Biden Goes to Canada: Close Allies with a History of Irritation


The United States and Canada share the world’s longest peaceful border, but often have witnessed the most acrimonious of personal relations between leaders of two erstwhile allies.  President Biden is making an overnight trip to Ottawa this week, on a mission of harmony after insults heaped on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by ex-President Donald Trump.

A newly elected U.S. president, by tradition, makes his first foreign call in Canada.  The COVID-19 pandemic kept that from happening in 2021, and Biden has already touched down in 20 countries.  The initial contact with Trudeau had to be a video call. Still, Biden showed the kind of domineering attitude that raises ire in the Great White North.  “Canada and the United States are going to work in lockstep to display the seriousness of our commitment at both home and abroad,” he told reporters.

Canada isn’t pleased at the concept of being in lockstep with its mighty southern neighbor.  It refused, for instance, to join the U.S.-dominated “coalition” that invaded Iraq two decades ago.  Then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien has proudly recalled: “It was a great indication that we are a very independent nation, that we were not a 51st state that too often some people think we are.”

Canada has been governed for much of the past 60 years by the center-left Liberal Party.  Its prime ministers, notably Justin Trudeau and his father Pierre Elliott Trudeau, have enjoyed rocky relations with Republican presidents.

A White House tape from the early 1970s caught Richard Nixon calling the elder Trudeau “an asshole.”  The rejoinder from Pierre Trudeau: “I’ve been called worse things by better men.” Three decades later, the communications director for Chretien, talking to a reporter, described George W. Bush as “a moron.” The president’s aides took to calling Chretien “dino,” short for dinosaur.

Shortly before a 2018 G-7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, Trump slapped a 25 percent tariff on Canadian steel imports, plus a 10 percent tariff on aluminum, citing national security and his “America first” program. JJustin Trudeau objected, telling a news conference “Canadians… stood shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in far off lands” and that Trump’s rationale was “kind of insulting.” The PM, in a capsule definition of his country, added: “Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around.”

On his way back to Washington, D.C., Trump fired back with a Tweet describing Trudeau as “so meek and mild at our G-7 meetings” only to speak out in a fashion “very dishonest and weak” after Air Force One had taken off. 

The 45th president wasn’t done.  When a “Freedom Convoy” of anti-vaxxers and truckers invaded downtown Ottawa last year, Trump endorsed the occupation and described Trudeau as a “far left lunatic who has destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates.”  The Trump amen corner on Fox News, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, obligingly railed against the prime minister.

This kind of rough talk is rooted in expectations.  Ex-British Columbia Premier Dave Barrett used to deliver an annual summer lecture at Western Washington University. The opening thought from his talk at Canada House, “This is a sovereign country.” He prodded the United States for expecting Canada to operate as a domestic branch plant and to march in “lockstep” on foreign policy.

Canada’s economy is only one-twentieth that of “the States,” and our neighbor’s population is under 40 million.  Pierre Trudeau famously, elegantly summed up having a superpower neighbor:  “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.”

The U.S. government was angered, during the Vietnam War, when an estimated 150,000 draft objectors crossed into Canada and were allowed to stay.  The elder Trudeau’s friendship with Fidel Castro raised hackles.  Bush II called off an Ottawa visit after Canada refused to join Operation Iraqi Freedom. Offshoots of the “Freedom Convoy” blocked border crossings, disrupting movement of auto parts and prompting pressure on Ottawa to settle quickly.

The Americans, of course, put a benign face on the relationship.  In words from John F. Kennedy, “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends.  Economies have made us partners. And necessity has made us allies.”

Yet, JFK grew exasperated when a Conservative Party PM, John Diefenbaker, refused to let the U.S. station the MX-1599 “Bomarc” missile, a nuclear-armed, surface-to-air weapon, on Canadian soil.  A note, retrieved by Canadians after a summit, reportedly called Diefenbaker “the S.O.B.” Kennedy pollster Louis Harris advised the opposition Liberals in Canada’s next national election.

Canada tried to play peacemaker rather than combatant in the Vietnam War, with Prime Minister Lester Pearson delivering a speech at Temple University in which he criticized the bombing of North Vietnam. Pearson went on to Camp David, only to have Lyndon Johnson grab his shirt collar and bellow: “You pissed on my rug.”

Barack Obama was cheered when he addressed the House of Commons in 2016, even heard cries of “Four More Years,”  but tucked in with praise was a call for Canada to contribute more to the defense of Western democracies.  “NATO needs more. Canada, we need you,” Obama told the lawmakers.

Trudeau has backed the West’s stand with and arming of Ukraine.  But Biden is expected to press Canada to pony up more money for the North American Air Defense Command:  Canada spends about 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, while NATO has set a target of 2 percent.  It is “a topic of ongoing conversation . . . because we do need more money for defense,” David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, told CBC last week.

The two leaders will reportedly discuss anarchy in Haiti and what to do about it, as well as Chinese spy balloons floating over North America.  Another probable topic is critical rare-earth minerals needed for such “green” technologies as car batteries as well as semi-conductors.  As neighbors in a melting Arctic, both Canada and the U.S. share alarm at global warming.

Biden will also address Parliament.  The two countries’ relations are improving after Trump.  As Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s envoy to the U.S., said on Canadian TV last week: “I’ve been ambassador for three years, and there hasn’t been a single topic with the Biden Administration that we have said, ‘Look, this is really important to us, they need to work on this’, where they’ve said, ‘Look, it’s not a priority.’ Not once.”

Hillman operates out of a striking Washington, D.C., embassy, located on Pennsylvania Avenue and designed by Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, its courtyard featuring a sculpture by Haida artist Bill Reid: “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Black Canoe.”

When Biden arrives on Parliament Hill, however, he might spot a symbol of past acrimony. A tree planted by Richard Nixon, during a long-ago visit to Ottawa, grew up crooked.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and 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.


  1. Great synopsis of US and Canadian history. I’m thinking they might discuss Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with them as well.


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