Trudeau tracker: Has PM kept promise to renew Canada's relationship with the U.S.?

For both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, there is more to Thursday's state dinner at the White House than black ties and fancy gowns, Chris Hall writes. This meeting suits each leader's personal agenda.

There is more to this state dinner at the White House than black ties and fancy gowns

Trudeau Tracker | Canada-U.S. Relations

7 years ago
Duration 2:20
Justin Trudeau has vowed to strengthen relations between the U.S. and Canada. Has he kept that promise?

This is the fourth of a regular segment on The National tracking the Liberal government's performance on its campaign promises.

Justin Trudeau heads to Washington Thursday for a state dinner in his honour at the White House.

It's a rare event that's generating intense interest and a great deal of media coverage on both sides of the border before the prime minister even arrives in the American capital.

Most of the attention, mind you, has been focused on the invitation itself, not on what makes Trudeau so inviting, and so potentially important to the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

At one level, Barack Obama's invitation is confirmation that the U.S. president and Trudeau already enjoy a warmer relationship after just a few months than Obama had with former prime minister Stephen Harper over several years.

Harper and Obama clashed over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline -- an issue that came to define their relationship, and the conduct of Canada-U.S. affairs.

Obama even abandoned the usual platitudes a foreign leader uses in publicly congratulating Trudeau on his election win at their first sit-down meeting last November.

"I think we've seen the incredible excitement that Justin generated with his campaign in Canada," he told American and Canadian reporters.

"I'm confident that he's going to be able to provide a great boost of energy and reform to the Canadian political landscape. We're looking forward very much to working with him."

Shared interests

But it's more than just personal chemistry that led to Thursday's much anticipated evening of wining and dining, after all those years of whining and no dining.

Obama clearly regards Trudeau as an ally on key issues such as climate change, as well as on broader objectives such as resettling Syrian refugees and promoting gender equity in government.

How to follow Trudeau's Washington visit

CBCnews.ca and CBC News Network will have live coverage of the public events of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to Washington, starting with his arrival at 4:50 p.m. ET. You can also follow CBC's live blog.

The National with Peter Mansbridge (10 p.m. on CBC Television; 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network) and Power & Politics with Rosemary Barton (5 p.m to 7 p.m. ET on CBC News Network) are broadcasting live from Washington with news and feature interviews. And The House with Chris Hall wraps up the week in Washington Saturday at 9 a.m. on CBC Radio One.

For Trudeau, the tense Obama-Harper relationship became useful fodder in the 2015 election, and was highlighted by some of the strongest rhetoric in the Liberal platform.

"We will renew and repair our relationships with our North American partners," the platform read.

"For the past decade, Stephen Harper has led a government that is increasingly partisan, suspicious and hostile when dealing with our closest neighbours: the United States and Mexico. We will end this antagonism and work with our partners to advance our shared interests."

The platform also promised the Liberals would create a cabinet committee "to oversee and manage" Canada-U.S. relations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama seem to have a warm relationship. Canada-U.S. relations were not seen as being so cozy when prime minister Stephen Harper was in office. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That group, headed by Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, includes other ministers tasked with important bilateral files, too, such as: Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

And while Thursday's focus is on the social side of the dinner — with its expected A-list of American power brokers and celebrities, Canadian officials say the leaders' meeting Thursday morning will produce agreements in key areas, including border security and harmonized regulations over a wide range of business items from car seats to life-jackets and meat processing.

As well, there will be a renewed pledge to continue working together to reduce climate-affecting carbon pollution, which the two leaders made at the UN conference in Paris in December.

End of a regime

That last bit, especially, fits into Obama's legacy pursuit.

The president promised climate change would be a priority in his second term. And both countries have a special interest in mitigating the effects of climate change in the Arctic. 

Former PM on Canadian U.S. State visits and their meaning

7 years ago
Duration 8:39
Brian Mulroney: 'If the prime minister and the president are not in tune, very little of consequence is going to happen'

Canada is also heading into these meetings looking for Obama's commitment to head off another trade dispute over softwood lumber.

The original deal, which ended punishing U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber exports, has expired.

Heading into this week's visit, the two sides were discussing appointing special envoys — one from each country — to identify common ground and begin the work of resolving areas of dispute.

How much Obama can actually deliver is open to debate. The president has only 10 months left in his second term, the lame-duck period in the life cycle of the U.S. presidency, and there may not be as much common interest with any of his potential successors.

Like Obama, Hillary Clinton opposed Keystone XL, and she is also vowing to renegotiate the Trans-Pacific trade deal that Obama's team struck with Canada and other Pacific Rim countries.

Donald Trump hasn't said much of anything about Canada, except that he has no intention of building a wall on our shared border (unlike with Mexico) because it's too long and would be too expensive.

So there would appear to be an imperative for Trudeau to get whatever he can done before the change in the Oval Office next January.

A brief history of Canada/US state dinners

7 years ago
Duration 1:13
Rosemary Barton, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics takes us on a tour of Canada/US state dinners

Trudeau has told reporters he believes that's more than enough time to align his government's objectives with the president's legacy projects on climate change, for example.

But, just to be on the safe side, the prime minister's office says Trudeau will be heading to Capitol Hill to meet with key members of the Republican-controlled Congress.

It's certainly worth the effort.

Republicans favour Keystone XL. So does Trudeau. Republicans historically have been less protectionist than Democrats, who pushed through "Buy American" provisions as part of the 2009 stimulus spending, which strained trade relations between the two countries.

Trudeau has promised to renew and repair Canada's relationship with the Americans. What he accomplishes in Washington this week will be the first real measure of whether he's succeeding.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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