Barack Obama says the United States’ relationship with Canada is not “at the top of the list” of his worries in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency because the North American neighbours have no choice but to get along.
“I would say that what we’ve seen over the last few years is anomalous,” the former U.S. president told CBC’s “The Current” in a wide-ranging interview that aired Monday.
Watch: What a Biden presidency may mean for Canada
Host Matt Galloway said the relationship between Ottawa and Washington has taken a “real battering” in the last four years. He noted the Trump administration’s move to hit Canada with controversial steel and aluminum tariffs. Tense trade negotiations prompted the president’s adviser to claim Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deserved a “special place in hell.”
Asked why Canadians should trust the United States given the recent history, Obama gave a blunt response.
“Look, Canada doesn’t really have a choice. Just like the United States doesn’t have a choice,” he said. “We share this massive border, we’re… each other’s biggest trading partners. And we have to get along… in order for our economies to function.
“Not to mention the fact that the people-to-people relations between our two countries are as close as any two countries on Earth.”
Obama noted that he has a Canadian brother-in-law, a piece of his personal life that he also referenced during a 2016 speech to Parliament, and that he has discovered over the years that some friends whom he thought were American were actually Canadian all along.
“You guys are sneaking around, hidden among us,” he joked. “And so, we share so much culturally, in terms of our values, in terms of our commerce. We have to get along.”
To illustrate the point, Obama referenced his own experiences working with two different prime ministers — a Conservative, Stephen Harper, and and Liberal PM Justin Trudeau — during two terms that stretched from January 2009 to 2017.
Obama said he and Harper did not have much in common in terms of their political views, but had a “very cordial and cooperative” relationship.
“There were big differences, there were times where we had tensions but overall, there was a recognition that… our countries are linked and bonded, and that we share some basic assumptions about the world,” he said.
Conversely, Obama said that while Trudeau was “much more aligned” with him on most matters, that didn’t mean there weren’t disagreements.
“We had our share of tensions around timber and tariff issues but those are the natural frictions that are going to exist among any allies,” he said, an apparent reference to disputes over softwood lumber.
Obama endorsed Trudeau in the 2019 federal election at a time when the prime minister was taking heat over his past wearing of blackface and brownface. “The world needs his progressive leadership now,” the former president tweeted at the time about Trudeau.
Obama said the relationship between the U.S. and Canada “can be mended relatively quickly” after president-elect Joe Biden, his former vice-president, replaces Trump in January.
“I think we’ve got some bigger problems in terms of managing America’s role internationally because we ceded a lot of that leadership, most recently on how we deal with the pandemic,” he said. “And recovering our credibility around basic things like science and our role in public health around the world. That’s going to be a tough one to dig ourselves out of a hole on.”
One of the key differences the former U.S. president had with both Harper and Trudeau involved the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama rejected in 2015. Years earlier, Harper pointedly called the approval of the project a “complete no-brainer.” Trudeau also promoted the pipeline during his first trip to Washington as Liberal leader in 2013.
Though Trump approved the construction of the pipeline in 2017, clearing the way for an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil per day to move from Alberta to Nebraska once it is constructed, Biden has pledged to scrap the project.
Trudeau said he championed Keystone XL during his first phone call with the president-elect earlier this month. The Prime Minister’s Office also said Trudeau and Biden discussed the pipeline in its readout of their conversation.
In the House of Commons last week, Conservatives pressed Trudeau to exert as much energy and focus saving the Keystone XL pipeline as he did on Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a United Nations Security Council seat.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said thousands of jobs depend on Keystone moving forward and charged that a phone call with Biden wasn’t enough.
“Will the prime minister commit today to meeting with as many American officials as possible to get this project done, help Western Canada and help all of Canada?” O’Toole asked in question period Wednesday.
Trudeau did not respond to the question, and instead accused the Tories of not understanding that having a plan to fight climate change is necessary to see projects built.
“Canadians know that the only way forward with Americans and people around the world is to show real leadership on climate change, the kind of leadership we have shown over the past five years,” he said. “When will Conservatives wake up and realize that to protect jobs, they need to fight climate change?”