NEWS
03/31/2016 07:36 EDT | Updated 04/01/2017 01:12 EDT

Justin Trudeau touts economic goals ahead of D.C. nuclear summit

An economic forum in Washington today heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's thoughts on bilateral trade, Canada's economic future — and on the state of U.S. presidential race during a week consumed by yet more controversy surrounding Donald Trump.

Championing a strong middle class and green industries as the backbones of a strong economy, Trudeau addressed a breakfast gathering of about 200 people from the business community on the "deep, lasting relationship" that binds Canada and the U.S.

Trudeau, in the U.S. capital to attend the Nuclear Security Summit this week, presented a bright future for North American innovation and partnership as drivers of employment growth during the breakfast event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"This is North America. We don't fear the future, we invent it," he said from the Chamber's International Hall of Flags. "We don't worry about the new economy, we create it."

The speech, followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by CNBC's Susan Li, covered everything from Canada's support of clean and sustainable technologies, to the possibility of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, to thoughts on restoring Canadian trust on environmental and global responsibilities following the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

On whether he would be open to renegotiate NAFTA, as some presidential candidates have vowed to do, he said it was important to be "ready for discussions on any trade deal."

But he added: "We all know how important it is to be looking forward, and not trying to be turning back the clock to golden, olden days."

Trudeau was asked about his own government's consultations on the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and whether he thought the deal would go forward.

"We're very much a pro-trade country, as I've said. And we're always looking at trade deals as a way of growing our economy.

"Obviously on any big deal, it's no big surprise to anyone, there are areas, sectors, industries who have more concerns than others, and in our conversations with Canadians with industries, which are ongoing, there are a lot of people in favour, there are a few who have real concerns, and we're looking at understanding and allaying certain fears, and building on certain opportunities."

Asked about the $29.4-billion deficit in his Liberal government's recent budget, Trudeau told a forum moderator that a spend-to-grow philosophy "fundamentally comes down to how we view the future."

"I think confident, optimistic countries…should always be willing to invest in the future, to know that we have brighter days," he said.

Trudeau also played down the impact of lower oil prices on the Canadian economy and the country's reputation as a natural resources-dependent nation, saying Canada was intent on diversifying its economy.

He pointed to "billions of dollars" in investment for public transit, as well as pension fund investment. The Kitchener-Waterloo area in Southwestern Ontario and Toronto have also blossomed with tech startups, he said, that are "stealing away some of the best and brightest from Silicon Valley."

Avoids direct comment on Trump

The conversation strayed briefly away from economics at times to larger political themes.

Trudeau said he grapples with how to build a world "in which there's an opportunity for everyone to succeed, and therefore there isn't the kind of polarization, anger and anxiety and frustration that leads to everything from poor electoral decisions to challenges in global security."

Subtle as it may have been, it was not the only reference to the fraught U.S. presidential election, dominated in recent days by controversies around Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner.

- Watch: Trudeau tells Power & Politics he's not worried about Trump

Pressed on his thoughts about the state of the current race, Trudeau echoed his answer from his official visit to Washington earlier this month. "I have great faith in the American people," he said, adding that the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship "goes far beyond any two parties or individuals."

Quoting Abraham Lincoln, as he did in an interview this month with CBC's Rosemary Barton, he reiterated confidence "in the better angels of our nature."

Bilateral trade between Canada and the U.S. totals about $600 billion a year, and Canada was the U.S.'s largest goods export market in 2013, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Meetings with leaders

This was Trudeau's third official visit to the United States in a month, coming after a high-profile state dinner at the White House and meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama.

The prime minister used his opportunity Thursday to promote his government's March 22 federal budget, which plans to run a $29.4-billion deficit this year, as an "opportunity to put dollars behind our ideas."

It was a chance, he said, "to take the things that matter most to Canadians — things like growing the economy, creating jobs, and strengthening the middle class — and make real, meaningful progress toward those goals."

In his speech, Trudeau added that the budget's title, Growing the Middle Class, is a signpost to how Canada will prioritize its economic path going forward.

"It has long been understood that a strong economy starts with a strong middle class," he said. "When middle-class Canadians have more money to save, invest and grow the economy, everyone benefits.

As the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit gets underway Thursday, Trudeau is expected to attend a working luncheon with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, then meet with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, followed by a  leaders' working dinner at the White House this evening hosted by Obama.