OTTAWA — Donald Trump's fellow G7 leaders will use their very first meeting Friday in Quebec to confront the U.S. president over his controversial decision to impose punishing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, officials said Tuesday.
The session could produce fireworks, and could set the tone for what could be an acrimonious two days of talks that will test the ability of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top officials to keep the group from splintering.
The G7 in Charlevoix formally kicks off with a session on jobs of the future and the state of the global economy, which is where Trudeau and others will push Trump to roll back the tariffs, said Canadian government officials who briefed journalists on the condition of anonymity.
Trudeau's carefully crafted G7 agenda is under considerable strain following Trump's decision last week to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico and Europe. Officials insist there is still room for success on issues such as protecting oceans and educating girls in poor countries.
The tariffs, which prompted retaliatory measures from Canada and others, threaten to drive a wedge into the G7, fracturing the long-standing multilateral relationship into something observers describe as a "G6 plus one," with the U.S. as the outlier.
Officials from Canada, the U.S. and other G7 members, including the European Union, were working behind the scenes to craft consensus on at least some of Trudeau's agenda.
"We are working on bridging differences that exist," said one grim-faced Canadian official, who refused to say whether the G7 would be able to reach an agreement by the time the summit ends Saturday.
The raison d'etre of the G7 is to ensure economic growth, and "given the current environment," the discussion will very likely move towards trade issues, the official said.
Trudeau and his G7 partners have criticized Trump's administration for protectionist practices they say will hurt economic growth in the long term.
Officials hinted that Trudeau could find a summit victory in an effort to help educate women and girls, but declined to say whether there would be a specific funding announcement at the G7.
International agencies urged Trudeau on Tuesday to push fellow G7 leaders for a US$1.3 billion investment in girls' education. They also urged him not to allow the economic turmoil with the United States to interfere.
Six international agencies, including the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and World Vision, are calling on the G7 to make that three-year spending commitment.
The coalition also wants Canada to inject $500 million in new money towards the initiative.
One of Canada's overarching themes for the summit is improving gender equality for women. Aid agencies are urging Trudeau to maintain that course.
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"G7 is Canada's opportunity to turn feminist talk into walk, and demonstrate global leadership on female empowerment," David Morley, the president of UNICEF Canada, told The Canadian Press.
"We will be disappointed if G7 leaders cannot resolve a deadlock, which will once again hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. It will be a missed opportunity of epic proportions."
Michael Messenger, the president of World Vision Canada, said he hopes this is one subject that the G7 leaders may be able to agree on.
"With many competing priorities around the G7 table, funding girls' education in crises presents an opportunity for consensus," he said.
"We know education is foundational to the achievement of all other development goals including health, ending violence, conflict and improving income earning potential."
U.S. protectionism will dominate the G7 when Trump makes his Canadian debut at the summit.
Trudeau, Trump relationship strained
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who hosted his own G7 counterparts last week in Whistler, B.C., said afterwards that he expects the leaders to keep pressure on the U.S. to reconsider the tariffs.
Trudeau's office says the prime minister spoke to provincial and territorial premiers Monday to update them on Ottawa's response to the "unacceptable" U.S. tariffs.
The personal relationship that Trudeau has tried to forge with the mercurial U.S. president has become strained of late, evidenced in the tough words he used to describe the Trump administration's decision — an approach he continued during his call with the premiers.
"The prime minister expressed his disappointment with the decision by the U.S. administration to impose tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum," a readout from his office said.
"The prime minister noted that, given our shared history, it is inconceivable that Canadian steel or aluminum might be a security threat to the U.S."
Trudeau told the premiers he plans to vigorously defend and protect Canadian workers and industry and that he is committed to successfully renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement because it "is in the best interests of Canadians."
Trump's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, muddied those waters unexpectedly earlier Tuesday when he told a Fox News program that the president is determined to pursue bilateral trade deals with Canada and Mexico, rather than a single trilateral agreement.