Trudeau, Anand meet with Norad commanders, U.S. defense secretary en route to L.A.

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand got a first-hand look Tuesday at North America's first line of continental defence, a system experts and political leaders agree is badly in need of an upgrade.

Trudeau and Anand, flanked by the U.S. and Canadian commanders of Norad, exchanged pleasantries with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as their visit got underway in a boardroom festooned with images of fighter jets and military insignia.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the current joint commander of Norad and U.S. Northern Command, opened the meeting by professing the importance of his mission.

"I get up every single day, as do all of our other members, knowing that we have the most noble mission on the planet, and that's defending our homeland," VanHerck said.

"We need to talk a little bit about the challenges we face in the homeland. We'll talk about our strategy to address those challenges. And then we'll talk about some of the capabilities that we're pursuing."

Trudeau held up the shared responsibilities of Norad as a prime example of the close nature of the relationship between the two countries.

"The world is changing in many ways — threats are evolving, technologies are changing," he said.

"But one thing that doesn't change is the steadfast partnership and friendship that we have between our two countries. And nowhere is that more obvious than the integrated nature of the work we do here at Norad."

Trudeau, Anand and Austin were greeted by an honour guard flying Canadian and U.S. colours, as well as renditions of both national anthems.

"Norad is the world's only binational command," Austin told the Canadian delegation. "That highlights the depth and breadth of our relationship and our commitment to mutual defence."

Trudeau, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly will spend the rest of the week in Los Angeles, where President Joe Biden is hosting leaders from across the Western Hemisphere for the Summit of the Americas.

On Monday, Trudeau wouldn't say explicitly whether he supports Biden's decision to exclude Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba from the summit, owing to their disdain for democratic values and dubious human rights records.

The decision generated protests from other quarters of Latin America, as well as a prominent no-show from one of the endeavour's most important partners: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Some of the hemisphere's countries are "less like-minded" than others, Trudeau acknowledged, but they all share a number of serious challenges, including migration pressures, climate change and recovering fully from the COVID-19 pandemic.

All three will be on the agenda at the weeklong summit, the leader-level portion of which is scheduled to get underway Wednesday.

Before leaving Ottawa, Anand said she's "very close" with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Asked about how long it's taking to make the upgrades, Anand said the government has been maintaining continental defence systems in the meantime.

"So we'll just keep working on it," she said. "Norad modernization is the unwritten chapter of 'Strong, Secure and Engaged,' our 2017 defence policy."

Guilbeault is expected to take part in discussions about climate change, while Joly meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexican counterpart Marcelo Ebrard.

Trudeau was guarded when asked Monday about the exclusion of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba from the summit.

"It's extremely important that we have an opportunity to engage with our fellow hemispheric partners — some like-minded, some less like-minded," Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa with his Chilean counterpart Gabriel Boric at his side.

"Talking about the important issues that our people have in common, whether it's migration pressures, whether it's climate change, whether it's coming through this pandemic, this is an important moment for us to gather."

Canada continues to champion the importance of human rights and democratic values in all three of the excluded countries, "even as we recognize that Canada has a long-standing approach to Cuba that is different from the United States."

Boric was much more forceful in condemning the White House "error."

"We have to express in the United States and elsewhere that exclusion is not the right path," Boric said.

"When the United States claims to exclude certain countries from the summit, they're actually then reinforcing the position that these other countries take in their own countries."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday that the three countries should not be barred from having their voices heard at the summit just because Biden has "different political views."

"Concerns raised around human rights are always important to consider, but that is no grounds to deny these countries participation in a Summit of the Americas. I think that was the wrong decision," Singh said in Ottawa.

"I understand why the president of Mexico is protesting," he added. "Canada should also make it clear that we support the participation of these three countries."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre rejected the idea that the decision of López Obrador to steer clear of the summit is a sign of waning U.S. influence across the hemisphere.

"The U.S. remains the most powerful force in driving hemispheric actions to address core challenges facing the people of the Americas — inequality, health, climate and food security," Jean-Pierre said Monday.

"The president has to stick by his principles. He believes that he needs to stick by his principles and not invite dictators, but we can still have a fulsome conversation — there is a full agenda where he's going to be very busy."

Other summit priorities will include helping countries bring COVID-19 under control, forging new ties on climate and energy initiatives, confronting food insecurity and leveraging existing trade agreements to better ensure more people are able to reap the benefits.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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