U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in Ottawa for a 2-day working visit

U.S. President Joe Biden is escorted by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon at MacDonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa on Thursday, March 23, 2023.  (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)
U.S. President Joe Biden is escorted by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon at MacDonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa on Thursday, March 23, 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)

U.S. President Joe Biden has touched down in Ottawa for his first official visit to Canada since winning the presidency more than two years ago — and the trip could be an opportunity for the two countries to cut some deals.

Biden's two-day visit started with a meeting with the King's representative in Canada, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, who greeted the president as he stepped off his hulking Air Force One jet.

Biden, dressed in a navy blue overcoat amid inclement weather, cracked jokes as he spoke with Simon and her husband, author Whit Fraser, and the other dignitaries assembled on the tarmac for his arrival.

Later, Biden and Simon were heard talking about the devastation caused by recent forest fires in the American West.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press
Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Simon told Biden how climate change has scarred her home region, the Arctic.

"That's one of the things I want to talk to the prime minister about," Biden said.

A statement from Simon's office said the two also discussed reconciliation, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing crisis in Haiti.

"Canada's true history is interwoven with that of our closest neighbour — as partners and allies in the face of a world filled with challenges, complexities and pressing global concerns," Simon said in her statement. "What endures is a relationship of trust, support and resilience."

Mounties dressed in the red serge and U.S. security officials tracked Biden's every move.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press
Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

After his time with Simon and Fraser, Biden and his wife, Jill, travelled to Rideau Cottage, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's residence, for what the White House is calling an "intimate gathering" away from cameras and officials.

Trudeau and Biden shook hands and briefly discussed the weather. They then posed for photos on the steps of Rideau Cottage before retreating inside.

Other events planned for the trip include Biden's address to Parliament on Friday and a series of meetings with Trudeau and other high-level Canadian officials. There will also be a "pull aside" at some point with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

The first lady is also on hand for the visit. It's a chance to "build on her friendship" with the prime minister's wife Sophie, said White House spokesperson John Kirby. The two embraced when the Bidens arrived at Rideau Cottage.

There's a "spousal program" planned for the two, including a stop at the National Gallery of Canada for an exhibition on Canadian female artists. Biden's wife will also learn how to curl at the city's Rideau Curling Club.

Canada will then host the Bidens for a dinner at the Aviation and Space Museum. Hundreds of dignitaries have been invited.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press
Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

While Trudeau said ahead of the trip that he wanted to get Biden out of Ottawa (in January, he floated the idea of taking Biden to a factory to meet workers "building Canada, North America's future"), the president and his wife aren't expected to leave the nation's capital.

The last U.S. president to spend the night in Canada on a non-summit visit was George W. Bush in 2004.

The plan for Biden's visit is quite different from Bush's trip, which happened just months after the U.S. invaded Iraq.

The two leaders are set to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine, the deteriorating situation in Haiti, the state of Canada's military at a time of rising global threats, the Safe Third Country Agreement and the influx of refugees at Quebec's Roxham Road crossing.

CBC/Radio-Canada and other media outlets reported Thursday that the Trudeau government has reached a long-discussed deal with the United States on irregular migration which will allow Ottawa to close the Roxham Road irregular crossing at the Canada-U.S. border.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The two leaders are expected to engage in the usual talk about trade and economy — a high-profile issue as inflation continues to weigh on people on both sides of the border.

"This visit is about taking stock of where we are, what we've done and what we need to prioritize," Kirby told a Wednesday briefing with reporters ahead of the trip.

"We're going to talk about our two democracies stepping up to meet the challenges of our time. That includes taking concrete steps to increase defence spending, driving a global race to the top on clean energy and building prosperous and inclusive economies."

A rocky start to the relationship

Unlike some previous presidents, Biden did not make Canada his first foreign stop after taking the top job. In fact, Biden's early days were marked by some tensions with Canada.

One of his first official acts was to rescind a presidential permit to build the multi-billion-dollar Keystone XL pipeline — killing a major economic driver for Alberta's oilpatch.

Susan Walsh/AP Photo
Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Biden also campaigned on an infrastructure plan with strict Buy American protectionist provisions and vowed to earmark big government contracts for U.S. firms — a policy that threatened to ice out Canadian businesses.

That threat remains. Biden touted the policy during his February State of the Union address — but Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Kristen Hillman, sounded a more positive note on the policy during a recent CBC interview.

At the height of the COVID vaccine supply crunch, the Biden White House ruled out sending some of its supply to partners like Canada. It later sent some AstraZeneca shots, which weren't widely used south of the border.

Persistent U.S. challenges to Canada's supply-managed dairy sector continue to upset the Canada-U.S. relationship, and the softwood lumber file remains an irritant.

EV tax credit, NEXUS deals reported in recent months

But there's been some meaningful progress on issues of mutual interest in recent months.

The U.S. agreed to amend its lucrative electric vehicle tax credit to include vehicles assembled in Canada — a reversal that prompted considerable relief in Ottawa.

After months of haggling, Canada and the U.S. also recently came to an agreement to keep the popular NEXUS trusted traveller program operational.

The U.S. wanted legal protections for its border officials that the Liberal government said threatened Canadian sovereignty. The workaround will make the application process a little more cumbersome, but at least the program lives on.

Canada and the U.S. also have signed a series of commitments on semiconductor production and critical minerals — part of a coordinated attempt to challenge China's hegemony in these areas.

These recent victories might explain why Canada is prepared to roll out the red carpet for Biden.

The visit could be a chance to sign some other win-win deals, said Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council and an expert on cross-border relations.

She said further action on critical minerals is likely — the U.S. is eager to get its hands on these valuable manufacturing inputs and there are only so many places around the world that can supply them.

WATCH: Economy on top of agenda as Biden makes first visit to Canada as president

Greenwood said the president's visit is "quite significant" for bilateral relations.

While the two men have met on the sidelines of some summits, there's nothing like a face-to-face on Canadian soil, she said.

"It causes the entire bureaucracy of the U.S. to basically stop whatever it's doing and focus on Canada. That's a positive," she said.