Canadians and advancing their interests and moving forward in ways that are sometimes incremental, sometimes significant and concrete in one fell swoop ... whether there's a headline in it for you guys or not."

And with that, Trudeau left the sweltering British capital for cold, rainy Halifax and the Liberal Party policy convention.

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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