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No surprises, a bit of tension: All’s OK

Joe Biden is rumoured to have made his pick for the next U.S. ambassador to Canada – David Cohen, a senior executive with the Comcast telecommunications firm and a big Pennsylvania-based fundraiser for the president.

Canada hasn’t been notified as of this week about the choice, either formally or informally, sources in Justin Trudeau’s government say.

But Cohen’s imminent posting to Canada was reported a couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post and has been circulating in other media reports ever since.

No one seems very surprised. One of Cohen’s associates told the Philadelphia Inquirer way back in December that his friend had his eye on a posting to a “country that is ‘central to U.S. policy,’ such as Canada or Germany.”

Biden wouldn’t be breaking any moulds with this choice either – there’s a long tradition, regardless of partisan stripe, of U.S. presidents sending serious, big-business fundraisers to live in Lornado, the gorgeous ambassador’s residence that sits perched over the Ottawa River. They’ve all been men, with

the exception of the most recent ambassador, Kelly Craft, a Donald Trump appointee.

No surprises, nothing radical or unexpected – that’s looking like the emerging theme in the new president’s relations with Canada and the Trudeau government.

This isn’t to say that everything is A-OK. Canada is very worried about how far Biden will go down the Buy America path and was watching closely on Tuesday when the president paid a call on Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has threatened to shut down the vital Line 5 gas and oil pipeline.

If that was on the agenda, though, Biden didn’t raise it in public. His press spokeswoman said last week that the administration wasn’t going to get itself embroiled in the Line 5 issue while it remained before the courts.

Flags were also raised early this week when Canada’s international trade minister, Mary Ng, sat down with her U.S. counterpart, Katherine Tai, and received a list of U.S. trade grievances with Canada: softwood lumber (a perennial favourite), dairy quotas and the new digital services tax in this country.

But even this list, while maybe a portent of tension to come, hasn’t rattled anyone inside Trudeau’s government. One source described it as “normal,” in the refreshing sense of the word, after four years of Trump.

No one in Canada is worrying about waking up to a tweet from Biden levying tariffs or making threats of some kind of whimsical trade retaliation. Trudeau’s government only had one year of experience with Barack Obama’s government, but relations these days, insiders say, are a reminder of those less tumultuous times.

Lines and doors have reportedly been opening to Canada at the Biden White House, particularly with Biden’s COVID-19 czar, Jeff Zients, and national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. The prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, is talking regularly to Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s deputy chief of staff. That

connection goes back to the days before the Liberals came to power, when O’Malley Dillon advised Team Trudeau on digital campaigning and even spoke at the Liberals’ 2014 convention in Montreal.

Trudeau was the first foreign leader to get a call from Biden after his victory was official, and the first as well when Biden took power. In an interview with me back in January, the prime minister talked about what a change it was to talk to a president who gets what he’s talking about.

“I don’t have to lay a lot of groundwork to explain why diversity and inclusion is a good thing and why fighting anti-Black racism is important and why real movement on climate change really matters,” Trudeau said.

The two have not yet had a face-to-face meeting, though. While plans aren’t totally set, it’s looking like that will probably happen next month at the G7 meeting in Cornwall, U.K. Biden has already said he is going, in person, in what will be the revival of international summit meetings.

It’s expected that Trudeau will go too, once logistics and safe travel have been worked out.

He said as much in the Commons a couple of weeks ago. The prime minister, once a big fan of foreign travel, has been grounded since the pandemic hit.

Only about 20 people are allowed to accompany each leader and the Canadian team – also not yet finalized – will be helping pull together an agenda for a private sit-down between Biden and Trudeau. By

then, the president may have announced his pick for the ambassador’s post to Canada, so that won’t be a surprise.

Surprises, though, have gone out of fashion in Canada-U.S. relations since Trump left, which appears to suit both countries.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.