WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cheered Joe Biden’s climate change plan with equal measures of enthusiasm and relief Tuesday as the pair met, albeit virtually, for the first time since the presidential election.
It was the U.S. president’s first bilateral meeting with a foreign leader since last month’s inauguration — further 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 in the White House, where he was flanked by Vice-President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
“The sooner we get this pandemic under control, the better, and I look forward to seeing you in person in the future.”
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.
“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,” Trudeau said to Biden.
Donald Trump was famously unswayed by calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions, including from Canada. Trudeau assiduously avoided mentioning the former president by name.
“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.
The substantive part of the meeting was not expected to be quite as cordial.
A White House “road map” for the bilateral partnership issued earlier Tuesday largely steered clear of potential Canadian potholes, focusing instead on areas of “shared vision” and “mutual concern.”
The six priority areas included 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, and restoring a collective commitment to global institutions like NATO and the World Trade Organization.
A number of Canada’s explicit priorities, however — including access to COVID-19 vaccines, freeing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from China or securing an exemption to Buy American — were conspicuously absent.
So too was any mention of Keystone XL, the on-again, off-again cross-border 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 had promised during the election campaign to cancel it, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
“We want to try to address our climate crisis while also creating good-paying union jobs,” Psaki said. “He believes you can do both.”
Experts hoped Ottawa would push the U.S. hard to exempt Canada from Buy American, Biden’s suite of protectionist measures to ensure infrastructure spending prioritizes American businesses.
“I don’t expect him to make any commitments,” Psaki warned.
Trudeau is also likely to seek Biden’s help with vaccines, since Canada has been squeezed by production problems in Europe — and is only a two-hour drive away from a prominent Pfizer manufacturing facility in Michigan.
Again, no promises, said Psaki, noting that Job 1 for the president is making sure every American gets vaccinated as soon as possible.
“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.”
Trudeau was also expected to ask for help with Spavor and Kovrig, who were detained 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.
The White House said the two leaders also plan 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.
Eric Miller, a Canada-U.S. expert and president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said the synchronicity between the two leaders is why Trudeau needs to seize the moment.
The two governments have aligned interests on climate change, a multilateral foreign policy and on finding a new approach to China. Biden, an outspoken champion of unions, needs to be careful not to run afoul of organized labour groups with large memberships on opposite sides of the border.
“If I were Canada, I’d be pitching very strongly for a Buy American agreement — I mean, the worst they can say is no,” Miller said.
Blue-collar workers in Canada “are pretty much exactly the same as their U.S. counterparts. Why are you going to hit them with restrictions when it’s like hitting your cousin?”
Ken Neumann, national director of the United Steelworkers union, echoed that sentiment.
“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.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2021.
— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa
James McCarten, The Canadian Press