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Thursday, December 9, 2021

‘No closer friend’: Trudeau, Biden hold first virtual bilateral meeting

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OTTAWA —
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden held their first face-to-face virtual bilateral meeting with an exchange of cross-border praise and a pledge to dig into some of the most pressing shared issues between Canada and the United States.

“The United States has no closer friend, no closer friend than Canada,” said Biden, kicking things off. “We’re all best served when the United States and Canada work together and lead together.”

In response the prime minister made a point of welcoming back American leadership on files like climate change, saying “U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years.”

The virtual meeting lasted about two hours, with top cabinet officials from both countries participating, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

During her opening statement Freeland restated her congratulations to her counterpart Harris for her historic win as the first female vice-president.

“Your election has been such an inspiration for women and girls across Canada,” Freeland said, adding that after the 2020 U.S. election both countries have a responsibility “to show that democracy can deliver.”

For the first hour of the meeting the circle is being kept small, with Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau and his American counterpart Secretary of State Anthony Blinken taking part. Then an “expanded” meeting will include several members of Trudeau’s cabinet and their American counterparts on the defence, natural resource, public safety, trade, transport, and environment files.

‘PARTNERSHIP ROADMAP’

The agreed path forward will outline how the two countries intend to work together to fight COVID-19, rebuild their economies, tackle climate change, advance diversity, improve national security measures and build international alliances.

The roadmap will be “a blueprint for our whole-of-government relationship, based on our shared values and commitment to work in partnership on areas of mutual concern,” according to a statement issued by the White House, and as previously reported by CTV News’ Washington Bureau Correspondent Richard Madan.

“From national security to global affairs to environmental protection to free trade, our two countries work closely together. Our bilateral trade totals nearly $2 billion every day in goods and services, and our people-to-people ties in education, small business, the arts and culture are unpatrolled,” read a White House statement issued ahead of the meeting.

The conversation is also expected to cover some specific issues, including the two countries’ respective vaccine rollouts and aid for global immunization efforts; cross-border energy projects on the heels of the Keystone XL rejection; and relations with China given ongoing tensions and that country’s human rights abuses.

BUILDING ‘GOODWILL’ POST-TRUMP

Tuesday’s meeting is the first between the two world leaders since Biden’s inauguration last month, though Trudeau did call Biden following his election win.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Canada-U.S. border restrictions are the reason the typically in-person visit full of pomp and circumstance is taking place virtually from their respective offices.

In his opening remarks Biden said he wishes he could return the hospitality he experienced when he visited Canada in late 2016, and that he looks forward to meeting in-person once the pandemic is under control. He also mentioned the now oft-repeated factoid that Harris lived in Montreal when she was a teenager.

Senior U.S. officials have also told CTV News they are optimistic that the meeting will begin to “reinvigorate” ties between the two countries following a tense relationship during the prior U.S. administration under former president Donald Trump.

It’s a longstanding tradition that the first international visit a U.S. president makes after inauguration is to Canada, and it’s a trip Trump didn’t take, coming only briefly for a G7 summit in 2018.

“We’ve had a very rocky four years under Trump… So what Biden is doing, what Obama did, and other presidents have in the past, is coming to coming to Canada virtually in order to show goodwill,” said Michael Kergin, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. in an interview on CTV News Channel. “It’s really to change the tone and the tenor.”

In an early sign that Canadians’ sentiment about Americans may be improving under the Democratic administration, new survey data from Nanos Research shows that Canadians’ impressions of the U.S. as a partner have gone up from 2019. Two in three Canadians now have a positive or somewhat positive opinion of the U.S., in terms of it being a “positive partner” with Canada.

“There hasn’t been this level of broad across-the-government engagement by the U.S. government since I’ve been paying attention to Canada-U.S. relations, so at least for the last 20 years if not more,” said Canadian American Business Council CEO Scotty Greenwood in an interview with CTV News. She said with so many commonalities, now is the time to seize on that and see how much progress can be made, but cautioned Canada that while the tone will change, “the U.S. will still act in its own national interest.”

OPPOSITION WEIGH IN

Before the meeting got underway, opposition leaders sought to frame what they think should be on the agenda for the meeting. Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said among what Trudeau and Biden should be discussing is establishing a Canada-U.S. “carbon border,” and a cross-country renewable energy grid.

“Many of the things that President Biden has committed to doing are things that we have fought for here in Canada and Justin Trudeau has refused to do,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh during a media availability on Parliament Hill. His party has come under fire online for posting a satirical draft agenda for the meeting.

After recently pushing for, and securing the formation of a special Canada-U.S. relations committee of MPs, which is meeting for the first time on Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole set out his expectations for the cross-border conversation.

“During today’s meeting, Justin Trudeau needs to ask President Biden whether we can start to receive vaccines manufactured by our strongest ally, the United States. At a time when both our countries need to be focused on getting people back to work and returning to normal post-COVID-19, Justin Trudeau needs to show Canadians he’ll stand up for our interests and our jobs,” said O’Toole in a statement.

With files from CTV News’ Richard Madan and Ben Cousins

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