OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled a new “partnership roadmap” Tuesday to set aspirational goals and to formally mark a new era of relations between their two countries after Donald Trump left office last month.
Trudeau was Biden’s first call after his inauguration. The virtual meeting was the new president’s first bilateral with a world leader. In his opening remarks, Trudeau made a comment that U.S. leadership on climate change “has been sorely missed over the past years.”
The dominant theme that emerged from the meeting, however, wasn’t climate change but the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures the two countries would take to mitigate the impacts of future potential pandemics.
“We committed to work together to help prevent future biological threats by strengthening the World Health Organization, supporting our bold targets under the Global Health Security Agenda, cooperating on the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons [and Materials] of Mass Destruction,
and engaging in — other multilateral institutions to promote transparency, build capacity, and strengthening global norms,” Biden said.
Strengthened supply chains and increased security and reliance will ensure a robust economic recovery in both countries benefits everyone, he added, “not just those at the top.”
Watch: Trudeau, Biden meet to discuss “shared vision.” Story continues below video:
The pandemic had brought to light the stark inequalities in societies, which both leaders said, need to be addressed.
“We both recognize our responsibility, as leading democracies, to defend our shared values around the world and to strengthen our own democracies at home,” Biden said.
“That means rooting out systemic racism and unconscious bias from our institutions and our laws as well as our hearts.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau joined Trudeau in-person for the meeting and wore face masks. In Washington, Vice President Kamala Harris joined the president, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Seated by Biden in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Harris and Blinken also wore face masks.
Biden remarked that one of the last foreign trips he made as vice president in 2016 was to Ottawa. The president said on Tuesday, he and Trudeau were able to “drive right into many of the vital issues of importance for both our nations.”
A readout from the Prime Minister’s Office stated the new roadmap will guide the next chapter of the two countries’ long bilateral relations, to “revitalize and expand this historic relationship and realize our full potential.”
Trudeau described the roadmap as “ambitious.” He said: “In the face of COVID-19, of climate change, of rising inequality, this is our moment to act.”
Though the two leaders appeared friendly, the spectre of Biden’s “Buy American” provisions loomed large over the meeting.
Trudeau’s government has been under increasing pressure to secure a formal exemption to the protectionist policy.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole issued a statement ahead of the two leaders’ meeting, urging the prime minister to push the president to secure a waiver to the “Buy American” plan, and to ensure continued operation of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline and its 1,038-kilometre route, transporting light crude and natural gas liquids from northwestern Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ont.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer moved to shut down the pipeline last year, citing environmental risks to the Great Lakes. She gave Enbridge until May 2021 to close Line 5.
Jobs are at stake, O’Toole pressed.
“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,” O’Toole said.
Biden signed an executive order in January that established new guidelines to align the purchasing power of the U.S. government — estimated to spend $600 billion USD on procurement annually — to prioritize awarding contracts to domestic manufacturers.
The order was intended to close loopholes on existing “Buy American” provisions adopted under the Trump administration.
“Buy American” was not explicitly mentioned during the two leaders’ opening and closing comments and reporters were not given the opportunity to ask questions following their meeting.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the administration is currently evaluating the application of the president’s executive order and that it would be unlikely any commitment related to a potential Canadian exemption would be announced at the end of the two leaders’ bilateral meeting.
On Tuesday, hours before the bilateral, Psaki also said it would be unlikely that the president would announce plans to share supply of the country’s U.S.-made COVID-19 vaccines because Biden’s priority is to ensure doses for Americans first.
The U.S. recently passed a grim pandemic milestone with more than 500,000 people counted as having died after being infected with the SARS-COV-2 virus.
Canada, with just over a tenth of the U.S. population, has recorded nearly 22,000 deaths related to COVID-19.
Trudeau’s government has borne the brunt of blame for delays in the vaccine’s rollout, which has been slow in comparison to other countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Israel. Opposition MPs have said the slow pace of the campaign is hurting Canada’s ability to curb the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19.
Two Michaels are not ‘bartering chips’: Biden
“Human beings are not bartering chips. You know, we’re going to work together until we get their safe return,” Biden said
The two men were arrested in China days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained by Canadian authorities in Vancouver’s international airport in December 2018, acting on an U.S. provisional arrest warrant.
On foreign policy, Biden said Canada and the U.S. are committed in “coordinating our approaches to better compete with China and to counter threats to our interests and values.”
Members of Parliament overwhelmingly supported a Conservative motion Monday to declare that the Chinese government is committing a genocide against its minority Muslim Uighurs.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied the veracity of allegations of genocide. China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, recently told the Canadian Press: “There’s nothing like genocide happening in Xinjiang at all.”
Trudeau did not show up to that vote. Garneau was the only cabinet minister to attend and casted his abstention “on behalf of the Government of Canada.”
Roadmap signals new agenda for climate
The bilateral comes days after the U.S. officially rejoined the Paris accord, another signal informing the world of the country’s re-engagement on issues related to climate change.
“Now that the United States is back in the Paris agreement, we intend to demonstrate our leadership in order to spur other countries to raise their own ambitions,” Biden said.
The decision spurred rancorous debate in Canada, particularly from supporters of the oil and gas sector, pushing for more government support ahead of potential industry turbulence.
Biden’s climate change agenda may make for “awkward” politics for Trudeau, according to Aaron Ettinger, assistant professor at Carleton University’s department of political science.
“Economically, it’s going to be tricky,” Ettinger told HuffPost Canada. “Biden has promised a real progressive economic program that works with Canada’s economy in very awkward ways.” He explained how the White House’s environmental agenda may lock horns with domestic sectors such as the oil sands.
Trade as longtime conduit, occasional irritant between countries
Biden’s “Buy American” plan helped fuel his presidential run. But his protectionist stance isn’t solely reflective of the impact of the pandemic in bringing renewed interest on domestic supply chains.
The veteran Democrat’s protectionist policies were shaped during the ’70s, an era of the party that was defined by union support and antipathy toward trade agreements that moved jobs abroad.
Decades later, trade in the COVID-19 era has brought new complications and challenges in Canada.
The urgency for personal protective equipment at the onset of the crisis in Canada exposed supply chain reliance on foreign procurement and a lack of domestic manufacturing capacity.
Canada’s manufacturing sector was previously targeted by former president Trump with steel and aluminum tariffs during NAFTA renegotiations.
For Canada’s aluminum industry in particular, where 81 per cent of production is exported to the U.S., an exemption to “Buy American” provisions will be closely watched.
“I would be shocked if Canada was frozen out of ‘Buy American’ exemptions this time around.”
To underline how intertwined the two countries are, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters earlier in the day that when the steel tariffs were in place, it was a double-edged sword for both sides of the border.
“Our economies are so integrated that a product produced in the States might have many components that come from Canada,” he said. “There’s incredible opportunity for Justin Trudeau to follow suit with many things that President Biden has already committed to doing and we’re hoping that he does that.”
A “fact sheet” released by the White House ahead of the bilateral notes trade the two countries exchange nearly $2 billion USD in goods and services every day.
Looking at recent history, Ettinger is optimistic some sort of waiver will be negotiated.
“It happened in 2010, 2011 during the post-financial crisis bailout packages. Obama wanted to put in ‘Buy America’ provisions and Canada got exempted from at least some of them,” he said. “I would be shocked if Canada was frozen out of ‘Buy American’ exemptions this time around.”
After the unprecedented disruption COVID-19 has caused in North America, the priority is to get back to some sense of normalcy, Ettinger added, which means an element of trust between countries so policies can be planned more than a couple of weeks down the road at a time.
“In the Canada-U.S. case, a return to normal means restoring ordinary, kind of boring, non-dramatic relations,” he said.