Trump and Trudeau change the channel from existential threats to women in the workplace: Neil Macdonald

Everybody won: Trudeau got to be the feminist again, and Trump, with the history of bullying and bad-mouthing female employees got to sit with a photogenic foreign leader and a bunch of women executives and look concerned.

Because women, you know, they're phenomenal. Big league

Everybody won: Trudeau got to be the feminist again, and Trump got to sit with a photogenic foreign leader and a bunch of women executives and look concerned. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

To be clear: Justin Trudeau, on his way to meet with a president who has hinted at deep, even existential damage to Canada's trading economy and perhaps even its sovereignty on security matters, decided he wanted a showy meeting about the role of women in the workplace.

No matter that even a few days ago, nobody on either side of the visit was saying anything in briefings about women in the workforce. There'd been too much negative coverage about free trade and immigration and border crossing problems. The subject needed changing, big league.

It was a bit rich, given the history of this president, but it was understandable, and it worked.

Women, in Trump's words, are "phenomenal." (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Everybody won: Trudeau got to be the feminist again, and Trump, the fellow with the grabby hands and the history of bullying and bad-mouthing female employees, got to sit with a photogenic foreign leader and a bunch of women executives and look concerned. Trump's daughter Ivanka, a private businesswoman who officially has no role at the White House, sat beside Trudeau, looking like she had a big official role in the White House.

At the table, Trump himself announced the creation of something called the "Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs," because women, in Trump's words, are "phenomenal," and "I know, Justin, in Canada, it's happening, big league, and it's very important."

Shared values

Publicly, the two men tried to ensure the topic superseded all other things, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has threatened to rip up, and NATO spending (Trump is demanding Canada double its contribution) and whatever it is Trump is instructing his customs and immigration agents to do this week, and the mortal security threat of Syrian refugees, whom Trump wants to ban from the United States altogether, and whom Canada is welcoming by the tens of thousands, sometimes personally, by a weeping prime minister.

At a news conference later, Trump went pretty quickly to the topic of women in the workforce, after reading out a short homily in which, rather curiously, he declared that Canada and the United States share the same values, as though he wasn't standing beside Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau-Trump meet media after talks

6 years ago
Duration 25:51
Canadian PM and U.S. president speak after meetings in the Oval Office

He also talked about how the two countries have shed blood together, and love freedom, and value growth and have special bonds, and even agree about the importance of "safe cross border travel….and migration," the last two words croaked out under what must have been extreme persuasion.

Then, turning to a beaming Trudeau, he declared: "We discussed how everything we know is that the full power of women can do better than anybody else. We know that."

Trudeau then replied that we have special bonds, and that we've suffered together, and celebrated together, and have a deep and abiding respect for each other, and fought wars together, etc., etc.

If the lily was gilded, laboriously and lengthily gilded, it was for good reason. 

The two men on stage don't really agree on much. Trudeau comes from a Canadian political class that holds Trump in utter contempt, just as most American liberals do, and Trump, unless he's a complete ninny, has to know that.

Trudeau, eventually, did get round to politely reeling off a series of statistics about how deeply integrated the two national economies are, on just about every level, and, by implication, how unravelling that would be lunacy. As the prime minister spoke, Trump wore the expression he always wears when someone else is talking, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, bored by detail, anxious to get back to making America great again.

Finally, came the questions. There were two softball lobs from American reporters selected by Trump, both of whom outraged the White House press corps by sticking to Canada-U.S. relations and ignoring the biggest political story in America right now: the possibly illegal assurances Trump's national security adviser gave Russian officials while Barack Obama was still in power about dropping Obama's sanctions. Trudeau couldn't have known it, but that little drama played out under his nose, with him as a prop.

Two Canadian reporters, though, did their jobs very well. One asked bluntly whether Trump is confident the border with Canada is secure, and the other asked bluntly whether Trump considers Canada a fair trader and whether he has any ruinous changes to NAFTA in mind.

Boom. The two big ones. 

No border issue

To the first, Trump said you can never be totally confident, but then started saying that he'd seen incredible, encouraging efforts, before hiving off on a tangent about how he's getting rid of "very, very hardened criminals," which is why he was elected with such a "very large electoral college vote," and why so many Americans are so "very, very, happy" with him.

So the Canadian border is not an issue, and won't be disastrously thickened. You could almost hear Trudeau's officials begin to exhale off camera.

On the second question, Trump said the words Trudeau's ministers and officials had been praying for all week: "I agree with [Trudeau] 100 per cent. We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada." 

He'll want tweaks to NAFTA where Canada is concerned, nothing more. Mexico, he added, is the real problem.

The big deliverable, delivered: Trump doesn't want to screw us.

Off camera, noises of Canadian officials and ministers hyperventilating in relief. In Canada, business leaders falling off chairs, fainting with delight.

The big deliverable, delivered: Trump doesn't want to screw us.

Oh, and the role of women in the workforce, of course. That's crucial. We can't forget about that. Because women, you know, they're phenomenal. Big league.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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