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Better late than never: Trudeau finally gets a home-turf visit from U.S. president

Last Updated Mar 19, 2023 at 4:14 am MST

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. vice-president Joe Biden walk down the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. Biden will once again sit down with Trudeau in Ottawa beginning Thursday, his first official visit to Canada as U.S. president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden’s last official visit to Canada came with a palpable sense of foreboding. 

Change was in the air. Authoritarian leaders in Syria and Turkey were consolidating power. Britain had voted to leave the European Union. And Donald Trump was waiting in the wings to take over the White House. 

“Genuine leaders” were in short supply, and Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be called upon to step up, said the U.S. vice-president, who was on a farewell tour of sorts in the waning days of the Obama administration.

Six years later, Biden is coming back — this time as president — and the world is very different. His message likely won’t be. 

“There’s a seriousness to this moment in America,” said Goldy Hyder, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, who spent much of last week meeting with U.S. officials in D.C. 

Chinese spy balloons are drifting through North American airspace. Russian MiG fighter jets are downing U.S. drones as the bloody war in Ukraine grinds on. North Korea is testing long-range ballistic missiles. 

And Xi Jinping is sitting down Monday with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a meeting that will underscore the geopolitical context in which the U.S. sees the world — and amp up the pressure on Canada to remain a willing and reliable partner, not only in Ukraine but elsewhere as well. 

“It shines a much brighter light on security in all its forms: national security, economic security, energy security, cybersecurity — all of these things come home to roost,” Hyder said of that meeting.

“For America, there’s nothing more important, and there should nothing more important for us, quite frankly.”

Enter critical minerals, the vital components of electric-vehicle batteries, semiconductors, wind turbines and military equipment that both Biden and Trudeau consider pivotal to the growth of the green economy. 

Ending Chinese dominance in that space is Job 1 for the Biden administration, and Canada has critical minerals in abundance. But it takes time to build an extractive industry virtually from scratch, especially in this day and age — and experts say the U.S. is growing impatient. 

“The reality is, nobody’s moving fast enough, relative to escalating demand,” said Eric Miller, president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, which specializes in Canada-U.S. issues.

More and more jurisdictions, including the European Union and U.S. states like California and Maryland, are drawing up ambitious plans to end the manufacture of internal-combustion vehicles by 2035, Miller noted. 

That’s just 12 years away, while it can take upwards of a decade to get approval for a mine, let alone raise the money, build it and put it into production, he added. 

“The challenge you have in a democracy is that processes are slow, and are in reality too slow relative to the needs of making the green transition,” Miller said. 

“So when you when you look across the landscape, of course, you think that other people’s systems are inherently easier than your own.”

National security, too, has been top of mind ever since last month’s flurry of floating objects exposed what Norad commander Gen. Glen VanHerck called a “domain awareness gap” in North America’s aging binational defence system. 

Updating Norad has long been an ongoing priority for both countries, but rarely one that either side talked about much in public, said Andrea Charron, a professor of international relations at the University of Manitoba. 

“The problem for Norad is it’s literally under the political radar — it’s difficult to get politicians to commit funds and recognize that it’s been the first line of defence for North America for 65 years,” Charron said. 

“Russian aggression and these Chinese balloons now make it politically salient to try and speed things up and make those commitments.” 

Hyder said he expects the U.S. to continue to press Canada on meeting its NATO spending commitments, and reiterate hopes it will eventually agree to take on a leading role in restoring some order in lawless, gang-ravaged Haiti. 

So far, international efforts to provide training and resources to the country’s national police force aren’t getting the job done, the UN’s special envoy to Haiti warned in D.C. as she called for countries to put boots on the ground. 

“We’re not getting the job done,” Helen La Lime told a meeting of the Organization of American States last week. “We need to get down to the business of building this country back.”

Roving criminal gangs have been steadily rising in power following the 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moïse, and are now said to control more than half of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. 

Even in the face of public — if diplomatic — pressure from U.S. officials, Trudeau would rather help from a distance, investing in security forces and using sanctions to target the powerful Haitian elites fostering the unrest. 

Haiti is a “complete and total mess” that can’t simply be fixed with military intervention, no matter the size of the force, Charron warned. The Canadian Armed Forces are already overstretched, facing ongoing long-term commitments to Ukraine and a chronic shortage of personnel, she added. 

“Haiti is a quagmire, and nobody’s particularly keen to get in there — especially if the U.S. isn’t there to be the exit strategy.”

The question of irregular migration in both directions across the Canada-U.S. border is also likely to come up during the two-day visit, although the Biden administration is not keen to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement, which critics say encourages migrants to sneak into Canada in order to claim asylum. 

As well, look for plenty of mentions of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the NAFTA successor known in Canada as CUSMA that now provides the framework for much of the economic relationship between the two countries. 

No one is keen to renegotiate that deal right now either, but they need to think about it nonetheless, Hyder said: a six-year review clause means it could be reopened by 2026. 

“We all had a near-death experience a few years ago; it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago,” he said. 

“And yet here we are. In a matter of a few years, we’ll be back at it again.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press