After a sunny Summit of the Americas, Trudeau arrives home to face warring premiers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first foreign trip since his gaffe-plagued visit to India proved to be free of incident as he met with regional leaders, was lauded by the U.S. for Canada's support of the airstrikes on Syria and received hints a NAFTA deal may come sooner rather than later.

With U.S.-led action in Syria grabbing attention, Trudeau keeps focus on trade during 1st leg of foreign trip

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from reporters at his closing news conference at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, Saturday. Having managed a gaffe-free trip, he now returns to Ottawa where he must find a compromise that will see Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline built. (Juan Pablo Azabache/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first overseas excursion since his ill-starred visit to India seemed, at first, to be starting the same way the last one ended: under a cloud of criticism.

Columnists and politicians alike were castigating Trudeau for leaving during what Alberta premier Rachel Notley had declared was a "constitutional crisis."

So the relief of his staffers was palpable when the Prime Minister's Office was finally able to arrange a Sunday meeting in Ottawa between the two warring New Democratic premiers from the West.

As staffers rushed to tell correspondents on the plane the PM would return to Ottawa for the Sunday meeting, one lesson of the India trip seemed to have been taken on board — don't let a bad narrative gain enough momentum to become unstoppable.

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline was not the only thundercloud hanging over the PM's aging aircraft on Thursday as it made its way south.

There was also the likelihood that hostilities would break out between the U.S. and Syria over President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons to attack civilians in the town of Douma, east of Damascus.

Donald Trump stays home

President Donald Trump, who cancelled his own trip to the Summit of the Americas over the crisis in Syria, had on Wednesday announced to the world via Twitter that he intended to launch missiles at Syria.

Halfway through the two-day summit, Trump did just that, launching about 100 cruise missiles at targets in Syria — accompanied by some French and British airstrikes.

The episode had the potential to derail the summit, not to mention lead to a perilous escalation with nuclear-armed Russia. But by morning it seemed clear that the Kremlin had chosen not to retaliate, at least not openly and not yet.

About two hours after the Tomahawk missiles began to hit Syrian soil, Trudeau found himself sitting next to U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence at the leaders' dinner.

Statement of support

Pence arrived at the summit in place of Donald Trump earlier that day, in a small fleet of black SUVs and limos with Maryland plates. But as opening ceremonies got underway, Pence mysteriously disappeared. It later emerged he was back at his hotel, making heads-up calls about the impending strikes to U.S. congressional leaders.

As Trump went on television to address the nation, Trudeau was receiving a briefing at least part of which was over the telephone from Ottawa.

That afternoon, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters outside the Lima Hilton that she accepted the conclusion of Canada's allies that Assad was the guilty party in the chemical attack.

The PMO sent out a written statement about 90 minutes after the strikes were announced making it possible for Trudeau to tell Pence at dinner that Canada had already come out in support of the attack.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, left, talks with Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau at the Americas Summit in Lima, Peru, Saturday. Pence warmly thanked Trudeau for his support for the airstrikes in Syria and expressed his condolences for the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash. (Martin Mejia/Associated Press)

The next morning, the two reunited for a bilateral meeting on the Summit's sidelines, and Pence was positively gushing with gratitude.

"Your statement last night in support of U.S. and allied action against chemical weapons facilities in Syria is much appreciated and welcome," Pence told Trudeau as they met in at the convention centre, each accompanied by half a dozen aides including Freeland and Trudeau's Chief of Staff Katie Telford for the Canadian side, and Jared Kushner for the U.S.

Pence said he had spoken earlier that morning by phone with Trump who had asked him to thank Trudeau "for the strong relationship you've forged with President Trump, and for the way the strong bond between the people of the United States and Canada is reflected."

The Canadian side would also have drawn some satisfaction from Pence's comments a hour later about NAFTA.

"We think we're close" to an agreement, he said, adding it was possible to clinch a deal within the "next several weeks."

U.S. Vice-President Pence, right, speaks during a bilateral meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto at the Americas Summit. (Karel Navarro/Associated Press)

As the Canadians trooped out, the Mexicans trooped in. But the tone was markedly less friendly. President Enrique Pena Nieto's chosen successor is locked in a bruising, and losing, contest to win the presidential elections in July.

Pena Nieto's seen only positive reactions from the electorate when he pushes back against Trump's rude and denigrating comments about Mexico, while trying to avoid conflict has been perceived by Mexican voters as deference to Trump.

Pena Nieto kicked off his 20-minute session with Pence by telling him — in front of Mexican and U.S. media — that "the purpose of this meeting is not only to discuss NAFTA, but also to talk about the whole bilateral relation, the relationship that we want to have of cooperation and mutual respect."

A bolder Pena Nieto appears to be emerging since he recorded an indignant video two weeks ago in which he also demanded more respect for Mexico. It seems likely he will only push back harder as the country's election approaches.

New friends outside NAFTA

One of the main things Trudeau wanted to talk about in Peru is trade.

Fortunately for Trudeau, South America is a long way from Syria, although many of his Latin counterparts had opinions on the wisdom of the strike (the two biggest, Brazil and Mexico, voiced mild disapproval).

That allowed Trudeau to keep the focus on free trade in a series of meetings with Pena Nieto and South American leaders including the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile (twice), Colombia, Mexico (twice) and Peru (twice).

Canada already has successful free trade agreements with the major American countries that have Pacific coastlines, from Washington state to Tierra del Fuego, but it wants to upgrade and modernize those arrangements by becoming an associate member of the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American trading bloc made up of four countries: Chile, Peru, Mexico and Colombia.

Prime Minister Trudeau poses for a photo with, from right, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, President of Chile Sebastian Pinera, President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos and President of Peru Martin Vizcarra, the leaders of the Pacific Alliance at the Summit of the Americas. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

On the easterly side of South America there are no trade deals to speak of. Canada wants free trade with Mercosur, the trade bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay (Venezuela is a member but is suspended for undemocratic behaviour).

Argentina's President Mauricio Macri has become an ally. In 2016, Trudeau travelled to Buenos Aires to confer with Macri, a centrist, a free trader, and one of the few Latin leaders who echoed Trudeau's own response to the Syrian strikes.

This year, as Canada holds the presidency of the G7 and plans the summit at Charlevoix, Que., Macri's Argentina has taken the helm of the G20 and the two pledged to cooperate to move common goals ahead.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a family photo at the Summit of the Americas. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In Lima, Trudeau maintained a schedule that seemed designed to disarm the criticisms of the India trip that not a lot of real business was getting done. That pace continues Monday in France, with no fewer than 16 events and meetings.

Trudeau's handlers can be relieved that the first leg of his trip was gaffe-free, snub-free and also costume-free.

On Sunday Trudeau arrives in Ottawa to try to reconcile two cantankerous premiers, and then get back to his plane and take off once again before an April snowstorm blows into the nation's capital. 


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