Election 2020 Politics

Biden-Trudeau meeting: Canadians glad to get beyond Trump, but new administration brings new friction

Canadian officials are optimistic that Biden will usher in a period of greater personal amity and cooperation. But they were dealt a reminder during Biden’s first month in office, when he canceled the Keystone XL pipeline project that Trump and Trudeau both favored, that cross-border friction won’t evaporate just because there’s a new tenant in the White House.

Why Canada is ready to turn the page on Trump

Trudeau’s first face-to-face meeting with Trump was a 2017 White House visit that sparked in-depth analysis in Canadian and international media of … their handshake. Trudeau, who cast himself as a liberal foil to Trump, was so concerned about the gesture that he reportedly practiced it on the plane.

It would be the least of his worries.

During bruising trade talks, Trump slapped tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, prompting Canadian retaliation. He stormed out of a Group of Seven meeting in Quebec, then fired off tweets disparaging Trudeau as “very dishonest” and “weak.”

The comments were “such an affront to Canadian contribution and Canadian loss,” a deputy defense minister wrote to Canada’s envoy to the United States in an email obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request.

The Trudeau-Biden relationship

Biden is now trying to make up. Even as the government equivalent of a Zoom meeting, Tuesday’s first one-on-one with a foreign leader is meant to demonstrate that the relationship is resetting to the pre-Trump status quo.

The White House arranged the day with as many bells and whistles as could be managed virtually.

Delegations from the State Department, Transportation Department and elsewhere will meet virtually alongside the two leaders, who will have an approximation of an Oval Office meeting before the cameras.

Trudeau’s team will seek to build on existing relationships with Biden administration officials who also worked in the Obama administration. They have other close ties: Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s deputy chief of staff, was a consultant on Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign.

At a 2016 state dinner in Ottawa in Biden’s honor, the then-vice president gave a toast in which he noted that his late first wife’s family was from Toronto, said his sons grew up wanting to be Mounties and recalled fond memories of attending the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Speaking a month after Trump’s election, Biden told Trudeau that the world would be looking to him for leadership amid “more and more challenges to the liberal international order.” He shared warm words about Trudeau’s late father, the former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who Biden said had reached out after the deaths of his first wife and daughter in a car crash.

Sources of friction

Canada’s relationship with the new administration got off to a bit of a bumpy start. On Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order revoking the permit for Calgary-based TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline expansion, which would carry Canadian crude oil from Alberta to Nebraska.

Biden indicated during his campaign that he would rescind the permit, but Canadian officials hoped to have a chance to make their case. Trudeau said he was “disappointed.” The next day, he said he would “acknowledge” Biden’s decision.

A senior U.S. official told reporters Monday that the United States considers the matter settled.

“The decision will not be reconsidered. It has already been made,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the meeting.

There are other potential sources of friction in the energy relationship. Michigan has ordered that Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline be shut down by May. The pipeline helps supply oil and natural gas to Ontario and Quebec. Michigan officials are concerned about the risk of a spill — and are ghosting Ontario Premier Doug Ford on the subject.

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, has said that some of Biden’s economic policies are “more protectionist” than Canada would like. These include his “Buy American” policies on procurement, an issue Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said last month would be “very, very high” on the bilateral agenda.

Ottawa has sought help from the United States in obtaining vaccines. Canada’s rollout has lagged compared with its peers, in part because it has limited domestic capacity to manufacture vaccines and has been sourcing its Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines from plants in Europe.

Expected deliveries of doses have faced delays, in part because of a Pfizer decision to retool its Belgium plant. The firm has a plant in Michigan, but it’s only manufacturing vaccines for domestic use. Canadian officials have asked their U.S. counterparts about potentially getting vaccines from U.S. plants; White House press secretary Jen Psaki has told reporters that Biden’s “first priority is ensuring vaccines are in the arms of Americans.”

Areas of cooperation

Trudeau has identified fighting climate change as an area of shared interest with the United States and spoke to secretary of state John F. Kerry, Biden’s envoy for climate, last month. They discussed zero-emissions vehicles and attaining net zero emissions, among other topics, according to a Canadian readout of the call.

The Canadian leader has indicated he hopes to work with Biden on fighting the coronavirus and on the post-pandemic economic recovery. Trudeau last week praised the president’s contributions to Covax, a multilateral effort to distribute vaccines around the world, which Trump rejected.

Trudeau will be looking for U.S. help securing the release of the two Canadians detained in China. Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor were arrested in December 2018 in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of U.S. officials seeking her extradition on fraud charges. Trudeau has raised their cases with Biden and Vice President Harris.

Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said relations between the Trudeau government and the Biden administration appear to be off to a good start. He noted phone calls between Trudeau and Biden and members of their teams.

“Until proven that we should be more pessimistic, a couple of things that we’ve seen from the Biden administration have been really encouraging from a Canada-U.S. relations point of view,” he said.

But he said Biden’s first moves in office also have signaled that domestic considerations could take primacy over those of international allies, given that he does not have a strong majority in Congress. That holds lessons for Canada.

“I don’t think it’s that he doesn’t want to help,” Sands said. “I think he’s in a situation where it’s hard for him to do everything that Canada wants and he’s under a lot of pressure, so I would say just keep finding traction where you can.”

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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