Some Canadians might be relieved that President Donald Trump appears to be breaking with tradition and visiting another country—any other country—before he comes to ours. But the truth is that the customary first visit to Canada for new American presidents is more myth than reality.
Trump’s first foreign visit will be not to one of the United States’ closest neighbours, allies, and trading partners but instead to Saudi Arabia in late May, followed by trips to Israel and Vatican City and meetings in Brussels (NATO summit) and Sicily (Group of Seven meeting).
That itinerary will keep Trump far afield of Canada, and some people see that as a shift from presidential history—and potentially even a snub, given the ongoing sparring between Ottawa and Washington D.C. about NAFTA. But recent U.S. Presidents have first visited other countries before Canada more often than not.
It’s true that Barack Obama made Ottawa his first foreign visit after he was first inaugurated in early 2009. Obama spent a whole six hours in Ottawa in late February of that year, just enough time to snack on an impromptu BeaverTail and buy a couple of souvenirs for his daughter.
But President George W. Bush headed south for his first post-inauguration trip in 2001, visiting then-President Vincente Fox at his Ranch in San Cristobal. (He visited Canada next, spending two days in Quebec City in April 2000). Given Fox’s often-colourful tweets about the current president, it’s probably safe to assume an invitation to the ranch won’t be forthcoming for Trump.
Some in Canada accused Bush of snubbing our country, and then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, when he didn’t visit here first. Bill Clinton did make Canada his first visit back in April 1993 but he came with Russia’s then-president, Boris Yeltsin, and went to Vancouver, not Ottawa.
Bush the elder made a short one-day visit to Canada in February 1989, meeting with then-PM Brian Mulroney in Ottawa. And Reagan’s first two post-inauguration visits were to Ottawa, but he went to Mexico as President-elect before either of those.
But you don’t have to go very far back in American presidential history to realize that the expectation of an early Canadian visit is a relatively recent one. Jimmy Carter didn’t visit Canada at all during his presidency, and his first visit was to the United Kingdom. Gerald Ford didn’t get here either—though in his defence, he only spent a bit more than a year in the Oval Office. Richard Nixon was three years into his presidency before his only visit to Canada, where he met with then-PM Pierre Trudeau during a state visit in Ottawa.
Lyndon B. Johnson did visit Canada first, though his three total visits to this country were informal; he never had a state visit to Canada. John F. Kennedy, however, made a state visit to Canada his first foreign trip, and addressed parliament while in Ottawa.
Trump’s first foreign visit will come quite a bit later than usual for a new president. Nixon was on the road by late February, Reagan first travelled after inauguration in March, George Bush visited both Canada and Asia in February, Clinton came to Vancouver in April, George W. Bush first went overseas in February, and Obama ventured north in February.
But on the whole, Canadians might be relieved that Trump’s first overseas visits will be a continent or two away. Polling done by Mainstreet in late January found that only 13 per cent of Canadians would describe Trump as compassionate, while just 16 per cent thought of him as honest.
And earlier this week it was reported that Canadian opinion of our southern neighbours was at a 35-year low, thanks in part to Trump’s anti-immigration policies.
Given how we appear to feel about him and his performance so far, it’s best he visits other countries first.