Trudeau, Biden to meet before leaders' summit — where all eyes will be on Mexico

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of a North American Leaders' Summit to be held early next week in Mexico City. But Canada-U.S. relations aren't the big story at this summit. Mexico is.

PM also expected to meet one-on-one with Mexican president next week

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 18, 2021. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden are set to meet just before the start of a summit of North American leaders next week in Mexico City.

The one-on-one encounter is unfolding at a relatively tranquil moment in Canada-U.S. relations — unlike several other meetings in recent years dominated by conspicuous friction points.

This time, there's no urgent trade negotiation, electric vehicle irritant or blocked border bridge to worry about. The spat snarling a trusted-travel program may be easing and Line 5 remains open while a dispute over the oil pipeline unfolds, slowly, in the courts.

Trudeau and Biden will meet Tuesday morning before the three-leader summit begins.

When it comes to Canada, the United States' policy priority is increasingly to protect trade supply chains to lessen reliance on China.

It's why the U.S. military is considering funding mining projects in Canada. And it's why Canada and Mexico got a pass from Buy America-type policies on electric vehicles in a new U.S. law.

At a briefing Friday, White House officials cited supply chains as an agenda item in Mexico City and mentioned three specific products: semiconductors, critical minerals and electric vehicles.

Canada's ambassador to the U.S. told CBC News she expects Trudeau and Biden to go through a long list of bilateral issues, including supply chain concerns, as well as foreign policy issues like the war in Ukraine and Canada's just-released Indo-Pacific strategy.

Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, joins host Catherine Cullen to discuss the concerns a new Congress might raise for Canada, and what’s on deck for Canada-U.S. relations this year.

"The prime minister is very focused on our joint economy and strengthening supply chains," Kirsten Hillman said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House airing Saturday.

"We've had a record growth in intra-North American trade this past year, and so he's going to want to make sure that the discussion centres around how to not only recognize that but continue that trend."

Trudeau is also expected to meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador next Wednesday, during the leaders' summit.

The summit will be the three leaders' first in-person meeting since 2021 and will feature a mix of formal talks and more casual gatherings, according to the Mexican government.

Pre-summit briefings in Washington on Friday underscored the extent to which serious challenges involving Mexico are dominating attention in the U.S. in the summit buildup.

Canada was mentioned several times at Friday's White House pre-visit briefing. Mexico was mentioned dozens of times.

Three men wearing masks walk down a hallway together
Trudeau, Biden and Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador meet for the North American leaders' summit in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

It was the same later Friday at a related panel discussion at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington featuring U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols.

U.S. attention is seized with a migration surge from Mexico, violence and corruption linked to drug cartels (and a reported breakdown in U.S.-Mexico co-operation on the issue) and re-nationalization in the Mexican energy sector.

Trudeau said he plans to bring up the energy issue with López Obrador in an effort to resolve the dispute over Mexico's energy policies.

WATCH | Ambassador to U.S. talks upcoming summit, Canadian interests:

Trudeau to prioritize 'economic growth' and trade at upcoming summit

3 months ago
Duration 11:10
Canada's ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, spoke with Rosemary Barton Live about the upcoming North American Leaders' Summit. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's priority is to 'focus on economic growth and strengthening the Canada-U.S.-Mexico proposition,' as trade between the three countries hit record levels this past year.

The prime minister said he and Biden will be "fairly clear" with López Obrador that the issue "needs to be understood as a way to help Mexico develop, a way to continue to draw in investments from companies in Canada and the United States." 

Asked if he hoped to make progress at the summit in Mexico City, Trudeau said: "Absolutely."

Nichols was asked multiple questions about whether he fears democratic backsliding in Mexico, about the murders of journalists there and about whether Mexico's energy reforms could lead to a trade case.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a military parade introducing the new army commander in Mexico City, on Aug. 13, 2021.
López Obrador speaks during a military parade in Mexico City on Aug. 13, 2021. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press)

Biden himself will draw focus to America's southern border just before the trip.

Biden will make his first trip as president to the Mexican border on Sunday. In the face of domestic criticism, he just announced a series of new migration-control measures.

In response to questions about Mexico, Nichols was diplomatic.

He saluted the courage of Mexican authorities in arresting Ovidio Guzman, a 32-year-old leader in the Sinaloa Cartel and a son of jailed boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

The arrest triggered an eruption of violence.

A truck burns on a street in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico.
A truck burns on a street in Culiacan, Sinaloa, on Thursday, after the arrest of alleged drug trafficker Ovidio Guzmán set off gunfights and roadblocks across the western state’s capital. (Martin Urista/The Associated Press)

As for Mexico's controversial election reforms, Nichols sidestepped questions about whether he feared an erosion of democracy there.

In an exchange, he alluded to the U.S.'s own recent troubles. "What's today's date?" he asked rhetorically in the Friday event, held on the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"[It's] Jan. 6," Nichols said. "We discuss these issues from the point of view of humility … not as one country preaching to another country."

A woman border officer faces a woman passenger at an office in an airport.
A Canada Border Services Agency officer speaks with a traveller at the Nexus office at the airport in Ottawa on May 8, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

As for Canada, he was asked about an ongoing dispute involving the Nexus trusted-travel program. Processing of Nexus cards has been disrupted due to a dispute over whether U.S. employees should have diplomatic-style immunity while working at Nexus processing centres in Canada. 

The countries are working on a pilot program at the border to ease the backlog.

"We're making important progress," Nichols said. "I'm optimistic this can be resolved."

Meanwhile, Hillman pushed back Friday against suggestions that the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which includes major investments in green energy, could suck investment away from similar projects in Canada.

"I have heard that line of analysis as well and I don't agree. I think that investing in green technology development and green technology application in the United States or anywhere is important and it's essential," Hillman said, noting that some American funds are open to Canadian enterprises as well.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With files from Catherine Cullen, Emma Godmere and Reuters

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