A Canada/US Reset: Biden and Trudeau in an Upbeat Start

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President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a virtual summit Feb. 21, 2021 (Screenshot, France24)

Walking across Parliament Hill in Ottawa some years back, a friend offered to give me a look at the object of a private joke about relations between Canada and its southern neighbor. He led me to a ceremonial tree planted by U.S. President Richard Nixon on a state visit to Canada’s capital.  The tree grew up crooked.

It was emblematic of twisted relations between Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  When his White House tapes came to light, Nixon was heard to call the elder Trudeau “an asshole,” to which Canada’s PM replied:  “I’ve been called worse things by better men.”

Relations between the two neighbors, who share a 4,000-mile border, are again under repair.  “It’s great to see America re-engage,” PM Justin Trudeau said recently, after a Zoom get together with President Joe Biden.  The two men talked a lot about climate change, a subject which had been excised from communiques after meetings between Trudeau and President Trump.

Justin Trudeau had tried flattery in dealing with Trump.  He delivered a practiced response to Trump’s forceful herky-jerky handshake, grasping Trump’s left shoulder and bringing the shake in close. It didn’t work.  Trump would call Trudeau “dishonest and weak” and “mild and meek.”  Trump was infuriated when an open microphone caught Trudeau, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, and Britain’s PM Boris Johnson apparently joking about Trump after a G-7 summit. “He was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference at the top,” Trudeau told his fellow leaders.

“Well, he’s two-faced (but) he’s a nice guy,” Trump said in response.

The Biden-Trudeau relationship is off to an upbeat start.  As Trudeau artfully put it on Meet the Press after talking to the new president, “I think certainly there were more challenges under the previous administration in terms of moving . . . in the right direction on the international stage.”  Trudeau appeared to accept Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline, designed to carry tar-sands oil from Alberta to America’s Gulf Coast. “I think it’s fairly clear the U.S. administration has made its decision on that and we’re much more interested in ensuring that we’re moving forward in ways that are productive for both of our countries.”

Trudeau and Biden agreed to expand cooperation on climate, in Trudeau’s words, to coordinate policies that take “into account the emissions profiles of industrial competitors around the world.” What does that mean?  Possibly penalizing trade partners who fail to cut emissions?  Some nations “are producing without having the same kinds of leadership on climate change that the U.S. is bringing into place and that we already have,” Trudeau told Bloomberg News.  “That level of transparency and accountability is something we are concretely looking at moving forward on.”

Canada’s Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry have also spoken, discussing climate tariffs. Wilkinson cited Australia, China, India, Japan, and Mexico as nations that ought to face pressure to make cuts in emissions. “After four year of moving in entirely different directions on this file with the United States, it is certainly great to be working together again,” said Wilkinson.

One energy question apparently did not come up in the two-hour virtual meeting between President and PM. Canada is pursuing another project to bring Alberta oil to tidewater.  The Canadian government is building a projected $7.4 billion (Canadian) expansion of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline, a 650-mile link from Edmonton to an oilport in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver. The project has drawn opposition from British Columbia Premier John Horgan, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and a host of environmental and Aboriginal First Nations group.  The oil would be bound for export, with 34 tankers a month traversing sensitive waters of Burrard Inlet, the Salish Sea, and Strait of Juan de Fuca. An oil spill would imperil marine life on both sides of the water boundary.

Being next door neighbor to the United States is not always easy.  Pierre Trudeau put it best, years ago, when he said: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant.  No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

The United States has assumed that Canada is not only by its side but on its side, and that America can give orders to its northern neighbor.  Lyndon Johnson flew into a fury when PM Lester Pearson criticized U.S. bombing of North Vietnam during a 1965 speech at Temple University.  Afterward, at the White House, LBJ grabbed Pearson by the lapels and shouted, “Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.” Pearson, a Nobel laureate, kept the Great White North at arm’s length from the war. Almost half-a-century later, Canada’s PM Paul Martin refused to join the U.S.-led “coalition” organized  by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.  An invite for Martin to visit W’s Texas ranch was revoked.  The 41st president instead put out the welcome mat to a more pliant Australian prime minister.

The tensions have been bipartisan.  In the early 1960s, Conservative PM John Diefenbaker refused to let the United States base long range surface-to-air, Boeing-built Bomarc missiles on Canadian soil.  President Kennedy and the PM had it out in an Ottawa meeting.  JFK scribbled a note to an aide, which was crumpled up but later retrieved by a Diefenbaker aide.  It reportedly called Diefenbaker “an S.O.B.”  Kennedy aides later insisted the reference was to “O.A.S.”, referring to the Organization of American States.

The high point of U.S.-Canada ties came in the early 1980s, under President Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a former president of the U.S.-owned Iron Ore Co. of Canada, and a believer in trade.  At a summit meeting in Quebec, Mulroney sang “Danny Boy” in a deep baritone, and joined Reagan in a rendition of “When Irish eyes are smiling.”  He also dismantled nationalist restraints and opened Canada’s doors wide to U.S. imports. Canada was given a choice spot on Pennsylvania Avenue to build its U.S. embassy, designed by famed Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson.

Biden and Justin Trudeau seem bent on a different sort of collaboration.  They are committed to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.  They have agreed on protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which divides its time between our Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and two national parks in the Yukon.  Biden has been far more aggressive than Trump in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, there are disagreements.  Washington’s congressional delegation wants Canada to reopen the border.  The Horgan government in British Columbia has adopted a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” policy, which for Americans and cruise ships translates to Stay Out.  Just as Canadians once fought the raising of Ross Dam – which would have flooded eight miles of river valley in B.C. – U.S. environmental groups worry about mining in the Skagit and Similkameen River headwaters north of the border.  Trans-Mountain is another sore point.

Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden are touting post-Trump cooperation on climate and protecting the Arctic.   Canada will always insist, however, on a bit of respect and recognition of separate interests. Our neighbor craves recognition. “For some reason, a glaze passes over peoples’ faces when you say Canada,” Sondra Gotlieb, wife of Canada’s then-Ambassador to the US, once joked in a column.  “Maybe we should invade South Dakota or something.”

Or as then-B.C. Premier Dave Barrett used to repeat, “This is a sovereign country.”  He took about five seconds to pronounce “sovereign,” syllable by syllable.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

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