WASHINGTON — A warm moment in Canada-U.S. relations unfolded on the White House lawn Thursday, one marked by small talk, big fanfare and a plan to see President Barack Obama address Canada’s Parliament before he leaves office.
The day began with a elaborate bit of bilateral cinematography: a military brass band, a cannon salute and hundreds of flag-waving onlookers greeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in town for the first state dinner involving a Canadian in 19 years.
The leaders greeted the crowd along the rope line while their wives chatted nearby. A relaxed, wisecracking Obama make some jokes about American hockey dominance while noting how long it had been since a similar Canada-U.S. event.
“We are very proud to welcome the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister in nearly 20 years. About time, eh?” Obama said.
“We have a common outlook on the world, and I have to say I have never seen so many Americans excited about the visit of a Canadian prime minister.”
Indeed, the two leaders went out of their way to project amity: Trudeau described the president as “My friend” and “Barack.” Obama said people were inspired by his message of hope and change.
The substance of the visit contained no major surprises.
The leaders agreed to move forward with a customs pre-clearance experiment that could revolutionize the Canadian border. They agreed to curb methane emissions as part of a wide-ranging plan on climate change and Arctic protection. And they expressed optimism that a compromise could soon stave off a new round in the ongoing softwood lumber war.
The biggest news out of the event that American media will certainly seize on was the president’s extended riff on the rise of Donald Trump.
American reporters had been trying to draw Trudeau into commenting on the U.S. election and he avoided getting involved.
Obama showed no such compunction, ridiculing Republicans while also echoing Trudeau’s message from the night before: that the solution to the challenges of globalization is openness, not isolation — a jab at the election talk of expelling Mexican migrants, banning Muslim travel and ripping up trade deals.
Trudeau later received extended applause by a crowd at the State Department, where before lunch Secretary of State John Kerry saluted him for bringing in 25,000 refugees and leading the charge on climate change.
Some U.S. media have dubbed Trudeau the “anti-Trump,” but he chose not to wade into the messy primary race.
He did announce that Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto had agreed to come for a North American summit cancelled last year by Stephen Harper, amid frustration over the stalled Keystone XL pipeline.
Obama said he would to speak to Parliament in June, the first such event featuring a president since the 1990s and ensuring the president will visit the same building where he began his first foreign trip in February 2009.
Obama joked that while he was greeted with snow on his first trip, Trudeau got 27 C weather and a sunny day. The U.S. capital’s famous cherry blossoms had even started popping out on the White House lawn, amid the unseasonably warm weather.
People — many of them with a personal connection to Canada — were invited by the White House to watch the morning’s ceremony, and they acknowledged an unusual level of interest in Trudeau.
Liz Siddle, an expat who’s lived in Washington for years, said the new Canadian leader is a frequent topic of conversation among her U.S. colleagues.
“He comes up all the time,” said Siddle, showing her colours with a red Canadian scarf. “As soon as he was elected, Americans were saying, ‘Oh, your new PM’ — I don’t think they knew who the old PM was.”
Brian Tham, another Canadian expat, was wearing a Team Canada hockey jersey.
“It comes up in a way that it never did under the Harper government,” Tham said.
“Nobody talked about Stephen Harper in D.C., in his 10 years. As soon as (Trudeau) was elected, he was part of the conversation. People talk, ‘Hey, what do you think of the new (PM)?’ Obviously he’s very good-looking, he’s very exciting, he’s very progressive. And that plays really well in D.C.”
Canada and the United States are blessed to be neighbours, allies and the closest of friends, Obama said — even if they may disagree from time to time about things like decent beer and hockey dominance.
“It’s long been said that you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your neighbours,” he said.
“Well, by virtue of geography, the United States and Canada are blessed to be neighbours and by choice we are steadfast allies and the closest of friends.”
Obama referenced an official visit by Trudeau’s prime-minister father Pierre a generation ago, and said Americans don’t always express their appreciation for their Canadian allies.
“Our Canadian friends can be more reserved, more easy-going. We Americans can be a little louder, more boisterous and, as a result, we haven’t always conveyed how much we treasure our alliance and our ties with our Canadian friends.”
The leaders agreed to new steps to curb methane gas emissions co-ordinate with aboriginal peoples in Arctic development and support cleaner energy.
“To set us on an ambitious and achievable path, the leaders commit to reduce methane emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector, and explore new opportunities for additional methane reductions,” a statement said.
On Thursday night, the Trudeaus will attend a state dinner in the White House’s East Room, where Pierre Trudeau was serenaded by Robert Goulet at an after-party for his own first state dinner here in 1969.
The three-day trip ends Friday with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a speech, and a town hall-type forum with university students.