At a tense moment for Canada-U.S. relations, Trudeau travels to D.C. for trilateral talks

·9 min read
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, sits beside U.S. President Joe Biden at an event at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, sits beside U.S. President Joe Biden at an event at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will travel to Washington this week for the first Three Amigos summit in five years — a trilateral meeting with U.S. and Mexican leaders that has been dismissed in the past as high on symbolism and low on substance.

The one-day summit on Thursday comes at a challenging time for the Canada-U.S. relationship.

The election of U.S. President Joe Biden was celebrated by many in Canada as the dawn of a new era in bilateral relations after the fractious four-year term of his predecessor, Donald Trump. During his campaign, Biden promised a return to "normalcy" and better relations with U.S. allies; the revival of the once-dormant Three Amigos gathering is a sign that the Trump-era froideur is over.

But on Biden's watch, a number of new irritants have emerged. Biden, more beholden to progressive elements in the Democratic Party than past presidents, has made climate policy a priority to appeal to green activists. Canada's energy sector is paying a price.

Canada battling U.S. protectionism, anti-oil agenda

In the first week of his presidency, Biden cancelled permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, dealing a multi-billion dollar blow to Alberta's oilpatch.

He has done little to stop Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, from trying to shut down Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline — a crucial artery that supplies oil products and natural gas to power huge portions of the Canadian economy. Experts agree its closure would be devastating to Canada — a threat to the continued operation of Toronto's Pearson International Airport and the free flow of fossil fuels to other critical industries.

A spokesperson for Biden said this week the White House is awaiting a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before deciding whether to wade into a debate over the future of the controversial pipeline. Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan — who served as the natural resources minister until recently — has said the line's continued operation is "non-negotiable."

WATCH | Canadian ambassador to U.S. on upcoming leaders' summit:

While Canada lifted land border restrictions on non-essential travel this summer, the Biden administration only did away with its months-long ban on cross-border travel last week. Non-stop flights from Moscow and Beijing were arriving at New York's JFK airport while fully vaccinated Canadian travellers were turned away at land crossings in the states of Maine, New York and Washington — disrupting business, tourism and family reunification.

Legislation before the Democratic congress also threatens trade relations between two of the world's largest economies. Congress has drafted a bill, the Build Back Better Act, that would offer sizeable tax credits worth up to $12,500 to the buyers of new electric vehicles — as long as those cars and trucks are manufactured in the U.S.

That tax measure would be a devastating development for the Canadian automotive sector, which is trying to attract new investment as the industry transitions away from internal combustion engines.

Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP Photo
Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP Photo

Biden's massive infrastructure bill, which he is set to sign into law tomorrow, is littered with Buy America provisions that could leave Canadian companies out of the competition for contracts potentially worth billions of dollars in government business — provisions that undermine the new NAFTA signed by the three countries just a few years ago.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has identified this protectionist push as a significant problem but Canadian protests have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Speaking Sunday in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live, Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman reiterated the government's position that the potential tax credit could violate the North American free trade pact.

"We're still working hard to make sure that all of the relevant decision-makers realize that this isn't good for U.S. jobs, it isn't good for our shared commitments to environmental protection and EV transitions, and, frankly, it runs in the face of the commitments we've just made under CUSMA," she told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

David MacNaughton, who served as Canada's ambassador to the U.S. during the Trump administration, said that while the former reality TV star-turned-politician generated a tremendous amount of "unpredictability" in the Oval Office, it was still possible for Canada to advance its agenda because Trump "didn't have any particular ideology. In fact, he had no real ideology at all."

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

"The problem you face with President Biden is you have some really comforting words about allies but you have, within his own party, and his own domestic agenda, some real ideologically protectionist elements which are going to cause problems in terms of our mutual economic interest. We're already seeing that," MacNaughton told CBC News.

"I think the problem with the Democrats is that a lot of them just don't really believe in global trade and really would prefer everything be done in the U.S. It's always better when you have somebody who's sympatico [rather] than someone who's constantly railing against you, but it doesn't mean it's going to be easy."

WATCH: Trudeau, Biden and López Obrador to meet in person in Washington

The Three Amigos gathering, formally known as the North American Leaders' Summit, is not the best forum to address Canada-U.S. bilateral issues because of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's presence, said Christopher Sands, director of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute.

The Mexican leader is not particularly concerned about the future of Windsor, Ont. as a centre for car manufacturing, or if a major source of Quebec's national gas supply is in danger of going offline, he said.

"It's like, 'Yeah, we want to talk to you but not with the other guy in the room,'" Sands told CBC News. "Canada feels like an afterthought.

"But it's the Americans trying to economize the president's time and focus because there are some similarities on things like borders, North American competitiveness and economic issues with both Canada and Mexico. Just for efficiency, they're grouped together. It's the way the Americans think."

The only major trilateral accomplishment of Trump's term — the renegotiation of the new NAFTA, the Canada-U.S.-Mexican Agreement (CUSMA) — was done without formal Three Amigos summits, Sands said.

But despite the format's shortcomings, it's still a chance to get these leaders around a table talking about issues of common interest, he added.

According to the Prime Minister's Office, Trudeau will use the short time he has before Biden to press these bilateral concerns and "discuss shared priorities and find North American solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow."

Coming off the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Trudeau is also eager to discuss the environment as the world struggles to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. López Obrador skipped COP26 and Mexico, a major oil producer, has rebuffed renewable energy projects.

Fernando Llano/AP Photo
Fernando Llano/AP Photo

"Our countries are committed to providing a better future for our people, including creating more middle class jobs, building a cleaner economy and tackling climate change and finishing the fight against COVID-19. I look forward to meeting with my counterparts to discuss a new path for our partnerships at a time when the world is facing complex global challenges," Trudeau said in a media statement.

In its own media statement, the White House pitched the summit as a way to "strengthen" the "partnership" and "revitalize our leadership and respond to a widening range of regional and global challenges." The statement says that Biden — doubtless with an eye on domestic politics — will also use the meeting to discuss "a regional vision for migration," an issue of little relevance to Canada.

The first formal North American leaders' meeting was held in 1956 when then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower gathered his continental counterparts — Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent and the Mexican leader, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines — as the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union was starting to heat up.

Canadian ambivalence

Canadian ambivalence at the time about this trilateral dynamic was reflected in a piece in the Chicago Tribune.

On the occasion of the first-ever Canada-U.S.-Mexico leaders' meeting in West Virginia, the newspaper reported that "Canada traditionally has kept aloof from Latin America in trade matters, in the belief that it can deal better with Washington on a bilateral basis."

The focus of the 1956 summit was on how the three countries could "develop democratic processes" at a time when communism was on the march in the developing world. The U.S., seen by some as an imperial power, wanted to recruit "smaller countries like Canada and Mexico in offering a helping hand to countries that have been determined to remain neutral in the 'Cold War,'" according to an account of the summit in the New York Times.

The leaders' summits were held sporadically in the decades that followed. U.S. President George W. Bush created the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) in 2005, a regular forum for the three countries to meet to cooperate on security and economic issues.

Tom Hanson/Canadian Press
Tom Hanson/Canadian Press

The SPP was the subject of much criticism: left-wing groups in Canada said they feared it would be the first step toward a North American union, while right-wing activists in the U.S. fretted about a possible spike in the number of people crossing between the three countries. Bush's successor, President Barack Obama, scrapped the SPP but kept the leaders' meeting portion.

"They've always been more important to the Americans. Stephen Harper didn't put much of a priority on this. Canada skipped hosting it a couple times," Sands said. "Now, the Biden administration has put great stock in the return to normal."

"It's not a longstanding tradition but having civilized conversations with your neighbours is pretty normal compared to what we've seen recently. Is it absolutely necessary? No, we can live without them, we did for a long time and we did just recently. But I think what makes this important is the U.S. signalling it wants to have this conversation and it's bringing it together on relatively short notice."

Just as Eisenhower gathered his Canadian and Mexican counterparts while the Soviet Union was flexing its muscles in the 1950s, Biden is hosting this year's summit as the Western world grows increasingly concerned about China. Biden will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping before Trudeau and Lopez Obrador arrive in D.C.

Archive/Canadian Press
Archive/Canadian Press

"It's pretty clear North America will have to work together to counter its competitor in China and counter the threats in China," said Scotty Greenwood, a former U.S. diplomat and an expert in Canada-U.S. relations at Crestview Strategy.

As the U.S. shifts its supply chain away from Asia and an increasingly hostile China, Canada and Mexico will become "extremely relevant" to the American economy, she said.

Mexico's low-wage labour and Canada's critical minerals and natural resources could help the U.S. "decouple" from its continued reliance on China, she said. "I think the outline is there for really important North American cooperation."

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