Canada’s relationship with the new American administration will be cordial, but those expecting another bromance like some said existed between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former United States President Barack Obama should look elsewhere.
Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump met in Washington, D.C., Feb. 13, the first time the two leaders have met since Trump became president in January.
The meeting was highly anticipated, with Canadians and Canadian industry looking for clues about how the U.S administration views its neighbour to the north.
Trump’s unpredictable stance on trade and immigration has left many on edge. World leaders have been guessing how to foster a relationship with him.
Former Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz went as far as to say Trump “takes this stuff with a very thin skin” when asked Feb. 9 about how the prime minister should approach his Washington visit.
“He’s not a politician, he’s a businessman,” Ritz said. “On the first meeting, listen a lot, smile and nod, make a point if it’s there to be made, but don’t go overboard on pushing back. This is not the time or place to do that.”
Ritz’s advice comes at a time when a 140-character Tweet can create diplomatic or economic chaos, while traditional conversations between foreign leaders have quickly gone off the rails. Trump reportedly hung up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he mentioned refugees. A trip between Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto and Trump was cancelled.
Ottawa could not afford a similar slip-up with its largest trading partner.
In Washington on Feb. 13, Tru-deau fell back on a tried and true Canadian tactic: talk about the weather, mutual respect, refuse to criticize your opponent directly but add in a sprinkling of polite passive aggressiveness to ensure everyone knows you’re there to do business.
“The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves,” Trudeau told reporters when asked about Trump’s immigration policies. The prime minister kept a straight face when the president defended that policy.
“We won’t always agree on everything” Trudeau stressed. Canada, he said, will continue to implement its “policies of openness towards immigration, refugees without compromising security.”
Trump tried to offer his own assurances to Canada.
On the North American Free Trade Agreement, the president insisted his concerns are in large part with Mexico. Trump has repeatedly called NAFTA “the worst trade deal” ever signed by the United States.
“It’s a much less severe situation than what’s taken place on the southern border,” Trump told the press when asked about Canada-U.S. trade.
Canada and the United States, Trump said, already have an “outstanding” trade relationship that simply needs “tweaking.”
Trump did not say which particular sections require tweaking — although U.S. dairy lobby groups have made it clear they want dairy market access on the renegotiation table.
When asked, the Prime Minister’s Office would not say if Canada’s dairy industry was raised during the meeting.
Trump had previously been urged by U.S. industry to discuss the proposed national ingredient strategy.
The PMO deferred to a broad joint statement released before the Feb. 13 news conference. That statement does not mention dairy, supply management, country of origin labelling or softwood lumber — four topics many expected could cause conflict with the United States.
“We recognize our profound shared economic interests, and will work tirelessly to provide growth and jobs for both countries,” the statement reads.
“Millions of American and Canadian middle-class jobs, including in the manufacturing sector, depend on our partnership. We affirm the importance of building on this existing strong foundation for trade and investment and further deepening our relationship, with the common goal of strengthening the middle class.”
The statement also mentioned the “importance of cooperation to promote economic growth, provide benefits to our consumers and businesses, and advance free and fair trade.”