Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau as they meet virtually with United States President Joe Biden from his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau as they meet virtually with United States President Joe Biden from his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Biden on China’s detention of two Michaels: ‘Human beings are not bartering chips’

But the White House offered no hints about how it might help secure their release

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden granted Justin Trudeau at least one of the items atop his wish list Tuesday as they met for the first time as president and prime minister: a pledge to help get two Canadians out of a Chinese prison.

Strenuous expressions of presidential dismay were nowhere to be seen during the final two years of Donald Trump’s tenure as Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor languished behind bars.

That all changed Tuesday as Biden and Trudeau — one in D.C., the other in Ottawa — wrapped up a warm and comprehensive, if virtual, summit meeting, Biden’s first since taking office.

“Human beings are not bartering chips,” the president said of Kovrig and Spavor during closing remarks from the East Room of the White House.

“You know we’re going to work together until we get their safe return.”

The two were detained in China in an apparent act of retaliation after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 on U.S. charges of violating sanctions on Iran.

They have remained in custody ever since, held on what the federal government and international observers alike have described as bogus charges aimed at putting relentless pressure on Canada.

Biden, however, offered no hints about how the White House might help secure their release, such as by abandoning Justice Department efforts to extradite her to stand trial on U.S. soil.

The public portions of Tuesday’s meeting were cordial from the start.

Biden made much of the fact that both his first phone call and his first foreign meeting were with Trudeau — evidence, he said, of the deep friendship and lasting ties between the two countries.

“The United States has no closer friend than Canada,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room, where he was flanked by cabinet members including Vice-President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In Ottawa, Trudeau was joined by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, with Biden, Harris and members of his cabinet projected on a big-screen TV.

After four years of dealing with Trump, who famously ignored calls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trudeau’s enthusiasm for Biden’s aggressive climate-change strategy was hard to miss.

“Thank you again for stepping up in such a big way on tackling climate change — U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” he said.

“As we are preparing the joint rollout and communique from this (summit), it’s nice when the Americans are not pulling out all references to climate change and instead adding them in.”

Freeland, who addressed Harris directly, was no less effusive in her praise for the first woman and person of colour to be elected U.S. vice-president.

“Your election has been such an inspiration for women and girls across Canada, especially for black women and girls, and for South Asian women and girls,” Freeland said.

“I couldn’t agree more with what the president said, that we have a real responsibility now, all of us, to show that democracy can deliver for people — for Canadians, for Americans and for the whole world.”

After the obligatory jokes about the challenges of learning French — “Every time I tried to speak it, I made such a fool out of myself,” Biden was heard to say — the group got down to business.

A White House “road map’” for the bilateral partnership issued earlier Tuesday highlighted six priority areas for the meeting, including battling the pandemic, rebuilding the economy “on both sides of the border,” and a “high-level climate ministerial” meeting to align efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

It also mentioned social diversity and inclusion, expanded co-operation on continental defence and a modernized Norad, plans for a cross-border dialogue on the Arctic and restoring a collective commitment to global institutions like NATO and the World Trade Organization.

There was no direct mention of Canada’s hope for an exemption to Buy American, Biden’s protectionist guardrails for infrastructure and procurement projects, nor of COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Canada has been squeezed by vaccine production problems in Europe, prompting calls for U.S. help — especially since a key Pfizer manufacturing facility in Michigan is just two hours from the border.

Only a diplomatically crafted readout from the Prime Minister’s Office offered clues to how those discussions went.

Biden and Trudeau “agreed that the pandemic will not end until everyone, everywhere has access to a vaccine,” it said.

They also discussed “the importance of avoiding measures that may constrain the critical trade and supply-chain security between our countries.”

Job 1 for the president is getting the vaccine to every American who wants it as soon as possible, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Tuesday.

“Our focus right now is getting shots in arms at home,” she said. “All options are on the table down the road, but … we remain committed to getting Americans vaccinated.”

Nor did either leader mention Keystone XL, the on-again, off-again cross-border oil pipeline expansion Biden cancelled with the stroke of his presidential pen on his first day in office.

The president has long believed the project was not in the best interests of the U.S. and was simply making good on his promise during the election campaign to cancel it, Psaki said.

“We want to try to address our climate crisis while also creating good-paying union jobs. He believes you can do both.”

That approach is precisely why Ken Neumann, national director of the United Steelworkers union, had hoped Trudeau would be able to secure an agreement to allow Canadians to bid on U.S. contracts.

“If the president can be convinced to include Canada as a partner in his plans on these priorities, it would mean more jobs and opportunity in both countries,” Neumann said in a statement.

“If the prime minister lets Canada get left out of the new president’s plans to grow the American economy, Canadian workers will be left on the outside looking in.”

Mark Agnew, vice-president, policy and international with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, urged Canada to keep up the effort to secure a “carve-out” on Buy American.

“Strengthening the relationship is important for Canada at the best of times, but even more critical now as a means to support a business-led recovery on both sides of the border,” Agnew said.

The two leaders intend to resurrect the North American Leaders’ Summit — a trilateral meeting of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, more commonly known as the “Three Amigos” summit, which hasn’t been convened since 2016.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2021.

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