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Thorny issues on the table as Biden makes presidential visit to Canada this week

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden meet during the North American Leaders' Summit in Mexico in January. Biden will travel to Canada this week for his first in-person official visit as president. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden meet during the North American Leaders' Summit in Mexico in January. Biden will travel to Canada this week for his first in-person official visit as president. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)

The ambassadors for both Canada and the United States sought to downplay differences between the two countries on key issues Sunday, ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's first official in-person visit to Canada this week.

Talks during the visit are expected to focus on a series of thorny issues, including defence, migration, economic development and the situation in Haiti.

But in separate interviews airing Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live, both Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman and American ambassador to Canada David Cohen sought to put forward a more sunny view of the relationship.

"[Biden] likes Canada, he cares about Canada, and the United States cares about Canada," Cohen told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

WATCH | U.S. ambassador discusses Biden visit this week:

Hillman said the conversation would inevitably turn to global issues of concern, but "we'll also focus on how we're sources of strength for each other."

"I think that's going to be the theme of this visit, that we are there making each other stronger and better," she said.

Biden made a virtual visit to Canada in February 2021, speaking with Trudeau via video conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden will become the eighth U.S. president to make an address to Parliament on Friday.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Migration a major issue

One area where Hillman did acknowledge some tension was the area of migration, which has become once more a major concern with increased irregular crossings in places like Roxham Road, Que. Meanwhile, the United States has its own ongoing concerns about travel over its southern border with Mexico.

"It's a crisis of very significant proportions and it's a crisis of important proportions for us too in Canada with Roxham Road," Hillman said.

But the ambassador said she has faith that the United States would take Canadian concerns seriously.

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"I've been ambassador for three years, and there isn't a single topic with the Biden administration that we have said, 'Look, this is really important to us, they need to work on this' where they've said, 'Look, it's not a priority for us, sorry.' Not once."

Canada has pushed the United States to start negotiations on revamping the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The STCA compels people to make refugee claims in the first safe country they enter — in this case, the U.S. — unless they cross into Canada via an unofficial port of entry like Roxham Road.

Cohen left the door open to a "revised" agreement but reiterated the American view that work should be done to address the root causes of migration.

"I think the Safe Third Country Agreement can can easily be a part of that discussion, and how a revised Safe Third Country Agreement could help bring under control some of the underlying root causes of irregular migration," he said.

Cohen also noted the ongoing discussion about a potential force to help stabilize Haiti — with Biden officials reportedly pushing for Canada to take a leading role — but also kept the door open Sunday around other options such as sanctions or additional aid to Haitian police.

Hillman pushed back on the idea that Canada was feeling the heat from Washington on the issue of Haiti.

"Pressure's not a word I would use here," she said, framing it more as a constructive dialogue to look for solutions that worked for both sides of the border and Haitians themselves.

Defence spending and continental security

Cohen similarly downplayed any tensions around defence spending, with the federal government set to unveil a budget later this month.

"There won't necessarily be contention around these issues because I think Canada and the United States agree on the need for enhanced spending in the defence space," he said.

Hillman also focused on the accomplishments of joint institutions like NORAD — recently in the news due to the downing of unidentified objects over North American airspace.

"I think the U.S. is very pleased with the announcements we made so far with respect to NORAD modernization" and with the decision to buy 88 F-35 fighters, Hillman said.

Asked about the visit during a health-care announcement Sunday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre criticized Trudeau's approach to the bilateral relationship as weak, saying "Canadians are getting ripped off by the United States."

He noted three main areas of contention — trade, Buy American provisions and border control — where he said Canada needs to act more forcefully. He said Trudeau lacked respect on the world stage from leaders like Joe Biden and Xi Jinping of China.

"They believe they can walk all over him, that they can hit us with tariffs and discriminatory Buy American policy and Trudeau won't do anything about it."

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Former prime minister Jean Chrétien also reflected in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live airing Sunday about his experience managing Canada's most important bilateral relations, saying it was "always very complicated."

But almost 20 years after the American invasion of Iraq, he said it was good Canada had asserted itself.

"It was a great indication that we were a very independent nation, that we were not a 51st state of America that too often some people think we were."